SLPS to move forward to preserve — and transform — Sumner
By Sophie Hurwitz Of the St. Louis American
Sumner alumni Ronald Gregory '57 and brother of comedian and activist Dick Gregory, speaks at the SOS - Save Our Sumner event on Sunday, Feb. 28. Photo by Jennifer Sarti / St. Louis American.
Ever since the historic Sumner High School was slated for closure in late 2020, community members have been rallying to save it. In Tuesday night’s St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education meeting, a motion was unanimously passed to move towards that goal by re-conceptualizing the school as an “arts and activism” focused institution.
Local arts organizations 4TheVille, the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, The Black Rep, and the Center for Creative Arts(COCA) will be providing arts related enrichment programming to the students at Sumner starting in the fall.
In addition to 4theVille and the Shakespeare Festival, the Sumner Recovery Plan proposal was drafted and submitted by three alumni groups led by Jacqueline Vanderford (Sumner High School class of ’63), Michael Blackshear (class of ’77) and Dr. Robert L. Salter (class of ’68), respectively.
“Sumner is one of the most important historic institutions in the State of Missouri. Its legacy transcends any neighborhood, school district, or municipality. Its vitality depends greatly on how we as a region decide to come together and nurture the institution,” said Aaron Williams of 4TheVille upon submitting the proposal. “In 1907, the Colored Citizens of St. Louis made it clear that the institution of Sumner High School should be the standard bearer of how we prepare our next generation. Our effort is a continuation of that spirit. This opportunity has the potential to welcome a new standard for our education system.”
The plan will begin as a three-year trial run, during which four new student pathways will be provided: Music, Dance, Art, and Activism. During that time, in order to remain open, the school must increase enrollment by 10% annually by building more engaging programs for students. In addition, the plan suggests that Sumner be designated a National Historic Landmark by 2024.
SOS - Save Our Sumner Rally was held on Sunday, Feb. 28 to show support for keeping Sumner High School open. Pictured from left to right are Sumner High School alumni Debra Tolliver-Nash ’77, Betty Louis ’76, and Ida Harris ’66. Photo by Jennifer Sarti / St. Louis American.
Superintendent Adams emphasized that “this is not a school that’s going to turn kids into artists,” or a more professionalized arts school like Central Visual and Performing Arts academy, but rather a place that will “expose kids to music, dance, art and activism with the hope that it will help make them more well-rounded individuals. What the research says about a school like this is that it really empowers kids to think differently about themselves, and think differently about where they sit in the trajectory of becoming an adult.”
The path ahead for Sumner will not be without obstacles, despite these community collaborations: its current enrollment is down to 225 from a peak of over 2,000 decades ago, and proficiency rates on standardized tests in reading and math among those students are low. But the community partners know that, Adams said. “They understand clearly that Sumner has struggled for a very long period of time, and they think that this enhanced development of the arts can help motivate kids.”
“This is a proposal and an opportunity. There are no guarantees here,” he added. “But [the community partners] are willing to lean in, and I’m willing to support them in this effort for the 225 kids in this building. But I don’t want to be naïve about the fact that it’s going to be very difficult to turn this school around in the way the community deserves.”