Former St. Louis Public School teacher Mary Spencer provides thoughts on urban education

Editor’s note: In light of recent topics regarding urban education in the St. Louis region since the unrest in Ferguson, I thought now would be good to release this version of “All Grown Up” that didn’t make the final edited version. This particular piece is from an interview I conducted with my former fifth-grade teacher, Mary Spencer, who spent 41 years at Jefferson Elementary School in St. Louis City. In this interview, she spoke about the challenges of working as an urban educator- discipline, academics, etc. But, through it all, Spencer said that it is the long-term impact she had in her student’s lives that made being an educator all worth it. I hope other urban educators could take away something important from Spencer’s words. Enjoy.

Interview date: January 23, 2014


Leveling the educational playing field has always been on the list of rather ‘touchy’ subjects. I feel like it’s even safe to say that the jury is still out on what exactly needs to be done to level that field. Or, quite possibly, if there is even one sure-fire way of doing so. Nonetheless, when it comes to each child receiving an education—a “quality education”, as some would say—we are all responsible in one way or another. Thus, as we’ve learned through All Grown Up, an old saying still holds true… “It takes a village.”

True, when it comes to the matters of other people, it’s easy to say, “Well, that’s not my problem… That’s their problem”, all while voicing condemnatory personal opinions. Maybe that is because we don’t realize just how much of a problem it is to not assure every child receives a quality education. Understandably, we live in a competitive society. And truthfully, nobody wants to lose his or her “leg up” over somebody else.

Still, as one prominent St. Louis woman discussed with me over lunch at a local St. Louis Bread Co.—“We can deal with kids now, through investing in the educational system… or we can deal with them later through things like the justice system. Either way, we have to deal with them. So why not deal with them now, through education?”

But what is a “quality education” and who sets the standards for what is “quality”? Furthermore, how can we ensure that those schools that lack the standard of “quality” rise up-to-par? Sure, there is no way to snap our fingers and call it into being. However, there is always a way.

Evita (myself) and Mary Spencer. This interview took place during documentary filming with Nine Network of St. Louis.

Evita (myself) and Mary Spencer. This interview took place during documentary filming with Nine Network of St. Louis.

Mrs. Spencer reflects on 41 years as an urban educator

Former fifth-grade teacher, Mary Spencer, has her varying ideas of what it means to provide that quality education. In fact, after teaching at Jefferson School for her entire career, 41 years, she would probably best know what it means to give a child a quality education. Especially when it comes to educating children in under-served areas.

Spencer was hired at Jefferson School in 1960 after graduating with a teaching degree at Harris College in St. Louis (now Harris-Stowe University). At the time, Harris was the only college in St. Louis where African-Americans could receive their teaching degree.

Mary E. Spencer

Mary E. Spencer

What drew Spencer to teach at Jefferson, she says, was her personal endearment for the neighborhood. Having grown up near Jefferson, and under the same conditions as most of her students (such as poverty), Spencer could most identify with her students.

Moreover, like many other teachers at Jefferson, Spencer knew her way around- both in terms of educating and in terms of dealing with students from more challenging circumstances. For Spencer, providing a quality education entailed going beyond the reading, writing, and arithmetic. She learned to work through decades of limited school funding and lack of educational resources, all the while teaching a bit more than what state education curriculum required.

“Man does not live by test scores alone,” Spencer said, during a conversation at her University City home. “There are a whole bunch of other things that need to enter into that. [Additionally], everybody will not learn on the same level as someone else.”

Spencer’s students would place her into the category of “Unsung Hero”- the person society doesn’t hear much about, yet has impacted several generations in her 77 years thus far. Standing at nearly 6 feet tall with a boisterous voice that demands R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and a gentle spirit, she’s earned her stripes wherever she’s gone in life.

Spencer has seen hundreds of her students go from tiny children to adults in the ‘real world’. Some grew up to have careers, while others fell short in various ways. Still, she will tell you that she “loves them all the same”.

Alternatively, Spencer’s students have seen her evolve as well. She uses a cane occasionally these days, but as the elders would put it back-in-the-day, she ‘won’t let no grass grow under her feet’. Meaning in order to catch up with her, she’ll have to pencil you into her constantly busy schedule.

Subsequently, she has seen many changes in the educational system as well. Those changes, according to Spencer, are mainly due to the evolution of society.

