DOWNTOWN – Imagine living directly across the street from the school that you’re actually supposed to attend, but can’t.
Now, imagine that the reason you can’t attend is because not only is it closed, it’s up for sale. And on top of that: It looks horrendous, like, say, an “F” on a report card.
Sadly, for some students and families living in the St. Louis Public Schools district, it doesn’t take imagining at all. It’s their everyday reality.
“I think it wears on my kids,” said one man, who did not want to be identified. “They have to go to school way across town, and look at this building – it’s terrible.”
He was talking about Harrison School, at the intersection of Fair and Carter avenues in the Fairgrounds neighborhood. Windows are broken out, paint has crumbled, grass grows through the rocky and holey concrete, and the building has been severely vandalized.
He points to a fence around the school, surmising that the crumbling paint is lead-based and that asbestos lies beyond the broken windows.
“I’v been here probably 20 years and I’ve always paid attention – it’s hard not to,” he said. “I talk to many people coming by here, wanting to buy it, but nobody buys it.”
Built in 1895 when the neighborhood was populated by whites, the school closed in 1996, when the entire student body was black.
It sat abandoned for seven years before SLPS put it up for sale, in 2003. It sold in 2007, the same year it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though the project was awarded four percent tax credits, the building was lost to its financing bank, according to the SLPS director of real estate, Walker Gaffney.
Though the school has been off the SLPS books for about a decade, people still associate it with the district.
Since 2013, when Gaffney took the real estate post, 12 school properties have been sold. However, 19 schools are still listed as surplus properties and are up for sale. A number of those are eyesores, too.
“I recognize that it is demoralizing for the neighborhoods in which these schools sit, and I wish I had more resources to do more with those schools, but we don’t devote our resources to anything other than educating children in open schools,” Gaffney said.
He added: “We don’t have much of a budget – if at all – to address keeping and maintaining the closed schools except for keeping the landscaping, the grass cut, bushes trimmed and to board up windows when people break in.”
Carr School, on Carr Street between 14th and 15th streets, was the first school to close, in 1983. Perhaps coincidentally, the voluntary city-county school desegregation program started that year.
A nearby resident and Carr School graduate, who also declined to give his name, said: “They’re giving all these multi-million-dollar tax breaks to these developers, and the trade-off is our schools, because that’s where the property tax money is supposed to go – to our schools.” He said he had grown up in the old Carr Square Village public housing complex (or “projects”).
“One reason they’re not investing is that they’re giving all of the money away through TIFs (Tax Incremental Financing): Where are our incentives?” he asked.
He agreed with Gaffney that many of the schools were eyesores suffering from a lack of proper investment.
“This is a wonderful building, a wonderful structure, it needs to be preserved; these kinds of jewels don’t need to be demolished or torn down – they need to be rehabbed and retain that history,” he said.
Like many SLPS district residents, he believes that the answer to the abandoned schools is community centers. He has done his homework: The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative is awaiting application approval.
The CNI is a grant program established in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It helps cities address distressed public housing while investing in people and neighborhood assets to revitalize those areas to serve residents with a range of incomes.
“We need community centers,” the longtime resident said.
The idea of community centers earned a mark from newly elected SLPS board member Adam Layne, who said that if the buildings couldn’t be sold, they should be used instead of just sitting there.
“If we don’t have the numbers in terms of the neighborhoods that they are in, to send students there and make it a school again, I think it could serve as a resource center,” Layne said. “Because the schools are particularly situated so they can be central to neighborhoods.”
Whether it’s after-school programming, laundry facilities, a food pantry or tutoring, the extra cost of upkeep and utilities would be well worth it if necessary services were provided to the people who live nearby.
“Where they are vacant now, they have to travel quite a distance to take the bus to get to school, so if they come home and there’s something in walking distance that they can use, I think that’s a great idea,” Layne said.
Many of the nearly 5,000 students who currently attend St. Louis County schools as part of the voluntary school desegregation program may soon return to the city. The program began to wind down with the 2018-2019 school year and will phase out completely after school year 2025-2026.
However, as Layne explains, the students’ return won’t make the case for reopening city schools.
“In St. Louis we have 300,000 people, and school systems are the heart of any thriving city; but back when these schools were built, I think St. Louis had close to 800,000,” Layne noted. He explained that the schools were actually built for a population of more than one million, because at the time, planners expected the city to continue growing.
For the Carr Square native, the issue isn’t so much about the schools that have closed, but about the ones now facing closure, such as Beaumont, Sumner and nearby Dunbar.
“The schools that need to be focused on are the schools that are still open that they are trying to close,” he said.
“How are the schools that they are trying to close now going to impact us – that’s the real story.”