Superintendent's Blog

  • In service of our Children

  • There’s “No Place” Like University City

    Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 4/20/2024 9:00:00 AM

    A reflection on where we were, where we are, and where we need to go in educating today’s students

    021324 JP Ease on Down the Road lead castJackson Park Elementary Production of “Ease on Down the Road” 2024!

    Sharonica Hardin-Bartley

    In the 1925 classic, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (based on the book by L. Frank Baum), we were introduced to young Dorothy’s world in stark black and white. Only when she landed on the outskirts of Oz did we see her world in vivid color. Our Jackson Park scholars recently performed the modern version of Ease on Down the Road, adapted from the 1978 Broadway Musical, The Wiz. The performance highlighted the essence of “Learning Reimagined” and our hope for the future. 

    Eight years ago, when I stepped into the Superintendent's role in The School District of University City, I knew I wanted to shake things up and view our work with students and families differently. That meant reimagining the education experience for children, staff, and families.

    With the support of our entire community, we created a vision called “Learning Reimagined.” It was an opportunity to fully center children in every decision, create strong student/family relationships, and personalize instruction. I knew it would pay off for our students and families, but I was not sure exactly how until March 2020. And now, more than ever, our collective efforts are needed.

    Like everyone else, I would like to be done with the pandemic, but unfortunately, the pandemic is not done with us. Researchers confirm that it will be years before we know the full impact of social isolation and lost opportunities to practice and compete in academics and athletics. Mental health and well-being are essential elements of an effective learning ecosystem.

    Those first two years left an emotional, educational and, in some cases, economic imprint on students and families, staff and the overall delivery of education – across the nation.

    In University City, our Social Emotional Equitable and Academic Learning (SEEAL) program helps accelerate our progress.

    Through SEEAL, our students develop the social-emotional muscles, confidence, and learning experiences needed to navigate our ever-changing world. SEEAL is also a humanizing framework for building relationships between home and school. I acknowledge that we can work to create more meaningful opportunities to engage with families effectively, and I intend to collaborate with you and our staff to elevate our work in this area. Our amazing collaboration with One UCity is a great start and serves as a foundation for innovation. We must build on the concept and ensure all families have access to resources, our schools, and our community.

    We are also gearing up for significant improvements to academics, safety, infrastructure and athletics. I continue to be grateful for our community and the overwhelming passage of Proposition U. The zero tax rate increase bond issue opened the door for significant changes, particularly at the high school, where planning is already underway for a multi-purpose athletic field that will support a variety of uses for school and community. We are also in various stages of planning for playground renovations and school entrances that will address safety and physical fitness and lead to overall student well-being and joy.

    We learned and are still learning from the pandemic. It was a fork in the road, a departure from the education system we have all known. And we acknowledge that the departure is a breath of fresh air. Innovation and change are norms, particularly in education. We strategically use data, research on best practices, and our students’ and families’ lived experiences to develop new methods, concepts and directions. Like Dorothy, our eyes are open to the possibilities. 

    The University City community is, and will continue to be, a critical part of our district’s story. I sincerely thank you for all you do and for the many ways our families, partners, alums and community support students and staff. 

    I invite you to remain engaged and hold us accountable as we work to ensure equitable outcomes for all children. Together, we can make significant shifts in delivering education from PreK-12th grade. As the recent upward enrollment and Annual Performance Report (APR) trends have demonstrated, everything our students need to succeed is right here – at home. We remain firm in ensuring equity and equal access for all. 

    In University City, we have “The Heart of a Lion,” the courage to reimagine our education delivery and the wisdom to innovate through challenges. There truly is “no place” like University City. There is no place like home.

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  • Even in Uncertain Times, Our Students and Staff Demonstrate a Shared Spirit of Joy and Well-Being, Especially in Celebration of Black History Month 

    Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 2/28/2024

    020224 UCHS Cookie Distribution

    Sharonica Hardin-Bartley

    When I am asked what concerns me most in today’s educational climate, I sometimes hesitate to offer the first thought that enters my mind. It is the safety and well-being of our students and staff. I’d rather focus on the joy and love that permeate our schools. 

    But today, I am going to talk about both. 

    Unfortunately, fear weighs heavily on educators nationally, and it is an emotion we live with daily. We no longer have the luxury of thinking of a school intruder as something, “That can’t happen here.” In 2023, Missouri suffered its first school shooting, and it was here in St. Louis.

    Across the country, there is a safety violation or act of violence occurring in schools almost daily. While they might not show it, we know that any perceived threat to safety, at school, in the neighborhood or as seen regularly in the media, weighs heavily on our students. It affects them in ways we have yet to understand.