“In the larger picture, society has changed… The rules of society have changed…Therefore, so goes society, in my opinion, so goes the school system,” Spencer begins to explain as she sat nestled into her favorite big chair.

“Way back when I came along, the majority of children had a time to be in the house or either on their front steps,” Spencer continues, as she explained how communities looked out for each other. “In almost any neighborhood, or any block, there was always one person whose only job was to keep the children [behavior] straight, or tell your parents.”

“Your parents may not have believed this person, but you didn’t know that they didn’t believe this person because you were not supposed to ‘sass’ adults.”

Spencer remembered Jefferson School as being a “community school”. In fact, she says the relationship between the teachers, parents and the students was the reason she stayed for so long, despite numerous offers to teach in the more affluent school districts. Jefferson once accommodated over 1300 students in her early days of teaching, and was once the best school in their district, the Banneker District.

Evita (myself) interviewing Mary Spencer

Evita (myself) interviewing Mary Spencer

However, things changed over time. From the 1980s and beyond, according to Spencer, the St. Louis school district revamped the techniques and styles of teaching and restructured in-school discipline intervention.

Spencer said changes in discipline, for example, led to a phenomenon of in-school bullying. She explained how such occurrences hindered children from keeping up in school.

“As far as learning is concerned, we have a lot of bullying going on,” Spencer said. “Many [urban] children have gotten to fifth-grade and have not learned how to read. Reading is difficult… Of course as a child, when someone makes fun of them, the next thing they do is start acting out. And when you start acting out- acting up in school- the next thing that happens is you’re [suspended].”

As time went on, Spencer encountered another challenge— advancing technology. Spencer admits that Jefferson School benefited from the technological upgrades brought by civic leaders through corporate sponsorship.

“[Jefferson School] needed the technology,” Spencer says of the new computers and internet. “Being in that area, many times many of the parents did not have the funds for buying a computer. Therefore, many of the children would not have been exposed to computers. That part is good.”

On the contrary, as for some of the other investments Spencer feels that they were not exactly indicative to improving learning and student achievement.

“Different style desks than an old desk does not make for learning,” she said of the investments in physical changes at Jefferson.

By and large, Spencer’s ultimate hope is to see Jefferson restored back to being the best. Back to the days that it was known as “THE Jefferson School”.

Evita shares a hug with Mary Spencer

Evita shares a hug with Mary Spencer

“I never wanted to go anyplace other than THE Jefferson,” Spencer proclaimed, “and I would like to see it back to the stage that it once was.”

Spencer’s eyes then welled with tears of joy, her voice shaky as she tried to describe how it feels to leave a legacy among her students. “I can’t explain it… It’s really, really a good feeling… I guess out of that [legacy], they knew that I cared about them . . . . Sincerely.”

Writer’s Chronicles: Random writings you find nestled in a file folder on your laptop

This is pretty cool! I totally forgot I even wrote this! But, as I was browsing through my laptop, I ran upon some writings that never got published. This particular piece was submitted to be published on a blog site, but didn’t make it. O’well! This type of (fun) advice is always on time. 🙂

3/29/14

“Misery loves (and sometimes needs) company.”

When we think of the commonly used phrase, “Misery loves company,” there is a negative connotation that comes with it.

But, what if “Misery loves company” can be a good thing?

We all have miserable moments in life. One miserable moment for me happened after I graduated from college in 2011… And I think many of you will be able to relate…

So, here I was. A college graduate. Degree conquered. I was ready to take on the “real world.”

But, the “real world” became a little too real for me… And gave me one heck of a shock! Months passed with no job offers, and no calls back from jobs I had applied to. Just a bunch of automated email messages from various employers saying they chose someone else for the job.

Wow.

But, I kept the faith for about a year. I figured, “Any day, now.” I kept applying, kept seeking, and felt like, “Yeah, I definitely won’t have to wait another year before someone hires me. I’m a college graduate, after all.”

Two years passed. And boy, had I become miserable and angry. I could not believe that obtaining a job after college was THIS HARD. Where did I go wrong?! What more could I do? I would work and volunteer, but I am sure anyone would agree that going to college and doing something totally far-fetched from your degree field is an uncomfortable feeling.

2 years passed, and by then, misery really took a hold of me.

“Misery loves (and sometimes needs) company.”- Evita Caldwell (yes, me!)

