North Side Knights
“Our scholars are proof that children who find themselves in the most challenging zip codes of St. Louis can succeed far beyond expectations.”
Before 1948, realtors reserved the northside of St. Louis for people of color. Laws blocked off a section of the city to contain the growing population of foreigners and black Americans in one place–away from white people. The segregation and isolation of blacks resulted from racially restrictive covenants at first and then redlining. Both practices are now outlawed. Anyone driving down Delmar Blvd. can see the split caused by the former redlined road.
North Side Community School sits north of Delmar, in the area once redlined for people of color and now housing a predominantly black population. After a decade of growth, the school reigns as the number one charter and open-enrollment school in the St. Louis region, the second-best charter school in Missouri, and is within the top 10% of charter schools across America
The school opened in August of 2009 and served 51 kindergarten and first grade students. John Grote acted as head of the board and founding executive director, Stella Erondu stepped up as principal and Ross Woolsey worked as the business manager. The trio dreamed up the idea of North Side Community School when they ran a task force dedicated to improving inner-city education together. Grote pointed out that the task force wasn’t making quick progress, and eventually suggested the creation of a charter school where northside children could receive a top-notch education.
Their rankings are high, and those numbers are based on state-wide tests such as the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) where they score anywhere from the 50th percentile to upwards of the 80th. Many northside schools pull in single-digit percentiles. Compared to other city schools, North Side Community School shines. But how?
“We went back to basics,” Grote said. “We operated on the assumption that our students came in behind and that assumption was correct. They were years behind. They came in with disadvantages; they weren’t given the same education white middle-class students in the county got.”
They came in with disadvantages; they weren’t given the same education white middle-class students in the county got.”
— John Grote
According to Grote, Erondu was the driving force behind ensuring their kids were up to par for MAP testing. She didn’t allow low standards.
“Stella worked in city schools for decades,” Grote said. “She knows the northside, the parents, the students, the population. She set high expectations and kept a simple no-frills operation.”
Grote and Erondu managed the school together since its opening. A character education program introduced the North Side Knights to the idea of JUSTICE, an acronym for positive traits in a person (i.e. being Just, Unapologetic, Self-disciplined, Tenacious, Inquisitive, Caring and Enthusiastic). Students fill out a JUSTICE card once a month and report their progress to teachers. The administrative duo also knew home life played a large role in a student’s success, so they began to educate parents alongside their students through parent meetings, assemblies, JUSTICE slips, and more.
“There is no boundary between home and school,” Erondu said. “They should flow in and out of each other. If we do that we will succeed, and succeed is what we’ve done so far.”
Last year Grote retired, and this year Erondu will follow him. Woolsey has relaxed his role with the school, and the next generation of administrators is taking the reins. Chester Asher, new executive director, already has plans.
“When comparing scores, the school is doing 10 times better than some of the others–literally,” Asher said. “And North Side isn’t doing great. It’s relatively the best. Only about half of our scholars [score proficiently], which relatively is something to commend, but in the terms of our own standards, it’s not where we want to be.”
North Side Community School currently holds about 500 scholars, but within the next two years, it hopes to educate approximately 750. A middle school was just added to the Knights’ family. It’s stationed at the intersection of Washington Ave. and Grand Blvd. down the road from the St. Louis Symphony and The Fabulous Fox Theatre. The board has also discussed expanding more; talks of a high school building and another elementary school have begun.
“We made a haven of learning for kids,” Erondu said. “It’s a safe and beautiful place. But when you step outside of our fences and go into the streets, you hear the gunshots. You see the decay. You see the neighborhood that’s a result of poor care and poor education. But the kids can always come here, and when they do they beam with happiness. It’s a hopeful and peaceful place. It is so heartbreaking that it’s not being replicated everywhere else.”