    In February, staff and administration of University City High School (UCHS) responded to two isolated incidents of weapons carried into school in backpacks. As a result, we are exploring ways to enhance safety measures, including recalibrating protocols and adopting best practices for safety drills and training. For the past few weeks, that has included backpack checks upon entry and talks with students about doing their parts to ensure safety. 

    I’m proud to say that our students have been resilient and understanding of this temporary inconvenience because, as one senior said, “At the end of the day, we care about our students and staff.”

    Her comment reminded me how, amid chaos and pain, we continually ask our young people to strive for excellence and they continue to deliver. February - Black History Month - provided so many examples of how our school teams uniquely celebrated diversity, culture and history. Our scholars, staff and community acknowledged the contributions and impact of African Americans, past and present. An artistic presentation of The Wiz by our Jackson Park students, the annual Royalty Walk at Pershing, a Hip Hop exploration at Barbara C. Jordan and an Expo at Brittany Woods Middle School represent just a few of the many ways our school community embraced Black history. 

    We invited the community to join in the annual Black History Book Study, co-hosted with the University City Public Library. This month, we read and discussed Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class with the author, Blair LM Kelley, Ph.D. In addition to the author and other community guest speakers, UCHS African American history class scholars masterfully shared insights regarding ideologies related to race, class and oppression.

    One profound subject from the author’s text examines the impact of the African American washerwomen who labored tirelessly for their families. Their resilience, strength, courage and humor cement their places in American history. “Building on the traditions first fostered by their enslaved forebears, they made space for their families, their rights, their dignity and one another.” (Kelley, 2023, p.113)

    We reflect on Black History; but, it is truly American history, as Black people throughout time, physically and mentally sacrificed the most sacred part of themselves – their humanity. The story of the washerwomen reminded me that I am who I am today, because I am standing on the shoulders of my own personal heroes. My great-grandmother, Elsie Mae Allen “MuDear,” didn’t have a formal education but taught me to read at the age of three. My grandmother, Birdie Yvonne Browden “Granny,” epitomized strength, faith and family and taught me that excellence is expected, always.

    Old Woolworth building for 022924 SHB blogThey would be proud to know that their little girl now leads an amazing school district and serves on many community boards, including chairing the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters. I reference this organization as it is based in the old Woolworth building at Grand and Olive. This is the historic site where the St. Louis Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) staged a non-violent protest – part of a national campaign – against the chain’s discriminatory practices. I now sit at the head of the board table in a setting where, 50 years ago, people refused to see African Americans as equal.

    However, my ancestors, who valued education and the teaching profession, would surely wonder after having come so far, why we continue to grapple with ensuring students and staff are safe at school. It is their right, after all, to a free, quality education in environments that are safe, healthy and free of distractions.

    That is why our district’s Learning Reimagined Strategic Priority of “Well-Being and Joy” is at the heart of the school experience and remains a continuous goal. Absolutely no violence, threats or safety infractions of any kind will be tolerated in University City Schools.

    Please join us in the critically important and on-going conversation on school safety. Our first meeting on February 7 came together quickly, but proved to be a valuable opportunity to speak with and gather feedback from students, parents, staff, partners and community. 

    We invite the community to continue to share thoughts and suggestions. In exchange, you can count on your District team to be forward-thinking and inclusive in all decisions, particularly on matters of safety. 

    Safety truly is everyone’s responsibility and with compassion, humanity and understanding – in the spirit of South Africa's “Ubuntu” – Let's work together to ensure the best for our children and families.

    Ubuntu, University City School District Community.

    Anonymous Tip Line


    District Hosts Anonymous Tip Line

    The School District of University City hosts an anonymous tip line for our schools and community. Anyone is able to call (314) 290-4444, to report ANY and all concerns, suspicions, threats of violence or incidents of bullying witnessed or suspected. You can report something you have observed, heard about or seen on social media and the school district’s safety team will take it from there. Thank you for making a difference!

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  • Winter Weather Update

    Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 1/30/2024 4:00:00 PM

    Transpar buses in Snow jGriffin c web

     

    Sharonica Hardin-Bartley

    I would say that winter 2024 came in like a “Lion!” Snow, winds and ice led to three January “snow days” in rapid succession.  And, for those counting (likely all 2,700 students), we have two days remaining before we need to consider Alternate Methods of Instruction (AMI) or make-up days. 

    We are accustomed to the District’s early morning wake-up calls, but I want to give you background on how the team makes weather decisions, what factors we consider, and through what channels we communicate the details. Of course, the safety of our students, staff, and contractors is always our top concern, and our decisions will always err on the side of safety.

     

    Snow Day or AMI?

    I especially want to share the rationale specific to our district and why we elected to start 2024 with snow days and reserve Alternate Methods of Instruction (AMI) days. The Department of Elementary Education first employed AMI strategies for virtual education (or printed options) during and in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. 

