School Superintendent Sees Need for
Pupils and City to Believe in Themselves
They snickered when she said she was from
East St. Louis, so she showed them she was the best
When Lillian Parks, fresh out of Lincoln High School, enrolled at the University of Illinois, new students were asked to stand up and identify themselves, tell their majors and their home towns. When Lillian said her hometown was East St. Louis, they snickered. "Even in those days," she remembers, "East St. Louis was kind of ridiculed, laughed at, always."
That experience made Lillian commit herself to excellence. She would make them swallow their snickers. She would be the best in her class, the best at everything she did. "It served for me, the negative was the positive. That was my attitude."
Today Dr. Lillian Parks is just as committed to bringing excellence to the East St. Louis school system, the first woman to be superintendent, an East St. Louis native, an East St. Louis resident and one who believes in "showing them" the stuff you're made of, that East St. Louis is made of.
Her father Horace Adams was a fighter. He was a civil rights leader before it was the fashionable thing for a black leader to do. He was involved in politics -he founded the Paramount Democratic Club that turned the black Republican to Democrats and welded together a political powerhouse that dominated elections in St. Clair County for many years. He was killed in a automobile accident in 1935 at the age of 40. She remembers the words that were written about him and to the family after his death: words like integrity and courage.
"The student population is dwindling. For many years it was stabilized, but in recent years we lose two or three hundred students per year. We have many students leaving. Families are leaving; they are moving to O'Fallon, Fairview Heights, Belleville and St. Louis County."
They are the middle income and lower middle income families that can afford to buy homes or rent apartments priced higher than in East St. Louis. But they also are escaping the intolerable property tax rate and the other costs of living in East St. Louis, like bars at the windows and doors, outside lights and ADT alarm systems. Dr. Parks knows about all that although she lives in the most elite residential area of East St. Louis, the Loisel Hills area.
Because of what has come to be called the black flight, the district had to close three schools this year, including Hughes Quinn, the original Lincoln High School, one through whose doors all African-Americans in the city once passed. Closing it was an emotional experience, but Rock Junior High School, the old East St. Louis Senior High School, had a campus, had room, and was adjacent to a new seventh grade building of 12 rooms.
Washington and Carver, the old Emerson, also closed. In some cases, the district did not have the money to do the extensive renovation necessary, and the declining enrollments gave the option of closing the schools.
Dr. Parks feels strongly about the educational atmosphere. That means making buildings safer and attractive. A sound, attractive building can provide the atmosphere for learning, she said.
The enrollment of East St. Louis schools in 1990-91 is about 15,600. An extensive early childhood program for four-year-olds and an enrichment program for three-year-olds accounts for 700 pupils this year. The losses are not as bad as in some other communities, including Granite City. Over 12 years, the district has lost perhaps 6,000 pupils. "We were maybe at 22,000" as the high enrollment.
The district has been working with the state on its finances. "We submitted a financial plan and they accepted it," she said, and this year, for the first time in memory, "we will not have to make a loan. We are very proud of that." The plan means simply that the district will have to live within its income. The plan anticipates that the "temporary" income tax will be continued. "For us, it must continue; one of our assumptions (for the plan) is that it will continue," she said.
About 89 percent of the district's funds come from the federal and state governments. Although East St. Louis taxpayers face a school tax rate above $7 - more than the entire tax bill for most cities in the county - the money from taxes would not meet the payrolls for more than two months.
Class size is mandated in a union contract and in some cases by funding regulations. Primary grades are limited to 30 pupils per teacher, and the district shoots for 25. In early childhood education, there can be no class over 20. In upper elementary, the classes go as high as 35 , though "we try to keep them at 30 to 32," On the state report card, overall the teacher-pupil ratio is about one to 23. "I'm very pleased about that."
That same report card shows the district does very well on the state reading test, but "needs some help" in scoring on the ACT (college entrance) tests. "The state averages about 18-19 (on ACT), we're averaging like 13-14, so we need to improve there. That's not to say we don't have those students who score very high, 32, 29, 28, but when we average them in with the others, we need to improve. "
'We have steady improvement with the California Achievement Test (CAT), our other standardized test. However, at the high school level we look at ACT."
The CAT compares the student achievement with similar grades across the country. The district achieved grade level at some grades several years ago, and is improving steadily, particularly in the elementary schools.
"Our goal is to improve our achievements, which also is to improve our self esteem, and the way our children feel about themselves. Oh, that's very important," she said. "I talk to them about it all the time."
'We hear all about the drugs and crime and the this and that, but I tell them about all the good people who come from here, an ambassador, from East St. Louis! How many people can brag about an ambassador, or an Olympic winner, or musicians or scientists or college presidents? I tell them they can be what they want to be.
