CDAC Spotlight: Charter School Anchors St. Louis Neighborhood Revitalization

Joe Neri

The fortunes of St. Louis' Fox Park neighborhood mirror those of many urban areas across the country—after decades of dwindling population, remaining residents were left grappling with poverty, crime, limited healthy food options, and a lack of safe, affordable housing. But the story of Fox Park is one of renewal, of community groups banding together and investing resources and services to engender a renewed vision for the future. Fox Park is again on the upswing, attracting new residents and creating a vibrant sense of community.

Community leaders attribute much of the momentum in Fox Park to the opening of the KIPP Inspire Academy—part of the KIPP national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory charter schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life. A locally based coalition called SUTAK (St. Louisians United to Attract KIPP) organized the effort to establish KIPP's first location in the city, with the widespread support of community leaders and the ongoing sponsorship of Washington University in St. Louis.

KIPP Inspire identified an ideal location in the shuttered DeSales High School—an abandoned, vandalized eyesore that could once again become a vital community anchor. While charter schools receive public funds for operations, they do not receive facilities aid. KIPP thus needed to secure affordable financing to upgrade the DeSales facility, undertake needed repairs and bring the building up to code. The St. Louis office of IFF, a leading nonprofit community development financial institution (CDFI), stepped in to provide a leasehold loan to make needed improvements and prepare the school for its 2009 grand opening.

A School that Demands Commitment

The KIPP model requires the engagement and commitment of not just students, but families and community leaders as well. The time and intensity of the KIPP program is greater than most traditional public schools. Students are in school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and complete two hours of homework each night. They attend classes on Saturdays and their school year starts in July. Overwhelmingly, the students come from low-income and minority families in underserved neighborhoods.

Many fifth-graders come to KIPP Inspire performing several grade levels behind in math and reading. Yet once enrolled, they persist in exceeding expectations: By the time they reach eighth grade their average achievement is higher than that of their peers in the state of Missouri. In 2009, 34 percent of fifth-graders at the school tested at grade level in math, and 22 percent in English, according to results from the Missouri Assessment Program. By the end of seventh grade, their passing rates had about doubled, with 67 percent at or above grade level in math, and 44 percent in English.

At KIPP Inspire's inaugural eighth-grade graduation ceremony in May 2013, School Leader Jeremy Esposito announced that the class of 2017, consisting of 72 students, was promoted to 26 of the most prestigious public, private and parochial college-preparatory high schools across the St. Louis region, including Metro Academic and Classical High School, Chaminade College Preparatory School, Rosati-Kain High School, Grand Center Arts Academy, MICDS and Gateway STEM High School. Based upon this initial success, KIPP plans to eventually operate five schools in the St. Louis region—elementary and middle schools in north and south St. Louis and a centrally located high school.

Catalyst for Neighborhood Revitalization

Beyond the academic benefits to its students, neighbors say the KIPP charter school has become a catalyst for community revitalization. The success of KIPP Inspire has extended beyond the school grounds and engaged the entire community in a shared sense of purpose. Crime is observed by residents to be down, housing is being renovated and there is a renewed sense of pride in the air. As an anchor, the school is attracting more middle-class families and businesses to invest in the Fox Park neighborhood.

Since its investment in KIPP Inspire, IFF has continued to work with local organizations that provide child care, education, healthy food options, affordable housing and many other services for the neighborhood. In the housing sector, IFF made a $1.2-million loan in 2012 to DeSales Community Housing Corporation, a nonprofit organization promoting investment and revitalization in low-income, underserved neighborhoods. With the financing, DeSales was able to renovate 11 units in its 130-unit Compton Hill Apartments, one of St. Louis' largest neighborhood-based apartment communities.

Ensuring quality, affordable child care options and access to healthy food for families are additional important elements of community development. For more than 125 years, the SouthSide Early Childhood Center has provided St. Louis families with comprehensive child care services, either on a sliding scale basis or free of charge to those who qualify. The Center has recently taken on healthy food initiatives, promoting healthy eating habits to students, as well as offering onsite cooking classes for parents and in-home nutrition visits.

As the number of clients and programs has grown, SouthSide has grown beyond the capacity of their facility. In 2012, the Center hired IFF real estate consulting services to plan for and structure a New Markets Tax Credit to enable the construction of a new 19,000-square-foot facility. The new building will allow SouthSide to serve an additional 42 children from all income levels.

An IFF loan has transformed an abandoned grocery store into a Save-A-Lot, as part of IFF's Healthy Food Access initiative. The LEED-certified project brings healthy food at affordable prices to Fox Park, currently considered a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is providing jobs for 30 local residents. Opened in December 2013, the Save-A-Lot also hosts grocery shopping, nutrition and cooking classes through a partnership with Casa de Salud, a nearby health center.

Just five years ago, Fox Park residents lacked easy access to quality affordable housing, affordable fresh and healthy food, quality education and child care services. Thanks to the efforts of KIPP Inspire, DeSales, SouthSide Early Childhood Center, Save-A-Lot and other local organizations, the community environment has clearly improved. Partnering with IFF, these organizations have spearheaded economic development while investing in health and wellness, education and early childhood care.

Moving forward, IFF will continue to work with local leaders to bring client organizations together to facilitate the planning and marshalling of resources in support of additional community development projects, including affordable housing for KIPP Inspire teachers. Though challenges certainly remain, Fox Park presents a community that has turned a long corner toward a promising future.


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