    Some districts, including University City, consider hybrid learning, where part of the day is spent with a teacher, and the other part is where the student is expected to work independently. We have the means to deliver quality virtual instruction, but we know that many of our scholars struggle in the virtual space. For some, it was not the optimum way to learn.

    Virtual learning is a wonderful option, but it is not the best answer for every child. Some students are able to study independently, while others struggle with isolation, time management, and lack of socialization and personal interaction. Through the constructs of Learning Reimagined, we work to humanize the education experience.  Face-to-face is how most of our students learn best.  It also allows us to monitor the social-emotional needs of every student more closely. Simply put, our scholars crave connection with their parents/caregivers, teachers, and friends. Our team is finalizing plans for AMI if we continue to experience inclement weather. Expect to hear more very soon.

    Like a comet speeding across the galaxy, the pandemic’s “Covid-tail” is likely years long. Studying how the abrupt and extended break from classrooms and extracurricular activities impacted our students' academic and socio-emotional development will take time.  

    In the meantime, we will work to strengthen our district’s resources and strategies to mitigate unfinished learning by opting for in-person instruction as the first and best option for learning.

     

    How the Weather Decision is Made

    The summer of 2023 saw record temperatures in schools and on buses,  complicating the complex recovery from the pandemic. This winter has also proven challenging with a rapid mixture of snow, sleet, rain, high winds, extremely low temperatures, and high wind chills.

    The National Weather Service of St. Louis, St. Louis County, and our local meteorologists are our chief sources of information.  Superintendents across the region join a call, either late evening or at 4:15 a.m., depending on the weather’s timing.

    Every district has its own unique challenges to consider, but it helps to hear information from districts across the region. In University City, we consider how long students will likely stand at the bus stop, road, and street conditions for students who walk to school and those whose parents drop off; we think of the challenge of finding alternative childcare, and we prioritize the safety of our staff who must drive to work.

    When it comes to the final decision, I would say that most times, we get it right – there are other times when it’s just too close to call.  We will always err on the side of safety.

    Once the decision is made, at approximately 4:45 - 5 a.m., our Communications Team sends information out to media, staff, students, and parents through a variety of channels, including the District website (alert on ucityschools.org), social media, television media (snow closings) and SchoolMessenger for email, voice message and SMS (text).

    Please ensure your current contact information is kept up-to-date in Tyler SISK12 Parent Portal so you do not miss any District updates. 

    I hope this information has been helpful and that you now have a greater understanding of how we navigate extremes in weather.  And yes, I hope that our unpredictable St. Louis weather patterns cooperate until the last day of school, which for now is May 29, 2024.

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  • Connecting Without Screens: Balance Your Child's Festive Fun With Responsible Social Media Use This Holiday Season

    Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 12/15/2023 11:00:00 AM

    Sharonica Hardin-Bartley

    Hello, University City Community!

    As we wrap up 2023 and look forward to Winter Break, I'm in awe of the element of time. It is a valuable resource that consumes so much of our ways of being. From juggling jobs, family, personal life, and the day-to-day challenges and opportunities life brings, we all navigate time uniquely and purposefully. I'm mindful that communities, both close and far away, are experiencing significant pain, violence, and trauma. My heart is with those communities, and I hope for peace and understanding.

    We also know that while the holidays are a time of joy and celebration, they can also be a time of sadness and stress. Parents and caregivers can help by being mindful of children's social media use. Please don't underestimate the impact of social media and our youth's powerful connection to their devices. 

    In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report reiterating the dangers of social media on our children's mental health. Being alone while parents and caregivers are at work, combined with little homework and not seeing friends regularly, means children have too much time on their hands. They tend to turn to social platforms for entertainment. The endless scrolling exposes them to cyberbullying, risky behaviors, negative self-esteem talk, and inappropriate, addictive content.

    Research also suggests that heavy social media use can lead students to have shorter attention spans, experience feelings of lethargy and disconnectedness, and show a decreasing ability to distinguish facts from reality.

    While open communication, limiting screen time, and using parental controls are good places to start, we can do more by creating alternatives that encourage positive relationships and interactions that don’t involve a screen.

    One parent recently shared a great idea. She has everyone put their phones in a basket before they sit down for a family meal. The one who takes their phone out first has to do the dishes, take out the trash, or take on another mundane, unwelcome task. Something as simple as eating dinner together without devices can go a long way to building a child’s self-esteem and connection to the world. When did you last have a meal or two without looking at your screen? And yes, looking at your Apple Watch counts, too! 

    Other ways to reduce screen time include:

    • Encouraging children to set goals, such as identifying books to read over break
    • Asking them to help prepare family meals
    • Having them give a fun presentation on a place they'd like to visit 

    Encouraging real-world connections like scheduling playdates, visiting libraries, and checking out books and games are good ways to divert their attention to something positive and affirming during the long break. We are fortunate to have outstanding free cultural venues within a short drive of U. City. The Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis Art Museum, and Saint Louis Science Center are all great resources that expand horizons and enable us to disconnect from our devices. 