"Somewhere we have got to stop emphasizing that our children are what we educators call disadvantaged or at risk. I don't use those words too often. I remind them that when I was at Lincoln most of the people there were poor, they were disadvantaged, but we didn't know that word then. Luckily, no one told us we were disadvantaged. Our teachers told us we were bright if we were bright, told us we were smart, told us about the African-American leaders and who invented what, and you know, we have to be told that. And that's what I tell the students all the time when I visit the schools, and I visit all the time. I have lunch with them and talk to them. We have some outstanding students here."
Her conviction, her determination, her enthusiasm, shine through her words.
But what," I asked, "happens when they get out of High School?"
"Many of them go to college, about 60 percent go to college or they go to other schools. We have a new relationship with Rankin Technical School now. They are offering scholarships; the PR group (public relations) that is offering scholarships to our students is Ron Thompson's company. We're going to send some over there because they have high standards. It's hard getting in there, and they have a 98 per cent rate of placement."
I said I still would hate to be an 18-year-old black in East St. Louis looking for a job.
"Still," she insisted, "If you want to make it..." But she agreed that you can't get a job at the corner store if the corner store is gone, and in most of East St. Louis, it is gone. If you want a minimum wage job flipping hamburgers, there are fewer than a dozen locations in the whole city, from the cluster of four or five fast-food restaurants at Seventh and St. Louis Avenue all the way to 89th and State. East St. Louis, she said, needs jobs.
Dr. Parks started her educational career as a teacher in 1954 - she's been in the district 35 years - at Dunbar School, taught at Lincoln from 1956 to 1966, was a consultant in Project Speak, a director, administrative assistant for secondary education, all in this district. When she left the University of Illinois she taught one year in Kansas City, then came home in '54, been here ever since. I like East St. Louis, I love the education system.
"My friends in St. Louis say, 'Lillian, how can you live there? I wouldn't walk any place at night alone, not just in East St. Louis, I wouldn't walk in downtown St. Louis. There are some places that are bad, you know that, but no worse than a lot of other places.
"What people never mention about East St. Louis, with all the negatives, is that there are good people here. And I've found that through the years good students, good church people, good mothers, good fathers, you don't hear about that too often, but they are here. I like my town, and I am hoping that one day it will come back."
"Is 'come back' the right term?"
"I can remember when Jones Park was beautiful; I can remember when the Sunken Gardens over by Lafayette, by Longfellow, were beautiful. I can remember when they swept the streets! I remember those things. I remember when people would walk past our house on the way to work at the Aluminum Ore, for example. I can remember the stockyards when they were booming. All those things I remember.
"I can remember when we would walk anywhere in East St. Louis; we'd walk to the park and stay there--walk! I can remember when downtown was Downtown and you went there to shop."
"Come back to what, Dr. Parks? The smokestack industries are gone."
"But some kind of jobs, if not smokestack jobs. What kind I don't know. I hear about modular housing. I keep hearing about those things. I keep hearing some pie in the sky kind of things, and I'm a realist. I'm not one of those persons who believes certain projects are going to turn everything around. I am not becoming cynical, but I am just watching progress or lack of progress.
"Jobs will help turn this town around, and I am hoping that perhaps there will be something that will come here to give us jobs. I know the service industry...they keep telling us the service industry is coming. Well, how much money do you make in the service industries? What are you talking about?"
I told her about SIU President Earl Lazerson's "three precursors" to a turn-around. She agreed, but singled out the special importance of leadership.
"I think leadership is the key in all agencies: government, school districts, the city. Respect, too. There is more to it than just jobs, responsibility. Our mindsets have to be changed a little bit, to believe in ourselves, have great expectations for our children, believing that we can succeed. Many people don't have that feeling. They feel that all is lost. They don't really see the future.
"Yes, leadership is important, that does include fiscal responsibility, it includes integrity, it includes believing in our leaders, too. I think that would bring a lot here."
She recalled the respect for her father, Horace Adams. He changed the political organization of the entire county. "I think that is what inspires me and my family to believe that you can do some things, and one of those things is to have a positive outlook. I don't have certain people on committees that I chair because they are negative, think all is lost, that nothing is going to work. We don't have time for that if we are going to move the school district.
She said there needs to be exhibited integrity in the models for the children, so that children know that if you work hard and are determined and you are not playing games you can move ahead.
While we read about the "breakdown" in black families, the absence of fathers, the ADC mothers "having babies to increase their aid checks," I mentioned my visits to Mt. Zion Baptist Church and of the strong sense of family discipline evident among the children there, and of an article I read about Jackie Joyner-Kersee and about the support network she had in her family and the community.
"You are right about the family, the importance of keeping together. Strong mothers have been there all the years; the mothers, they have kind of kept things going. We have mothers who wield strong influence on their children, but the family is where it is, where you learn all your values, you learn your attitudes at home. I'm always amused when parents say 'I don't know where she got those ideas.' I say 'She got them at home.' Family is very important."
We talked about the need for communication, and the imagined disagreements in turf battles.
