UMSL alumni help set the tone on newly empowered Saint Louis Public Schools board
For the past six years, Susan Jones has been fighting a feeling of powerlessness as a member of the Saint Louis Public Schools Board of Education.
Despite serving as secretary for one year and president for three, Jones was part of a largely ceremonial body. The board had ceded governance to a three-member Special Administrative Board that was convened in 2007 at the order of the Missouri State Board of Education, which had ended its accreditation of SLPS.
In 2017, after a decade of improving academic and financial performance, the district earned back its full accreditation from the state board. In April, the state board voted to shift governance of the city’s schools from the SAB back to the elected seven-member SLPS board.
On July 1, Jones and her six colleagues take back over for real.
“This decision came with a tremendous battle that we all sacrificed so much for,” said Jones, who earned her BA in political science from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “My heart was heavy as I reflected on the many nights of empty meetings, tears, moments of being overlooked and personal sacrifices that were made on behalf of my family and myself to get to this day. I am overjoyed because we as a community will now receive the transparency, accountability, communication and stability we deserve in our schools.”
The two newest members of the SLPS board, Adam Layne and Tracee Miller, are also UMSL alumni. Both earned their MEd degrees in 2013, and they were the top vote-getters in a seven-candidate runoff held April 2.
It’s a time of transition for SLPS and its board. And the city is watching.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm on the board because, for 12 years, regaining governance is what they’ve been working on,” Miller said. “It’s exciting to come into a group that’s made up of people who have been a part of that. It’s a cool dynamic, but it’s also a little nerve-wracking. There will be pretty significant precedent-setting if we do this right or wrong.”
Change from within
Miller had never felt a pull to run for office, but she always said that, if she did, it would be for school board.
The Terre Haute, Indiana, native got her undergraduate education degree from the University of Missouri–Columbia and eventually joined Teach for America in St. Louis, where she taught at Gateway Middle School. After transitioning out of the classroom, she continued to work with SLPS and other public-school students as a contractor program manager. She currently works as the community support lead for teachers and classrooms at Khan Academy, a nonprofit advocating for high-quality education access for all communities, regardless of means.
She’s seen the effects educational inequity can have on communities, and she’s not the type to sit back and observe.
“One reason I left the classroom is I was under all of these constraints where I felt like I couldn’t do what my students needed. But then I knew I wanted to work in the public schools,” Miller said. “I have always been an activist, somebody who has done what I can to impact government problems. I also think schools and districts make some of the biggest impacts on the city itself.
“It’s kind of a cliché, but if not me, who?”
Still, it wasn’t technically Miller’s idea to run for the SLPS board. She was approached by Leadership for Educational Equity, a national organization that recruits and supports outsider candidates for public office. Though Miller initially declined, she was inspired to run by further conversations with that group and other people.
She set up a candidate Facebook page that she thought would be private in anticipation of announcing her candidacy. Then she started getting texts and realized it was already public.
No going back.
“I made a decision to run kind of like going into online dating,” Miller said. “There’s enough out there that I’m just going to be myself and, if people don’t like me, there are other candidates. I always just associate politics with people saying what they think people want them to say or being beholden to different groups. When I realized that I could campaign and just be myself and let the city decide if that’s what they want, then I filed.”
Miller is shifting into her new role on the board at a time in which she is also working on her PhD in the UMSL College of Education, with Associate Professor Matthew Davis advising.
Broadly, Miller’s dissertation involves the impact teacher attitudes, values and beliefs have on technology use in classrooms with predominantly minority students. The subject interested her because of the wildly different ways she has seen technology being employed in schools that serve under-resourced communities compared to what she has seen in higher-income areas. A visit with one of her former staff members who works at the private Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School in Ladue was especially eye-opening.
“They were really using technology in a way that not only got students to interact with technology appropriately but empowered them to create their own digital identity,” Miller said. “The use of technology with minority students is extremely regulated, limited and punitive in a lot of ways. Technology has such a huge say in how we conduct ourselves, so it felt important to figure out what we can do differently.”
A lasting impact
Susan Jones’ connection to SLPS has been a lifelong affair.
She attended the district from kindergarten through high school and is now the parent of an SLPS student, so her desire to run for a seat on the board came from a deep well of personal experience.
“I believe the future of St. Louis rests on making sure that every child in every neighborhood obtains a high-quality public education,” said Jones, who is the director of marketing and supplier diversity for EMED Medical Company in Maryland Heights. “Before being elected to the board, I dedicated many hours to volunteering, advocating and developing programs in the education sector. I strongly believe our best investment is in the education of our children.”
During her time at UMSL, Jones dove into multiple opportunities in politics that she says still inform her approach on the board. She served as president of the UMSL chapter of the Associated Students of the University of Missouri, an education lobbyist in Jefferson City as an intern for the UM System and a fellow at the Sue Shear Institute for Women In Public Life.
Her goals for the new era of board governance fall largely into four categories: student achievement, transparency, improving public confidence and accountability.
As the changeover date draws closer, it’s up to Jones, Miller and the rest of the board to facilitate communication and cooperation between the community and the district and make choices that will chart a more optimistic future for the students.
That’s always been the goal. Now, they have more power to do something about it.
“I believe that the St. Louis community will have a new sense of feeling that they are a part of the conversation.,” Jones said. “My experience at UMSL helped me to recognize that the good I do in my career will continue to enrich the world long after my time. This idea also informs my work on the school board. The decisions that I make today will surely affect thousands of students for years to come, which is why I will always strive to make the best decisions on behalf of all Saint Louis Public Schools students.”
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