    Here is a great resource to learn more about social media tips and strategies for students in kindergarten through college.

    I would love to hear how you plan to disconnect from technology. Please email me your ideas and photos to Together@ucityschools.org over Winter Break. The more we can work together, the safer, happier, and healthier our children will be.

    As for me, unsurprisingly, I plan to snuggle on the couch with a great book and Hallmark movies over break! Merry, merry, and happy everything, University City community. I hope you can connect, refresh, and be with those you love. I look forward to seeing you in the new year!

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  • Past, Present and Future: Embracing Gratitude at Thanksgiving

    Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 11/21/2023 10:00:00 AM

    Sharonica Hardin-BartleyThe leaves are blowing. Morning frost dusts our lawns in silver. A golden twilight sinks low into darkness early in our evenings. Yes, the winter season is approaching. Next week, many of us will gather to give thanks and enjoy fellowship with family and friends. Whether you celebrate the traditional Thanksgiving holiday or engage in other meaningful activities during our extended break, gratitude is always appropriate.

    This season is also an important time to highlight the positive contributions and traditions of Native Americans while acknowledging that our country has historically perpetuated one-dimensional misrepresentations of Indigenous People. It is important to recognize that the origins of our nation’s holidays sometimes come at the expense and exclusion of others who contributed so much to the beauty and culture of our country. Let’s be grateful for these origins.

    Abbie Adams, a faculty member in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anthropology, reminds us that, “It is important to set the record straight, acknowledge Native Peoples, debunk myths, and show Native Americans as contemporary people with dynamic, thriving cultures who have profoundly impacted our current food system.” She further states that when thinking about Thanksgiving, “It means going beyond the harmful ‘pilgrims and Indians’ narrative and focusing on common values: generosity, gratitude, community, and good food.” 

    Did you know that Indigenous America provided our world three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, including corn (maize), pumpkins, beans, squash, potatoes, chocolate, vanilla and tomatoes? What a tremendous gift they’ve given to humanity. If you want to learn more, here is a resource from the Smithsonian, entitled Rethinking Thanksgiving: Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving.

    Thanksgiving, in particular, has a universal spirit behind it centered on love, respect, food from our soil and gratitude regarding our past and present - please remember to embrace those qualities when thinking about our land’s early ancestors. 

    For me, this season is a reflective time to embrace the many healthy traditions passed on by my grandmothers, affectionately known to me as “Granny” and “MuDear.” They epitomized family. Their love was everywhere. But at Thanksgiving, it was embodied by their warm, delicious and nurturing cooking. When I cook at Thanksgiving, my soul lights up with memories of the smells and tastes of their homemade cakes, their dressing, and yes, even duck! Long passed from this life, I do feel their love deeply in their enduring recipes and flavors. It is such a blessing to bring that love they gave me into my own family home. And, it’s comforting for me to know that I am creating memories through these rich and flavorful Thanksgiving traditions. Yes, gratitude is a gift for what we have been given in love!

    This time of year, I’m also very aware that many of our students and families struggle during the winter season. Their worries are many, and they cope day by day. And yet, our students show up daily to our schools, classrooms and community. Educating and serving young people is a compassionate service that extends far beyond the function of the job. Educators know they are more than the topics they teach, but the firm and rich soil that nurtures the souls of our students. Our teachers are modern-day heroes, giving so much of themselves to the art of teaching and the power of relationships. It is inspiring to witness the deep wonder of learning in a child’s eyes and, then, the big ideas that emerge when they engage in meaningful and mentally rigorous activities. We do this in an atmosphere that intentionally balances high academic standards with our scholars' social and emotional needs. I extend my gratitude to our remarkable staff. I know you see their impact each day. Please take the time to share your gratitude and appreciation with them.  

    U. City has another fantastic tradition that has endured through time. We take care of one another. We help out and support those in need. Our generous partners are again supporting our families this holiday season. Thanks to the Hazel Erby Family Foundation, Refresh Church, and Holy Communion Church, our families with demonstrated need will dine well this Thanksgiving with turkeys and all of the fixings. It doesn’t end at Thanksgiving. Our school social workers are currently taking donations of gift cards to distribute to many of these families to help them through this upcoming holiday season. 

    To our excellent teachers and staff, students, parents and caregivers – and our entire U. City community – take good care, and know how important you are to our school district. Let’s exude thankfulness this season; remember, gratitude is a gift.

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  • Building Vital Partnerships, Building Thriving Students

    Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley on 9/27/2023 8:00:00 AM

    One U City Mtg at Pershing

    Sharonica Hardin-Bartley

    Fall is my favorite season for many reasons. It’s nice to be outdoors to enjoy the milder weather and beautiful autumn colors that signal change. The first full month of school has been similar. Our students and staff are adjusting to being back in school, and the world continues to change around us in bright but sometimes challenging ways. 