"We have got to begin working together in a common cause. I am getting very annoyed with turf battles. Somewhere there's a little thing of jealousy going on. I refer people to First Corinthians 13: Love knows no jealousies. We have those that exist, 'You are outshining me, therefore I won't cooperate with you because you are continuing to outshine me, you are not supposed to do that.' I really have feelings that if we are going to accomplish some things we have to support one another. If you are right, I am going to support you. I've said that to some other people, too."
"People say that I am. I have strong philosophies and I have strong views. I really do believe that students can do whatever they really want to do and it is up to us to equip and guide them. That's not just educator talk. That's my philosophy. I believe hard work does a lot of things too."
Dr. Parks said she has had good support from the state "because we have an open book here. We're not trying to hide anything. There are certain guidelines and rules that we must follow, and we are going to be in compliance. I don't want any school rated probationary or denied recognition. They come down here and meet with us on a regular basis because I invite them. They are demanding some things now and my only complaint to them is 'You should have done this years ago and our buildings, for example, would not be in the shape they are in.' But now they're saying we must improve them and we are improving."
She said she is getting good support from Martha O'Malley, regional superintendent of schools. "We're one of her schools and she supports us. The board has been supportive, too. There are not too many things that we have asked for that the board has said no. I am saying to them it is time we stop being ridiculed. I say to them that I don't want meetings to be circuses. If you have some arguments, let's deal with them back here and come out in an intelligent manner.
I have strong feelings about people viewing us with an eye that says we are intelligent and we can do some things. Yes, I've been described as strong, but also as having integrity and also being a hard worker."
She said workers laughed at her "the other day when she appeared at a school being rehabilitated
and watched the workers. "I told them 'I want to see what you are doing, that's our money we are spending.' We've had some shoddy work in the past, shoddy. That's obvious. Nobody volunteers to do this work, they want top dollar, so we expect to get some quality work for that. You are going to see some progress here, and lots of it."
You know she means it.
Who are the role models for black East St. Louis children? What are the achievements that can be cited?
Dr. Parks reached into her shelves of books and came up with The Ebony Tree, written by Clementine Reeves Hamilton, a retired East St. Louis teacher, the first black teacher on the faculty at East St. Louis Sr. High School, who died in 1971. She had collected data and photographs for the book until her death, but had not published it. A committee from Delta Sigma Theta sorority, chaired by Dr. Parks, took over the work of publication.
The book traces some of the black history to the days before the Civil War and before the incorporation of East St. Louis as Illinoistown in 1961. As early as 1830 St. Clair County had 32 free Negro heads of' families. They included Richmond Freeman of Rentchler Station, east of Belleville (last names often were chosen by ex-slaves, generally were descriptive, or from the families who owned them. Richmond Freeman was born of a free man. Part of that farm now is owned by Larry Reinneck, president of the board of Belleville Area College, bought from Maggie Freeman, an East St. Louis school teacher now deceased, whose pride in her students' achievements he recalls. Reinneck said a log cabin that was a Freeman home is imbedded in the house across the road from him, owned by Russ Erlinger.
Ebony Tree pays homage to John Robinson, former slave, credited with founding the first black school in East St. Louis, though he never learned to read or write himself. The account of that school, and all other accounts of black schools which this author has read, stress the eagerness of the black students to learn. That same attitude surfaces today in Bob Kassing's account of his work with Junior Achievement in this book.
The book deserves reprinting and updating.
Another book Black Men Role Models of Greater St. Louis by Sheryl H. Clayton (Essai Seay Publications, Box 55, East St. Louis, IL 62202) includes many East St. Louisans, including Dr. Parks' husband Alvin L. Parks, whose career as a junior high school coach included the beginning training of Al Joyner, who like his sister Jackie Joyner-Kersee, reached the Olympics. Certainly Jackie and Al are among the major achievers from East St. Louis. Dr. Clayton's book was based on questionnaires sent to prominent male leaders (She also has published Black Women Role Models of Greater St. Louis).
Dr. Parks lists as important achievers musicians Miles Davis, Diane Bolden and Eugene Haynes. Donald McHenry, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also was an East St. Louisan.
Dr. Carrie B. Dawson was the first Negro woman to earn a doctorate from the University of Illinois and the second person in East St. Louis school district 189 to hold a doctor's degree. She was supervisor of elementary education.
Dr. Parks also recommends for any leadership list City Treasurer Charlotte Moore, "who has shown intelligence, determination and courage under often trying circumstances." Charlotte Moore also is Dr. Parks' niece. And Dr. Parks should be on that list herself
There are countless success stories, including from my own experience Lillian Williams, daughter of former Mayor James Williams, at the Metro-East Journal. Today she is an outstanding reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times.
There is not available a condensed typed list of academic achievers, though there are many. However, in sports, better records are kept. Richard Taylor, director of physical education for School District 189, prepared the following list of achievers from East St. Louis schools in professional sports ranks: