Saving Sumner: Alumni and SLPS superintendent speak on saving historic school

Missouri

ST. LOUIS – In about three weeks, the St. Louis Public School Board is expected to give an update on their halted decision to close the doors of several schools due to low enrollment and lack of funds.

Sumner High School, rich in history, is one that community leaders are vying to preserve. There is much passion pushing the efforts to save Sumner High School.

“It is an institution that is historic. We were told when we walked in the door by our principal, we were a family, we were loved, and we were to be great,” said Robin Childress Witherspoon, a Sumner High School graduate.

“We had pride, and we wanted to come to Sumner,” said Andre Holman, the Vice President of the Alumni Association. “It was like an honor to be able to walk through those doors and say I’m here where great individuals actually walked the halls.”

Greats graced the halls including Hall of Famers Tina Turner and Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, and trailblazer Margaret Bush Wilson.

“It’s just been a shining star for African Americans in this community, and I think it’s the idea that we can do this,” said Dr. Kelvin Adams, Superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools. “We can follow in the footsteps of some of the heroes and sheroes who were students in the school.”

The light could be diming on the shining star of the Ville as ongoing struggles continue to provide the funding to fuel its future.

“It’s a formidable opponent because we’re up against poverty, crime, housing issues,” Holman said. “There’s just so much we must overcome.”

“Over a period of time, the population of the city of St. Louis has declined something like 17,000 students,” Dr. Adams said.

Superintendent Dr. Kelvin Adams said the district went from around 100 schools and 60,000 students to 110 schools with 40,000 students.

This left an influx of school buildings with low enrollment and a lack of resources. Sumner, in particular, saw its enrollment drop to around 200 students. The decline of a once-thriving community caused many of the shortcomings.

“It is going to be hard because the community doesn’t exist that existed in the 1920s and 30s…it just does not exist,” said Dr. Adams.

Witherspoon grew up in the area and passes through often.

“Yes, it is sad when I see boarded-up buildings, but I do know that neighborhoods are being revitalized all over the country,” said Witherspoon. “Why is it that St. Louis, particularly north St. Louis, can’t get in on that?”

Childress Witherspoon, a former and current cheerleader for the Bulldogs, sat in her home with maroon and white memorabilia reminiscing on the pride instilled in students at Sumner High School.

“You’re talking about the first Black high school west of the Mississippi,” said Childress Witherspoon. “I think that most people remember the greatness of it.”

She, along with the school’s alumni association and almost 20 community advocates, are now searching for a solution to preserve a staple in St. Louis history.

“I think most of the alumni get tense,” Holman said. “They are afraid that this might be the very end.”

Holman’s mother and father can be seen in yearbooks and on the walls with iconic figures. It’s a tradition.

“I don’t know if we’ll be able to say we’re able to overcome this time,” Holman said. “We want it to be over.”

“It has to be a well-developed plan with some action steps and resources,” Dr. Adams said. “Not just ideas but real tangible resources, that could go to support the staff and this school.”

Alumni said there must be a newfound attraction to the school like after school programs or specialized skillsets offered.

On a greater scale, there must also be resources implemented into the Ville’s dwindling population.

Adams said more than ever, city leaders are showing interest in working together on a concrete plan for the St. Louis Public School district’s success.

“If we lose this institution, we will lose a great place that has been the fabric of the Ville and a part of the fabric of St. Louis,” said Childress Witherspoon.

“We don’t want to lose history,” Holman said. “I think that’s one of the things that in a Black community we need…to remember those who have walked these halls before.”

Harris Stowe State University, the HBCU with close ties to Sumner, is also working in tandem with alumni to come up with a plan. They sent us this statement reading, in part:

“As a result of the historical relationship between these storied institutions, Harris-Stowe State University is willing to collaborate with St. Louis Public Schools and all community members to preserve the facility for educational purposes for the community. We are continuing to develop the role that Harris-Stowe may play in this potential partnership and hope to provide additional details regarding our role in the near future.”

Dr. Adams said if you have a solution or suggestion to bring to the table, you can contact him directly at supt@slps.org. The board will revisit the conversation in mid-March. He’s hopeful.

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