    Our teachers are navigating new curricular resources in math, social-emotional learning and social studies. We’ve had some challenges, and yet we are seeing tremendous progress. In our district, we understand the importance of meaningful relationships, and I applaud our staff for prioritizing small moments to build bonds and bridge gaps with students.

    I also applaud parents and caregivers for being present in so many ways. One U City’s first event on September 12 truly showed “this is what community looks like.” More than 700 parents, caregivers, grandparents, students, and U. City Schools supporters gathered at Barbara C. Jordan Elementary School to kick off the school year. Their intention that night to build an inclusive, loving and equitable community among all of our schools was crystal clear. 

    It was also a deep reminder that there is vital power in our collective work. The golden partnership between school and home is nurtured by One U City’s growing school-family-community partnership. The research is clear: this bond between school and home improves academic outcomes. Specifically, when schools, parents, caregivers, families and communities work together, students:

    • Earn higher grades
    • Attend school more regularly
    • Stay in school
    • Are more motivated to succeed 


    Family engagement isn’t a cliché or fad; it is an essential part of the schooling experience and critical to the success of The School District of University City. Parent/caregiver-teacher conferences, like the ones we hosted earlier this month, are just one way we build that link. As a system, we work diligently to be true partners in many ways. We understand and embrace that our families have varying needs, and the partnerships we build must also be varied in the way we build them. We also seek and need your input to make the partnership work. Our children are counting on us to figure this out! 

    Currently, we are seeing heightened social-emotional needs among our students, caused, in part, by the tremendous impact of COVID-19. Some of our students are struggling with building a community with one another. We fully understand the responsibilities we hold as educators to nurture this essential link among our students and staff. Our trauma-informed work remains a cornerstone of this strategy. We leverage our people and deploy support where the need is greatest. And we use best practices to face these challenges and improve.

    I’m proud of the collective work of our team, and yet, I acknowledge that we must remain focused and persistently work towards our goals. Seeing our new social-emotional, equitable and academic learning (SEEAL) curriculum implemented with fidelity in our K-5 classrooms is refreshing. This includes essential time in morning meetings. These meetings do not take away from instructional time but instead engage student minds and personal connections that will drive their academic learning for the rest of their day. These early morning circles help maximize instructional time. Think of it like a refreshing early morning social-emotional walk for our students that sets a positive presence for the rest of the day. 

    Our middle and high school teams are partnering more intentionally to ensure consistency and clarity across the two buildings related to academic learning, social norms and expectations. Yes, we are making progress – and we know we have a ways to go. 

    Now, more than ever, we must remain focused on our north star – our “Why.” Parents and caregivers, we hope you will also remain focused. We need you! I firmly believe that we can accomplish so much together. 

    In that spirit of togetherness, I look forward to seeing many of you this weekend as we celebrate Homecoming. Our theme, “Hometown Showdown: I’m from the U and I’m proud!” says it all. I will see you in your black and gold! Are you ready? I am!!!

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  • Access Matters: Opening and Closing Doors to Opportunity

    Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley on 7/11/2023 3:00:00 PM

    2023 PER Camp U

    Sharonica Hardin-BartleyHello University City families and community. Summer is in full swing. I hope you are enjoying time with family and friends and doing whatever brings you joy. I  know the past week was very trying for those of you dealing with extended power outages, and it is my hope that things are getting back to normal. 

    In the District, we recently concluded Camp U, a rich representation of the creative spirit of our scholars, teachers and school leaders. Student experiences included exploration of our solar system, understanding the importance of healthy lifestyles, entrepreneurship, artistic expression and much more. Our incoming ninth grade scholars engaged in transition activities to help prepare them for the high school experience. High school students at various grade levels participated in a rich internship with Fresh Harvest 365, an innovative urban agriculture partnership based in Cool Valley. These types of experiences make our school district so unique. We understand and embrace equity and diversity in all that we do. Kudos to our summer school leaders, staff, students and our amazing partners.

    As we ended Camp U, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action and removed racial reference from the college admission process. Since the ruling, I have closely watched universities swiftly alter policies related to the ruling. In Missouri, response by universities to comply has been very rapid, and not surprising. In my opinion, it is a moral imperative for higher education institutions, and all institutions, to explicitly work to create equitable opportunities. Access, opportunity and exposure to educational, service and professional communities serve as a way for children from all walks of life and backgrounds to realize the American Dream. 

    I am a first generation college graduate. I have lived the importance of equity in the educational setting. My success as an educator and an individual would not have been possible without teachers who helped me realize my dreams. I grew up in St. Louis in an impoverished community without even realizing it. My mother gave me everything I needed – from the clothes on my back to a strong work ethic and a passion to succeed. And she took the time to find what she believed were the best schools for me. 