For the longest, I thought that the universe had it out for me. Like I was being punished for not pursuing a “better” degree or going to a college more suited toward my desired career field. I had all kinds of theories (LOL)! Feeling my pain, my mother told me, “I am so sorry, baby… I just never thought I would see the day where somebody could go to college and not be able to get a decent job or a job in their field.”

She was feeling my pain. And then I sought out other people, my peers to be exact, who were also feeling my pain and misery.

Lo’ and behold, many of my peers were experiencing this same phenomenon, more than I had (experienced) or would have ever imagined! I was excited, but for good reasons!

I was finally able to have peers to talk to who were going through the exact same thing. The universe didn’t hate me after all (LOL)! And, instead of it being misery loving company in a negative way, it became a positive. My peers and I were able to comfort, encourage, and uplift each other by sharing stories of the roadblocks, failures, and unsuccessful ventures of trying to break into our career fields. We were even able to give each other suggestions about different ways and roads to take to become candidates that are more “qualified.” This was so helpful because we are living in a time now where going to college and getting a job is not as easy as it was for our parents. We need encouragement to keep pushing!

So, in a sense it can be a good thing that misery loves company. But, make sure the “miserable” company that you keep in your time of misery is only there to help you ascend higher. We all need comfort. And to know that you are not alone is probably one of the most comfortable feelings meant to help you keep going. Better days are always ahead. Be kind to each other and remember,

“Misery loves (and sometimes needs) company.”

– Evita Caldwell

What I’ve been up to…. Branding, Manifesting, Dream Chasing and more!

I don’t pay attention to this blogsite nearly as much as I should. However, for good reasons. For the last two years, I’ve been working to get my career off the ground as a journalist covering urban/inner city issues and branding myself. I think it’s safe to say that it’s manifesting… Slowly, but surely.

Getting ready for my close-up during the first shoot with Nine Network for "All Grown Up."

Getting ready for my close-up during the first shoot with Nine Network for “All Grown Up.”

Click here to read my big, 18-month long project titled “All Grown Up” looking back on the impact of a corporate sponsored effort at an inner city St. Louis Public School (which happened to be my school at the time). People will be able to take many, many important points from the story regarding inner city education and living. And, it’s cool because it’s not often you hear or read about follow-ups to efforts taking place to improve urban education- did the effort achieve it’s goal? If so, in what ways? How did it fall short? What can be done differently in future efforts?- things like that.

Many thanks to my editor, photographer, the donors, media organizations, and last but not least, MY COMMUNITY, for making this possible! It really helped me to find myself as a journalist, and ultimately, confirmed what it is I want to do with my work, which is essentially to use it as a tool to shed light on urban American issues to usher in necessary changes. And be a voice for the people while doing so! I didn’t have the traditional track of starting in a small market and working my way up, so I knew I had to step out of the box to make myself heard in this industry. 🙂

Interviewing Jefferson's principal, Nathalie Henderson, for "All Grown Up." Nathalie's last year at Jefferson was unfortunately the 2013-2014 school year. She is moving on to one day become a superintendent!

Interviewing Jefferson’s principal, Nathalie Henderson, for “All Grown Up.” Nathalie’s last year at Jefferson was unfortunately the 2013-2014 school year. She is moving on to one day become a superintendent!

And after you read the story, check out the promo video below of the interview I conducted with my former fifth-grade teacher. Also included are two video clips from my radio interview on 550AM KTRS promoting “All Grown Up”  (we had a pretty interesting discussion). This Fall, The Nine Network of St. Louis will air a documentary version chronicling my journey of the project. Folks will also get to see me grow along the way from a somewhat shy journalist in the beginning, to having a more relaxed and confident persona. Enjoy!

Hope for Pruitt-Igoe Site; Redeveloper Paul J. McKee Lands Rights

By Evita Caldwell

Image

Forty years after the demolition of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, the vacant site where the projects stood may finally start to see life again. Currently the site is forested over with tall trees and weeds. The St. Louis City’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) owns the site, but the site’s redevelopment rights have recently been granted to well-known redeveloper, Paul J. McKee. McKee leads NorthSide Regeneration LLC, the business entity responsible for the redevelopment plan. He believes his redevelopment plan for north St. Louis will be transformational not only for the city, but also for the region and state. While McKee has faced some criticism over his redevelopment efforts, he credits this backlash to critics’ lack of information on his plans for the area. In a quest to complete my series on the future of the former Pruitt-Igoe site, I sat down with McKee in an exclusive interview and got a glimpse of his plans for the site as well as other areas of north St. Louis.

