Anna-Stacia Allen’s Humans of St. Louis Story, Part 2

Picture by Humans of St. Louis

Humans of St. Louis’ co-founder and lead storyteller, Lindy Drew, met with our Executive Director, Anna-Stacia Allen, to hear more about how she came to her position at Navigate STL Schools.

Photostory by Humans of St. Louis / Lindy Drew (Part 2 of 2) Click Here to Read Part 1.

I can’t tell anybody what a “good” school is or what the “best” school is in St. Louis because different kids have different needs and learn differently. Also, the world is changing so fast because of COVID. Is our education system keeping up? Is your school still teaching your kid like they’re going to be an assembly line worker or an entrepreneur and an innovator? Posing those questions to parents changed a lot about how they look at the schools their children are in. Yes, you need to know reading, writing, and arithmetic because that’s always needed. Also, you should probably know how to code and how to do some design engineering. You should probably know how to master public communication because, whether or not you’re going to be in public office, your Twitter feed can determine whether or not you get a job even as a cashier at Church’s Chicken. Those are all skills we’re asking six-year-olds to be able to manage.

Is your kid in an environment that’s teaching social responsibility and empathy, that cares about them as a whole person, that has some social-emotional learning, or that practices restorative justice? In the pandemic, do your teachers and administrators make way for family needs? Is it important that your child gets on Zoom every morning at 9:05 a.m. even though you have to get five other kids ready and online while sharing several devices? Do your schools make exceptions for that? Before, people may have thought, “We have to fit into the system or we’re the broken ones,” when, honestly, the system is broken. When parents feel like they have the power to change that, the only thing that can happen is that school systems are going to have to adapt and adjust, which is ultimately going to make them better.

Anna Stacia Allen in Towert Grove Park

There’s a cool podcast called Nice White Parents and what I learned from listening to it is that regardless of how bad things are for Black and Brown people, until white people start complaining, nothing’s really going to change. The best part about the pandemic is that white people are complaining, like, ‘This is not working. My kid is not getting all the things they need. And if my kid isn’t getting it, then maybe other kids aren’t getting it and haven’t been getting it.’ This level of urgency is something that Navigate STL Schools thought might take three to five years to build up. The pandemic has exacerbated that because more people are being disenfranchised. More people are being left behind in this current system because the structure wasn’t in place.

In terms of the equity gap, the pandemic highlighted everything. It highlighted the fact that we can’t do online school, even though it might be best for everybody, but everybody doesn’t have internet access. People who were comfortably living on their high-speed gaming level internet are like, “Wait a second. Y’all can barely get on Facebook? You’ve never run a proper search? You don’t have the capacity?” Now we’re having this conversation about, “Is the internet a basic utility?” Before the pandemic, it was like, “Everybody doesn’t need a computer. A computer is a luxury. How do those poor people have Jordans and computers if they live in Section 8 housing?” Now, everybody needs a computer or a tablet. If you don’t, you’re cut off from education.

Executive Director Anna-Stacia Allen

Now that we see these effects from the pandemic and know how certain educational systems and buildings and administrators are treating children and prioritizing education, as a parent, this is your job to say, “I liked this thing about being able to homeschool my kid. I didn’t like this thing about how your staff treated my students. I don’t like the fact that my kid has to wear a uniform to sit at my dining room table.” Now you’re starting to question systems and you can start to advocate for the changes you want to see happen long-term. We’re trying to put parents in the position to be able to elevate their voices. Because another thing we know is that if a mom goes in with her Louis Vuitton bag, driving her Range Rover, and demanding change, then the change is going to happen. But if someone else comes in with a blue-collar uniform as a maid yelling and not understanding the terms, they might easily be dismissed. They might be made to feel like they’re the problem. But if they know the things to say in terms of policy and advocacy to get schools to start listening to them, then it’s going to be really hard for schools to stop listening. They’re going to have to start acting.