    In doing so, she sent me on an educational journey that in many ways was challenging and traumatizing, but, in hindsight, turned out to be great preparation to lead a school district. I attended both a public and parochial school, and later rode an hour on the bus each way to schools in the Rockwood School District under the voluntary desegregation program. 

    I encountered all kinds of instructors on that journey. Some were ineffective. Some were racist. But others inspired me beyond all measure. They saw me not just as a shy, diminutive African-American with a hard-to-pronounce, hard-to-spell name, but a bundle of human potential. Were it not for them, I would never have gone to college, earned a doctorate and gone on to serve as the leader of this amazing school district. Access, opportunity and exposure (and yes, my hard work) opened opportunities for me I would not have known were possible had I not received access to strong educators, mentors and higher education. Historically, and even today, Black people and people in marginalized communities are hindered from accessing tools, resources and school systems that are equipped for meeting their needs. 

    My dear friend and UCHS alum, Amy Hunter, calls it “lucky zip codes.” In St. Louis, where a child happens to be born and raised significantly impacts his/her/their trajectory. Amy says that the “intersectionality between our zip codes and our humanity are connected. We are always connected.” 

    I argue that race is a social construct used to sort, divide and, in many instances, conquer. This unfair system is dismantled by intentional actions to foster equitable opportunities, growth and continuing progress regarding race and social justice. Access to higher education, and the American Dream, is critical for dismantling unfair systems and elevating children born in unlucky zip codes. Educational institutions must create opportunity and help communities overcome divisions that are dangerously harming our nation and our children. 

    I applaud University of North Carolina Chancellor Kevin Guskiewiz for his statement, “Carolina remains firmly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and continues to make an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond….While not the outcome we hoped for, we will carefully review the Supreme Court’s decision and take any steps necessary to comply with the law.” 

    Let us, as a school district community, reflect on this court action and, more importantly, how it harms ALL of us. I hope other higher education institutions, including those in Missouri, will glean wisdom from Dr. Guskiewiz. 

    Let us remember what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his letter from the Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

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  • May is here! Commemorating End of School Year And Celebrating New Beginnings

    Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 5/26/2023 8:00:00 AM

    052223 UCHS Grads

    Sharonica Hardin-BartleyGood afternoon School District of University City Community: 

    May is here! There’s so much excitement in the air as we commemorate the end of the 2022-23 school year and the start of summer. We celebrated with lovely transition activities for our students, especially in grades five and eight. Our preschoolers felt particularly special thanks to not one, but two car parades that wound through the nearby streets of U. City. What a way to show up for our future kindergartners!

    Yes, our scholars are poised to move ahead on their learning journey! I am incredibly proud of them – particularly, the UCHS Class of 2023, which we celebrated on Monday, May 22, at a spirited graduation ceremony at Chaifetz Arena that included inspiring speeches, beautiful regalia and the spirit of U Time.

    Our student commencement speakers, Zoe White, Aliyah Goodman and Michael Simmons, spoke about community, togetherness, excellence, social justice, and all our school district community has done to help prepare them for their next chapter in life. They shouted out to several staff members and reminisced about their journey that began in kindergarten for some. 

    Michael concluded his remarks by embracing the spirit of Ubuntu. His words tugged at my heart because I truly aim to create a school system that lives the meaning of Ubuntu: “I am because we are.” 

    During my remarks, I shared that the Class of ‘23 holds a special place in my heart. When I began my journey as the District’s superintendent, our scholars were starting middle school as sixth graders. They were precocious – and so bold. As middle schoolers, they embraced challenges and took action on adult issues pertaining to environmental sustainability, supporting local immigrants, promoting well-being in their school, inclusion and equity. In the years to come, their leadership grew. They took on gun violence, advocated for social justice and created our signature Growing Together event that every year enables our community to garden and grow healthy fruits and vegetables. Their first year of high school coincided with a global pandemic. There was so much hardship and disruption, yet they persevered and kept moving forward with remarkable accomplishments. 

    On Saturday, May 20th, 16 students in our early college program received associate’s degrees from St. Louis Community College Forest Park and were cheered on by U.S. Congresswoman Cori Bush! One of those students - Michael Simmons - sat on her Youth Advisory Council. The Early College Experience is a challenging program. Students take college level courses, starting at age 15, and spend most of their senior year on a college campus while still participating in high school athletics, clubs and student leadership groups. And, now they are poised to go to prestigious four-year colleges with two full years of free credits already completed. This exemplifies equity, resolve and courage, all in the spirit of Learning Reimagined.

