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St. Louis Advocacy Group Provides Training for Parents and Students to Enhance Underperforming Schools
After more than 15 years away, Shae Lowman returned to St. Louis to find a city that had changed. Crime rates, particularly gun violence, had increased, and Lowman now had a young daughter to care for. To ensure her daughter received a good education, Lowman decided to enroll her in Atlas Elementary, a public charter school located in the Downtown West neighborhood. However, Lowman didn’t feel a sense of belonging in her hometown.
While volunteering at a school enrollment fair, Lowman had an encounter that would change her life. She stopped by the Activate STL table and had a conversation with the women there. This encounter helped Lowman find a community and become deeply involved in her daughter’s education. Over the next few months, she immersed herself in research and learning, receiving coaching on how to bring about change in schools.
ActivateSTL was founded in January 2022 by a former educator to train parents and teenagers in St. Louis to advocate for quality education. This training is crucial because public schools in St. Louis are highly inequitable and perform poorly on standardized tests. According to state data, white children are five times more likely than Black children to attend schools where meeting math and language arts standards is the norm.
In June, ActivateSTL initiated its first training cohort consisting of 17 parents and 11 students. The training started with an in-depth analysis of data, including information about who holds decision-making power in both traditional public and charter schools, suspension rates based on race and gender, and student proficiency outcomes at the state, district, and individual school levels.
Lowman expressed her surprise upon discovering the low scores of public schools. She felt disheartened by the numbers but became more involved in advocating for her child and other students as a result.
Tiara Jordan, the founder of ActivateSTL, aimed to provide parents with an insider’s understanding of the education system. Coming from a Black family, Jordan attended predominantly white schools in an affluent district outside of Flint, Michigan. She witnessed how assertive white parents were in advocating for their children and later saw the challenges faced by under-resourced urban schools during her time as a teacher and principal in Chicago, Cleveland, and New York.
Jordan opened new charter schools in Chicago and Brooklyn, which offered benefits to communities where public schools were failing. When she moved to St. Louis in 2019, she realized the pressing need to address educational inequities in the city’s schools. The lack of awareness among many parents about the struggles of the city’s schools prompted her to establish ActivateSTL.
ActivateSTL is fully funded by the Opportunity Trust and has three full-time employees, including Jordan and St. Louis educator LaShonda Hill. It is part of a national movement, along with organizations like Ed Navigator and the National Parents Union, that aims to empower parents to become more informed consumers of public education and advocates for change.
Jordan believes that parents have more power than they realize to influence education officials at various levels. Ultimately, the goal is to have parents in positions of power and influence within the education system.
With the support of ActivateSTL, parents with ideas for improving schools can bring about positive changes. Kathryn Bonney, for instance, found a private school that provided life-changing tutoring for her dyslexic daughter after multiple unsuccessful attempts in other schools. Encouraged by Tiara Jordan, Bonney sought to bring this high-quality tutoring to all St. Louis children with dyslexia. She joined ActivateSTL’s training cohort and received assistance in refining her goal, which is to have tutors trained in Orton-Gillingham, a phonics-focused reading instruction method, available in all St. Louis elementary schools.
Jordan’s in-depth knowledge of the educational system enables her to guide parents and help them navigate the decision-making processes. Through various assignments and weekly progress checks, parents like Bonney receive support and guidance to advance their advocacy efforts.
When Shae Lowman’s first-grade daughter faced reading difficulties, she didn’t know where to start addressing the issue. Thanks to a presentation by Tiara Jordan, Lowman learned whom to approach for assistance. She reached out to her daughter’s teacher, and within a week, her daughter’s reading abilities improved significantly. The courage and support to identify and address her daughter’s struggles have made a tremendous impact on Lowman and her child.
Jordan also believes that older students can advocate for themselves with the right support. During a summer training cohort, ten high school students were paid to engage in daily sessions for a month. Jordan educated them about the history and principles of public education and took them on field trips to showcase the disparities in school funding. This exposure empowered students like Alana Wilson, a senior at KIPP High School, to speak up and take action. Wilson, who initially considered herself shy and quiet, joined the student council and presented a petition to the school principal. This newfound confidence has given her a voice within the system.
ActivateSTL aims to empower parents and students to leverage their influence and demand better education opportunities. By equipping them with knowledge and skills, the organization seeks to foster positive change in St. Louis schools.