“Beauty draws and fear withdraws.”- Paul J. McKee

When riding through the streets of north St. Louis, one cannot help but notice that the area is heavily blighted. Vacant and dilapidated buildings, closed schools, and lack of businesses serves as evidence that this part of St. Louis suffers from the consequences of urban decay. St. Louis’ population has steadily declined since the 1950s. The most recent census figures have pegged the city’s population at less than 320,000, a stark contrast to the more than 850,000 residents it had at its peak. As the city’s population declined, its economic stability weakened as well. McKee hopes to reverse this trend with his vision for the area, which he says will bring jobs and better housing opportunities for the current and future generations of workers.

The Plan

“The focus is on bringing the up-and-coming generation back to the city. So that when those who are from St. Louis graduate from school, they will be able to seek and find employment here instead of moving out of the city,” McKee says, in reference to the overall root of his plan.

In order to do this, McKee says, he will focus on expanding opportunities for the area’s youth. Currently, the area’s high school dropout rate is significantly greater than the city’s or state’s rate. He hopes to address this disparity by reopening shuttered schools, getting the youth back in school, and sparking excitement about their future because jobs will be waiting for them when they graduate. His plan emphasizes the recruitment of food, energy, water, healthcare, and technology industries to the area. McKee hopes his efforts will spur investment in these areas and encourage business start-ups, which will result in more job opportunities for current and future residents.

Another key hallmark of his redevelopment designs is to bring quality housing to the area
encompassing the former Pruitt-Igoe site. In addition to refurbishing existing homes, his plan calls for constructing modern housing, which will include loft-style single-family residences and condominiums. These housing opportunities will bring St. Louis up to par with other major cities that already have these types of modern housing such as Chicago.

“Beauty draws and fear withdraws. People want to live where the area is beautiful. And if they don’t feel that an area gives them a sense of safety and security, then they won’t want to live there. That is my focus. To get people to want to live in the city again”, McKee says.

McKee’s overall concern is to remove the blight in these areas. Vacant homes will be replaced and current residents who want to remain in the area will receive assistance in bringing their homes up to par, if needed. McKee is also interested in purchasing homes from those who want to sell their homes, but emphasizes that he is not out to displace any resident who chooses to stay in the area.

“I’m not interested in moving people out of their homes. If [current residents] want to keep their homes, we are willing to provide them with whatever help or resources they need so that they can do that,” says McKee, in reference to being accused of eminent domain by critics.

However, there is no doubt that a lot of work is needed in these areas to bring the neighborhoods to a state of “beauty” as McKee envisions. But he is confident that his team can do it.

“There’s no reason that [north St. louis] can’t look as good and do as well as other places in the city [like the Central West End]. That is why my focus is mainly on jobs and education for the youth. With jobs in the area, people can work and have the means to keep their neighborhoods going,” McKee explains.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Unfortunately, with blighted communities like north St. Louis, replinishing these areas can be costly. As of right now, McKee is under a two-year option agreement with the city for the rights to the former Pruitt-Igoe site. One of McKee’s current obstacles is that he has to get the funding necessary to clean up the site before any construction can take place. Without the funding, the site risks going undeveloped in the immediate and distant future.

“The location has its challenges. That’s obvious. There’s no telling what’s inside of there,”
McKee says, in reference to the current state of the former Pruitt-Igoe site. “It’s going to take a lot of money and manpower to clean up the site. And right now, we are waiting to see if we can get funding from Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to help us out. So far, we don’t have that, even though the area does meet the qualifications to receive funding under TIF. Unfortunately without the extra funding, I can’t do anything with the site.”

Tax increment financing, commonly referred to as TIF, is a program that uses the future taxes attributable to any new development to help fund public infrastructure improvements in the area. It was created to provide a tool to communities with “blighted areas”. Blight is a term used to describe an area that suffers from extreme deterioration, decay, or unsanitary and unsafe conditions. The former Pruitt-Igoe site undoubtedly fits this description. McKee says that he has his supporters fighting for him to access the TIF program, including
Congressman Lacy Clay and other community leaders in the Carr Square Neighborhood. He is confident that there are even more who want to see the once vibrant and populated area come to life again.

“I pray for revitalization in these areas [I have plans for],” McKee explains. “If I can fix these
areas, I think it will cast the northside [of St. Louis] in a completely different light.”