    Each student in the Class of 2023 has a story. Let me share just one, because it, again, demonstrates intensive courage and strength. New graduate Gia Ward maintained a B average during her four years of high school. She excelled in the District’s Construction Careers pathway. She and her fellow students have built sheds for our schools, rainwater collection systems, shelving for food and clothing pantries and more. Gia hopes to pursue an apprenticeship through the PATTS program (pre-apprentice tactical training school), where she will learn skills for a career in carpentry, or she may attend Ranken Technical College. She has hopes, skills and resolve for her future, even as she is dealing with a recent diagnosis of stage 1 ovarian cancer and surgery just a few weeks ago. Her treatment includes chemotherapy, including a session just before her graduation ceremony. Our staff was there for her that evening - and she walked across the stage with her diploma. Gia is a fighter. Her U. City family is with her, and I can’t wait to hear about her progress and her many chapters to come. And, yes, she is a proud member of the University City High School Class of 2023.  

    I left the Class of 2023 with a few words of inspiration when I channeled my inner Wakanda. I shared a quote for the late Chadwick Boseman, otherwise known as T’Challaas in his marvelous role in Black Panther: “Savor the taste of your triumphs today. Don’t swallow them whole without digesting what is actually happening here. Look down over what you have conquered and appreciate what…has brought you through.”  

    As we head into summer, please relax and enjoy time with your family/friends. I look forward to seeing you next school year. Remember, if your child is attending Camp U, the first day is Monday, June 5th! 

    Be well, UCity Community.

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  • How Do Our Students Thrive Amid Uncertainty? It’s a Matter of Head and Heart

    Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 4/21/2023 10:00:00 AM

    student violinists

    Sharonica Hardin-BartleySpring is finally blooming, and I’ve enjoyed the freedom of being outside and sharing time with family and friends while enjoying simple pleasures. Each day is a tremendous gift and an opportunity to be a better version of myself personally and professionally. 

    I often speak about the head and heart of leadership. Yet again, another tragedy has crept into a school space that should serve as a haven for young people and the adults who care for them. The elementary school shooting in Nashville was heartbreaking and took the lives of six people, including three children. These acts naturally bring out emotions - fear, anger, shock, sadness and helplessness. We all feel pain in our hearts. The reality, though, is that we have to test our resilience and move forward with both head and heart - and this is especially true for our students.

    We need to think and remind ourselves that amid these disturbing acts of rage, there are causes behind them, often centered on mental health issues, learned hatred and a culture that increasingly embraces rage. 

    School shootings should never happen. Period.  Our heads and our hearts can rise above this and stop it. As a nation, we must work with each other to build relationships based on love and common sense to soothe our country’s pain and quell rage that threatens our public spaces, including schools, churches, malls, and, most recently, a bank in Kentucky. It gives me solace that our district demonstrates the head and the heart. We support our students who confidently speak out against gun violence and challenge our policy makers - all of them - to find empathy and partnership to solve this problem. It is an all-of-us issue, and everyone should use their anguish in the service of love and problem-solving to end these alarmingly frequent acts that are taking the lives of our loved ones and threatening our humanity.

    So, we continue to persist amid uncertainty. I strive to move beyond a fearful state of mind into positive relationships, empathy and hope. I find hope when I see the smiles and eyes of our most vulnerable - our children. I find joy when our students find joy. 

    On April 3, our orchestra teachers organized a performance for 200 University City students of different ages to see the duo Black Violin at UMSL’s Touhill Center. This performance touched on the old and the new - both classical compositions and modern Hip Hop - all through the power of just two string instruments. I will tell you, our students saw not only the potential of their own growing musical talent, but the transformative power they can have through work, music and creativity to be heard and inspire others. Smiles and joy were such a great part of the day.

    On that same day, Brittany Woods Middle School, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony for the USDA “Peoples’ Garden” in what’s informally called the BWMS Side Hustle Garden. This new growing space near the school’s prairie garden was envisioned by students under the mentorship of sustainability instructor Anne Cummings so the school could grow more food for the community. It came to life through the hands-on, physical work of those students. The People’s Garden exemplifies our schools’ and our students’ growing commitment to racial equity and food scarcity because many marginalized communities lack access to quality, nutritious food options. Our students were so proud of their efforts and did a wonderful job as ambassadors to show our USDA guests their gardens and the impact they are having on the University City community and beyond. Again, smiles and joy were in abundance.

    As I write this, our students are preparing for state assessments as a measure of their learning and growth over the school year. We understand that our students are much more than test scores. They are strength, resolve, creativity, and persistence - all of the wonderful traits that come from the head and the heart. We await these scores to see how we are doing, but we are looking far beyond these scores to accelerate learning in service of our students. 