Anna-Stacia Allen with arms wide

My vision looks like magnet schools not being a thing. It looks like all schools within the City of St. Louis offering advanced mathematics. It looks like every kid having a laptop and internet connectivity regardless of their neighborhood. It looks like individualized learning plans for students based in standardized education, but not necessarily tests. There’s no real application in life for sine, cosine, and tangent, but now you figured out a way to put math in place that’s going to help even a kid who wants to be an artist understand why they should know it. It’s in a way in which it doesn’t take education 17 years to make one change, which we know is happening now. It’s where the textbooks in minority and low-SES communities are current past the Bush presidencies. It looks like a place where kids are happy and well taken care of and adjusted, teachers are properly compensated for their work, and school buildings look more like college campuses where kids feel invested in and involved in their education, and they don’t think school is a punishment.

Humans of St. Louis Photo Credit

The first step is to pay teachers more so we have more caring people who can afford to want to educate your children, so we don’t have a teacher shortage and people from lots of different backgrounds can afford to be in this profession. Kids would have a different perspective from every classroom that they’re going into and they’re not shoved into classrooms like cattle. The next thing you can do is to not be selfish with resources. Your kid is not the only special kid. Other kids deserve nice things, like access to sports programs, technology, the arts, and music. Maybe don’t fund schools through property taxes. We know the minimum wage is not a livable wage, so people can’t always afford to own property that allows them to afford access to better schools or for their schools to have more money. All kids are special, all kids are important, and not just the ones you might deem smart. All kids deserve access to a challenging and rigorous curriculum that is culturally competent and going to make them feel valuable in a classroom setting. At the end of the day, if people had kids’ best interests first, there wouldn’t be so many red lines. The politics happen because people are thinking of protecting the system instead of elevating kids. Run for the school board. As parents, be more invested. Your voice matters. Don’t think you’re the only person. If you run for a position or even talk to another parent, you’ll realize you are not alone. Collectively, your voice matters and you should be willing to wield that power.

Anna-Stacia Allen on Park Walkway

Education is currently very much a “have you heard about this latest trend?” It’s like you must be reading all of the right books and listening to all the right scholars and podcasts to have your voice matter. But, honestly, as a parent, you know what is best for your child. As an invested community member, you know what it takes for your community to be successful. In the end, there is no education system without students, families, and communities. If there’s something you want, you deserve it. And you should have it. And you should not be afraid to fight for it. You don’t have to be able to join the Parents Association of Greater St. Louis in order for your voice to matter. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that you could just start your own system to get things done. Be willing to be the change you want to see in terms of education and advocate for yourself and for your family.

Closeup Taken by Humans of St. Louis

When I took this job, nobody said to me, “We want to make it so that kids with special education needs can have good classroom teachers.” Now, I understand there are so many things parents need to advocate for for their children: special needs, second language, gifted and talented students. Did you know if you miss the gifted and talented test by one point, that makes you ineligible for magnet schools? You could be 97% smart enough, but since you’re not 98% smart enough, you get to go to a school that doesn’t offer calculus, even though you need to take calculus to be challenged in school. Having my eyes open to those little nuances in the system, that even a lot of parents don’t think about until they’re forced into that position, it changed a lot for me — even the direction I envisioned for this organization.

There’s no reason St. Louis City high schools, outside of magnet choice high schools, don’t offer calculus. So as a parent, how do you pressure your school board or administration to make sure that even if that class isn’t at these choice schools, their kids have access to an advanced curriculum? How do you work with community colleges or some of the HBCUs in the area to ensure your kid can go to an advanced math class with post-secondary options and get dual credit, because that’s the thing they do for affluent kids. You could go to WashU or SLU and get dual credit for math and science classes. So if you can’t get into this school, how do you make sure you’re still in a setting that’s right for you academically? Our goal is to start putting this type of information into parents’ hands.

