Mehlville board discusses moving SCOPE program to old St. John’s property

Diekemper concerned about suspended students’ proximity to high school

By BURKE WASSON

A proposal to relocate an alternative-education program for suspended students to a site near Mehlville Senior High School has some Mehlville Board of Education members envisioning more quality education and others worrying about students’ safety.

Mehlville administrators are discussing moving the Project SCOPE — South County Opportunities for the Purpose of Education — program before the next school year to currently vacant district-owned property at the former St. John’s Elementary School at Lemay Ferry Road and Will Avenue.

Established in 1997, Project SCOPE offers education to students in seven school districts who have received extended suspensions. These include Mehlville, Affton, Bayless, Hancock Place, Lindbergh, the Special School District, Valley Park and Webster Groves. The alternative program served 625 students in the 2005-2006 school year, with 319 students coming from the Mehlville School District.

Project SCOPE Executive Director Allan Schindler, a retired Mehlville assistant superintendent, and Deputy Superintendent Eric Knost told the Board of Education at its Dec. 14 meeting that each of these districts would support the move.

Interim Superintendent Jerry Chambers also told board members last week that the relocation to district-owned property would free the district from paying rent at the program’s current site at Grasso Plaza. Chambers said if the SCOPE program stays at its current location past its lease-expiration date in June, rental rates would increase and the school district would pay more than $1 million in rent during the next 10 years.

“I looked at the cost of every year of $120,000 (in rent),” Chambers said. “And I just feel if there’s any way possible that we can get it done and do it well, it would be a good financial thing for us to do. We probably should have done it some time ago. But I think there was a different philosophy then. There was a philosophy of: ‘Well, we could sell it and get maybe a million dollars.’ So when you look at it, a million dollars over the long run may not be as large a figure as we think when we’re expending so much money every year for rent and just to heat that building … I’m just trying to look long term and think the sooner we can get out from under rent, the better.”

While he hesitated to reveal a concrete estimate of renovating the St. John’s facility, Chambers said that “a wonderful job” of updating that building for Project SCOPE would likely be near $1.8 million.

Chambers said he would have further information on the project at the board’s next meeting on Jan. 17 at the Oakville Senior High School Library. He added that the board possibly could take action on the proposal that evening.

Administrators said that the proposed relocation to St. John’s also could allow for the possible expansion of the district’s alternative-learning program.

Knost told board members that the move to the three-floor St. John’s facility would create enough space for the district to consider opening a small alternative-learning school specifically for Mehlville School District students.

“Potentially, we could explore the beginning of a rather small, but an alternative, secondary or high-school program for even if we taught 25 kids on an application basis who applied from each one of our high schools,” Knost said. “And a lot of those kids may be kids that would become affected with education in an alternative setting and wouldn’t end up on Allan’s doorstep.”

But concerns were raised by board member Rita Diekemper that suspended students at the new proposed facility would be tempted to walk onto Mehlville Senior High School property and violate the terms of their suspension.

“Some of the reasons why kids might go to that program is because they’re deemed, at least on a temporary basis, to not be in the schools with the other kids,” Diekemper said. “And it seems that that is such a close proximity. As a matter of fact, part of the requirement of their suspension is that they not be able to walk on campus or participate. I’m just, I guess, concerned. Or I would want you to address how would we control that when those kids are directly across the street from a place that they’re not supposed to be.”

Diekemper also questioned whether there would be proper monitoring of parking lots at the high school.

“I would just want to know as a parent of kids who are on that campus, the Mehlville campus, I would want to know how we’re going to keep the kids safe,” she said.

“I think Allan’s probably trying to be humble about the program that he oversees,” Knost responded. “But I have complete confidence that that can be done. I’m willing to say that publicly. I also want to point out that it’s very common nowadays. I think Lee’s Summit just built a brand-new high school and built an alternative high school right next door to it. So it’s a very common thing to do. And people with a program, such as the existing one, or what I’m talking about is oftentimes they find existing buildings that aren’t being used anymore within the school district. So it’s about the people that do their job.”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Diekemper said. “I just want it to be in information provided for us like with regard to supervision of the parking lot. And I would like for that to be spelled out for us so we can look at that.”

Board Vice President Karl Frank Jr. said he likely would support the relocation of Project SCOPE to St. John’s and said through his time visiting the program at Grasso Plaza, he does not believe relocation would be a problem.

“There’s some kids that are really good kids that just made one or two bad mistakes and, because of board policy, they have to be there,” Frank said. “And so for the sake of the public, know that those kids aren’t throwaways. They’re kids that still have an opportunity to get back here in the Mehlville School District. And sitting over there at St. John’s, I would think, is looking back across the street at where they could be if they just hang in there and stick with it and see it as motivation over there.

“I’ve met some of them. They’re great kids. Obviously, there’s exceptions both ways. But I think for the sake and benefit of the public, we should take that into consideration. They’re not jailbirds. They’re kids,” Frank added.

Diekemper responded that while she is not being critical of the program itself, she is merely concerned with the implications of the move and would like more information before she would vote on the proposal.

“It’s a great program,” Diekemper said. “I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the reality of it being across the street from a place that they (suspended students) are not supposed to be. And I would just like for that to be addressed so that parents can be assured that that won’t be a burden.”

Board Secretary Tom Correnti was also concerned whether the St. John’s property would be up to code by the next school year and questioned the potential “perception” of the Will Avenue neighborhood if Project SCOPE were moved.

“Just a concern about the perception of what the neighborhood is going to feel like when that school will go in there for the children,” Correnti said to administrators. “Have we worried about the perception of the community?”

Knost responded that district architects Dwight Dickinson and Don Hussman of Dickinson Hussman Architects already have inspected the St. John’s facility on two occasions. Before classes could begin, the building would have to be improved in the areas of air quality, asbestos abatement, lead-paint removal and environmental issues.

The deputy superintendent also acknowledged that there likely would be perception concerns, but also said that program directors have options of effectively making the transition. Knost said these could include placing suspended students on the top two floors of the building and leaving the first floor open for the possibility of the small, alternative-learning school.

Schindler said he is confident that he and Project SCOPE staff members could monitor students to the point where any potential problems would be alleviated.

“I think we can handle that,” Schindler said. “That is a real issue … If our staffs are doing their jobs, we can do that. We still have a student that will go down the street to one of the other high schools or between our high schools or across the road. I don’t think we’ll have that much concern. To say that one will never come across the street, I’m not going to say that. But if we do our job over there and Mehlville does their job, we won’t have much of that. We can handle that.”

In January 2005, Greater Midwest Builders had contracted to buy the 5.85-acre St. John’s property from the Mehlville School District for $1.1 million, but the sale was never completed.

The Mehlville School District originally had planned to build a new early childhood center, now called the John Cary Early Childhood Center, at the St. John’s campus site, but instead built it on the Beasley Elementary School campus. The location was changed after administrators cited budgetary, site-development, access, safety and aesthetic concerns about the St. John’s site.

The early childhood center is the final new building constructed under the Proposition P districtwide building improvement program.