    We continue our work to merge well-being and joy with academics through our SEEAL (social emotional equity, and academic learning) approaches to learning. You can read more about our efforts in our most recent issue of PRIDE. Effectively implementing specific SEEAL strategies within the classroom enhances learning, but it  takes time. Time remains one of our most valuable but rare resources. We are committed to dedicating our resources to SEEAL, because doing so is essential for our students’ success. Our students deserve high expectations and opportunities to engage in rich curricular content. They deserve meaningful, quality relationships in safe, supportive classroom environments. They deserve well-being and joy. These factors build students with both head and heart who can go into the world ready to solve pressing issues and connect with our world in a loving and intentional way.

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  • Spring, New Beginnings and the Need for Well-Being and Connection

    Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 3/10/2023 10:00:00 AM

    JP Fight for Wakanda play

    Sharonica Hardin-Bartley

    Spring is in the air. It is a time for new beginnings. It is also an apt time to pause, reflect and show appreciation for the things that we have been through and the pride that we share.

    Three years ago, on March 15, 2020, I gathered with other superintendents in St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page’s office to discuss what we thought would be a very temporary and short closure of schools due to COVID-19. We, of course, know that was not what happened next. This year, we've gratefully seen the cases of COVID-19 in our schools dwindle to just a few, if any, on a given week. We are not dealing with sudden, large numbers of our students, nor do we have to test whole classes for the virus, nor cancel treasured school events. It's nice that things are calmer, and also a relief to know that our children are in school every day with the added protective factor of loving staff and modern, rigorous and relevant experiences that accelerate learning. 

    We just finished an amazing month of celebrations of Black history. Still, these are very trying times in education. While the day-to-day impact of COVID-19 is minimal, schools with traditionally marginalized students will continue to navigate the impact of COVID-19 for years to come. We know from a variety of reliable national organizations that deal with children's health, that youth around the country are struggling with mental health issues while also making up for lost learning. And, we see the need for additional social emotional learning support for our own students who are dealing with the dual pandemic of COVID and the continuing pandemic of racism in our region.

    And yet, our students and staff still strive each day to demonstrate the Heart of a Lion both academically and personally. I particularly saw that during the month of February. Our school buildings were thriving with rich experiences that celebrated and honored the contributions of African Americans. Students and teachers clearly put their hearts into music performances, living history museums, poetry, dance, art, readings, and even an original production of "The Fight for Wakanda." That performance featured more than 65 students from Jackson Park Elementary School who spent their afterschool hours working diligently with librarian Pat Garvin to put this production together. As they performed in front of an audience of nearly 600 people, I could feel our students' passion and investment. They wanted to tell a victorious story about the fight to make Jackson Park a Wakanda Community Outreach Center. In my mind, the performance wasn't just a fight for that fictional community center, but a triumphant victory for the very real community that is their school. The students beat back the harm that COVID-19 threatened and continued to create a healthy and thriving place where relationships thrive and grow. 

    As I reflect on this victory, my heart is also with Janae Edmundson and her family. Janae is the high school athlete who lost her legs after a tragic accident in downtown St. Louis that could likely have been prevented. This incident represents a greater problem in St. Louis. As a community, we must begin to holistically address the root causes and the systems that create many of the inexcusable incidents occurring throughout our city and beyond. I often feel like a broken record. We must ask, "And, how are the children?" And, we must be able to intentionally act in the best and equitable interests of all children so that one day we as a society can respond, "The Children Are Well." If it takes a superhero mindset like that found in "The Fight for Wakanda," so be it.

    I believe now, more than ever, in the District's three pillars to humanize, personalize and problematize learning, and our vision of Learning Reimagined. Its social-emotional focus integrated with academics is necessary and could serve as a model for other systems. I’m proud that our board of education recently approved a recommendation to hire the District’s first full-time therapist and also a new director of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). These positions are connected to learning. They are strategic investments in wellness to ensure that children thrive and succeed amid these very tumultuous times that disproportionately impact them. Again, children cannot learn to their potential if they are not well, and teachers cannot be expected to teach if they are not well. One does not exist without the other.

    The Ferguson Commission’s report provides solid evidence and examples to support the crucial importance of well-being and further investment in youth as the driver of change. The School District of University City is implementing many of The Commission's recommendations, and I could not be more grateful to lead a community that values all -- and yes, I mean all.

    As we move into March and Women's History Month, I will conclude by highlighting the words of educator Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings, who is a forerunner in the approach to using culturally relevant teaching practices with students. Her text, "The Dreamkeepers," epitomizes what happens in classrooms where teachers value, see, and embrace all students with rigorous learning, inclusion, meaningful relationships and well-being at the core. Like "The Fight for Wakanda," we must fight for our students every day with the recognition that they are beautiful, priceless, human and the heart of us with the potential to change the world.

    To watch Jackson Park School's presentation of The Fight for Wakanda on YouTube, go to: www.ucityschools.org/FightForWakanda.

     

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