Alexis Bates for The Riverfront Times
I went to school here in St. Louis at Mark Twain Elementary School. I played chess, and I won in a lot of different tournaments. I had a rep for that.
Then I went to Walbridge Elementary. I won awards and stayed on the principal’s honor roll.
But then, before starting at Gateway Middle seventh grade I was forced into motherhood. I had to figure out how to balance school and still have a child. One day I was Smart Alexis, and then all of a sudden I was Alexis with the Baby.
I had a teacher in seventh grade who put a different perspective on life for me. He was always there for me, and he was one of the first people who I shared my story of abuse with. He pushed me to not see myself as one Alexis or the other, but as both — to be the Alexis that I am today.
Today, I try to balance how much my past determines my future. I want people to know that I’m more than an act of violence done to me — that, like me, they can get through things.
The odds are stacked against kids who have a child at such a young age. Still, I was deeply determined to stay in school.
At the end of middle school, I got accepted into a lot of parochial schools, but I ended up choosing St. Louis Public School’s Gateway High School. With private schools there is someone telling students, “OK, this is that.” At a public school, I had to be my own advocate. I sought out opportunities where I could find them. I looked for scholarships. I was able to go on college trips and tours because I found the time to search them out.
I always felt education was important and always felt like I could do whatever I want outside of school — as long as I do well in school. But I think having my daughter, especially, motivated me to keep going. I do, so she can know she can do whatever she wants to do, even if she encounters a set back like I did.
Now I’m a college student, hoping to become a middle-school counselor, so I can seed students’ minds with the idea that they are worth more than what the current public school system perceives of them. Every student should feel a sense of belonging when they walk through their school’s doors.
I’m also a St. Louis Public School parent. My daughter is in the second grade, but she’s already at a fourth grade reading level. She loves school — can’t get enough. She really values education and knows the importance of it from watching me put in the work.
I’ve been working collectively with a group called WEPOWER and its Better Budgets, Better Schools campaign. Our coalition is intergenerational with three generations represented. It’s been fun learning from the older women—sharing space with them. When I hear the different stories of what people had to go through — especially the elders — I imagine myself in their situation and ask myself how I can relate. Then I ask how things can get better, especially when there has been little or no change in things between generations.
Like my mom, a lot of people who live in the Mark Twain neighborhood been here all their lives. While I’m connected to the area’s history through my neighbors, we only interact regularly in a “hi/bye” way. We’re not fully activating community in my neighborhood. There’s potential there.
That’s why I appreciate the experience of canvassing — knocking on my neighbors’ doors and hearing their stories. I believe no one can tell something about you, besides you. So we talk. Especially on hot days they know I’m not playing. This is serious.
This month our coalition knocked on doors in north city wards 3, 4, and 22. These three wards have low voter turnout numbers, so we were building voting plans with residents leading up to the November 6 election. We’re also talking with residents about their experiences with education and inviting them to a public hearing on Wednesday, November 14. It’s called Why Equitable School Funding Matters, and it will take place at Central Print at 2624 N 14th St in Old North starting at 6:30 p.m.. There will be free dinner for all who come out.
Our vision is for each school to be equipped with the necessary resources for youth to thrive. What if our schools, especially those with students exposed to higher rates of violence, had additional social workers to help students find healthy ways to work through trauma? What if our schools all had washers and dryers for students in need? What if instead of the shutdown libraries at some schools, each had a library so students could take books home to continue expanding their minds?
We are not just interested in knowing how funds are being distributed. We also want to hear about how students are benefitting from those resources. With increased resources and the equitable distribution of those resources, more students will be able to tell stories about how St. Louis public schools changed their lives.
The third goal in St. Louis Public Schools’ latest strategic plan is to achieve the “equitable distribution of human and material resources across schools.”
I agree with this goal. However, the district’s goal of equity cannot be reached without increasing transparency and community input into the budgeting process. Equity includes intentionally putting those most impacted at the center of discussions and decisions. That’s why my coalition members and I have written three policy demands to do just that. Our district leadership must formalize a long-term commitment to equitable practices. The first step is implementing these policies so they become imbedded into the culture of SLPS.
These changes won’t emerge by preserving the status quo. Changes won’t emerge if we profess a commitment to equity without actively and courageously holding our leaders accountable. That’s why we are asking residents to send letters of support to the district's superintendent, Dr. Kelvin Adams.
The spaces inside classrooms, at front doors and at group meetings, they inspire me to think about what I can do better — what we can do better collectively. I’m always looking for ways to improve the education system that my daughter has to grow up in — that I grew up in. I know this is a start.
Alexis Bates is a recent graduate of WEPOWER’s North St. Louis City Education Power-Building Academy, a six-month community-based leadership and policy change program for residents of the area.