Roxana grad returns to St. Louis to raise millions to boost area schools

Living in San Francisco and working for Teach for America, Eric Scroggins saw big changes unfolding in several cities’ school systems.

But when the Roxana High School graduate returned here to visit, he didn’t see anything comparable to efforts under way in places such as Indianapolis, Denver and Washington to vastly improve education.

“I would come home to St. Louis and see us not making real progress,” he said.

That prompted Scroggins, 39, to spearhead an ambitious nonprofit called <a href="""">" target="_blank">the Opportunity Trust</a> to bolster the region’s schools that is attracting big dollars from big donors — he has secured $25 million in commitments over the next five years toward the $40 million he needs to fund his plans.

Initial donations include $5 million from the <a href="""">" target="_blank">William T. Kemper Foundation</a> and from <a href="""">" target="_blank">the City Fund</a>, whose donors include a fund established by Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix.

Its goal is to ensure that every child born in St. Louis is “prepared to lead a life of choice and dignity as an adult.” That means investing in growing the capacity of the most successful schools, launching new and innovative schools and strengthening existing schools with strong leadership, according to the group.

The nonprofit is working with districts such as St. Louis and University City, and a list of charter schools that includes City Garden Montessori, <a href=""""> target="_blank">one of the city’s most popular and highest-performing charters</a>, as well as KIPP, a charter-school network <a href=""""> target="_blank">focused on African-American students from low-income families</a>.

Scroggins envisions the Opportunity Trust as being similar to Forest Park Forever, a nonprofit that helps manage Forest Park and fund park improvements. The group raises money — its recent <a href=""""> target="_blank">multi-year fundraising campaign netted more than</a> <a href=""""> target="_blank">$139 million</a> — and carries out projects the city otherwise couldn’t afford.

That’s what Scroggins wants to do for schools.

He sees his organization as a way to coordinate philanthropy and investment in a splintered region with dozens of school districts. He also wants to help parents navigate their options, in part by building a website called the School Finder to help parents learn about different schools and give them often difficult-to-find information, such as application deadlines, in one place.

The Opportunity Trust cited data showing that 9 percent of students in St. Louis were enrolled in charter schools in 2007 — today, it’s 34 percent. And families of 18,000 students in the city and districts in north St. Louis County send their kids to private and parochial schools, according to an initiative overview.

“The fragmented nature of the region presents particular challenges to educational reform, especially if that reform is interested in lessening inequality,” said Odis Johnson Jr., an associate professor in Washington University’s sociology and education departments and director of its education graduate studies program.

He welcomed the idea of one website that would offer students the full range of their options to make informed choices, but he said he’s curious how the organization will engage existing schools.

“Any initiative that’s going to bring resources and innovation to what’s going on here is a good thing,” Johnson said. “I just hope it’s in conversation with those who are on the ground now, and includes all of those different systems to make sure all of the kids have these opportunities.”

Bringing change to schools

Scroggins became the first in his family to go to college when he was accepted to Washington University on a full scholarship with plans to be a doctor.

But he was woefully unprepared, he said. He tutored during college in St. Louis Public Schools, and said his eyes were opened to disparities in schools.

“I think it’s not only a human rights issue and crisis, but a moral crisis,” he said. “Children deserve better than that.”

So he scrapped plans for medical school and instead spent 15 years with Teach for America, including a stint teaching science in the South Bronx and getting the program launched in St. Louis schools when he was 24.

Part of the Opportunity Trust, which launched July 1, is the Catalyst Fellowship, in which local educators and entrepreneurs meet several times to come up with new ideas to test new ways of teaching and learning.

Colby Heckendorn, principal of the Patrick Henry Downtown Academy Elementary School for five years, completed the residency this spring with three other staff members. It included a trip to San Francisco to tour five schools.

The school has made big strides since a state audit in 2011 found that for three years, the school’s principal at the time had <a href=""""> target="_blank">directed the school secretary to alter attendance records</a> to help hit the numbers needed to meet federal No Child Left Behind requirements.

Five years ago, the school recorded 200 suspensions — so far this year, that number is zero, Heckendorn said. And it exceeded goals set by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We had made all these improvements, but we knew there was more that needed to be done,” he said. All of the school’s 276 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 20 percent lack stable housing.

The residency included taking a deep look at how to help teachers better do their jobs, and led the Henry team to determine that one 50-minute planning period wasn’t adequate. So this school year, teachers get an additional 50 minutes — that’s made possible by reassigning one classroom teacher to teach only science, freeing up a period for other teachers to do extra planning.

As a result, class sizes are a bit larger, but still around 20 to 25 students, Heckendorn said.

Third-grade teacher Rashidah Ivory said the extra time allowed her to better analyze her students’ test results to form small groups for kids who need help in similar areas, such as working with letter sounds, and to create a vocabulary word game.

“I believe that school leaders need autonomy,” Heckendorn said, a notion key among the tenets of the Opportunity Trust. He said he has received support from Superintendent Kelvin Adams, who is involved with the trust.

The Opportunity Trust has three employees, including Scroggins, and is preparing to fill three more positions. Its other leader is Marcus Robinson, who previously was chief executive officer of the <a href="""">" target="_blank">Memphis Education Fund</a>, a philanthropic group in the Tennessee city, and led the way in establishing charter schools in Indianapolis.

The trust’s other goals include doubling the size of City Garden Montessori and opening more schools like it, as well as launching the nation’s first urban Montessori teacher training institute.

Gary Ritter, the new dean of St. Louis University’s education school, said he thinks a snowball effect for fundraising could occur when other groups see well-known foundations making donations to the trust.

He also cautioned that no such effort will work perfectly, and key to its success will be making changes and adjusting course when the inevitable mistakes are made.

Ritter said of the program: “If it encourages us to sharpen our focus on kids who need us the most, kids on the margins without opportunities, then it will be a success.”