There are groups known as the Preschool Posse of Parents who decide that they are going to make sure their kids stay together throughout the early years of their education and have the best access. They’ll make sure they’re all working together to keep their kids in a certain school building and certain grade level to get certain field trips and experiences from preschool up to high school. They’re sharing information among their networks and you have to wonder, “How did these three kids end up staying together their whole lives?” Well, it’s because their parents coordinated with each other on resources and the hookup to get them into the places they wanted them to be.

Anna-Stacia Allen pictured in front of pond

I actually know a teacher who started her own business and is podding to educate a select group of kids. She left the classroom because her district told her she could not provide tutoring to her students outside of the curriculum and classroom time. So she started this business to pod for wealthy families. She makes the families sponsor a scholarship for a minority or a low-income student to be able to join the pod. And this is very innovative because she’s getting to design her own curriculum, she’s working with kids from lots of different grade levels, and she’s making like $50 per student per hour. It’s like, ‘Okay, girl. I see you. Yes!’ But also when you think of it, who has $50 per kid per day per hour? So you have a maximum of 10 kids for seven hours a day. That’s $350 per kid, $3,500 a day, and whatever that is per week. Who can afford that? Ultimately, the kids whose families can afford it can pay for this private education in this public setting and they can have all these additional resources. And then you have other kids struggling to even get on the internet to get their basic lessons.

Pond Closeup by Humans of St. Louis

When I think in terms of the pandemic and in terms of podding, there’s this really good opportunity for all parents to be able to take advantage of individualized, personalized, small group-level learning, which is what you would have seen in like Little House on the Prairie except with technology. A lesson we may be learning now is that maybe the classroom isn’t the best atmosphere for kids to learn anymore. Maybe kids do need to move more like whales in small pods, but in a school setting where you can take all of these different kids and incorporate learning in different ways. I wish schools would adopt and adapt more because, right now, the pandemic is increasing that equity gap.

Anna-Stacia Allen Looking into Camera

I have another sister who lives in Ohio, and for the first three weeks of the pandemic, she was too embarrassed to call me and tell me she didn’t know how to work her son’s Chromebook. So when my dad told me my nephew hadn’t been to school for the first three weeks, I asked my sister why and she told me it was because she couldn’t work the Chromebook. So I worked it for her and my nephew got to school. I’m sitting here running a whole education-based nonprofit. Meanwhile, I have a nephew who missed almost his first semester of 2nd grade because his mother couldn’t turn on a computer. I also know of a kid whose parents are paying $350 a day for him to work with a one-on-one tutor and he’s not even seeing his teacher over Zoom. There’s this real-life equity gap, too. If schools had just paid teachers a little bit more to be able to do small neighborhood-based settings with their kids, how many poor kids wouldn’t be left behind? How many poor kids would have access to a caring adult to make sure they were learning and kept out of abusive situations? If somebody had just thought early on in the pandemic that there might be a safer way to do things, then those kids would have gotten access and individualized care a lot sooner.

Navigate STL Schools Water Bottle

What’s the role of Navigate STL Navigators in providing social support and guidance to families?

The Navigator is essentially meant to be your education therapist. They’re the people who are going to listen to the things you want in your school and then help you make sense of the data. They’re going to answer the questions you have when you don’t understand why the student-teacher ratio is important in a learning environment, what an academic growth score means, or what it means if a school has an English as a Second Language component. They’re going to help you understand how those things relate to your values. They’ll provide you with resources to take advantage of the choices you’ve made. So if you don’t have an email address set up, if you’re not quite sure how to request a tour, if you don’t understand how to fully fill out an application, or if you need to be connected to financial aid or school uniforms, these are the people who are going to help you as a family and as a community to figure out resources and how to access them.

At the end of the day, it’s still all your choice. Their job is to help you be able to take advantage of your choices. They’re not going to make the decision for you, like, “Based on the info you shared, these are the top three schools that came up and this is the best school for you.” No. “Let’s talk about the impacts that some options could have on your kid and on your family structure. This is how you can make sure the two schools you like the most are going to be the best fit for your kids. This is how you set up a tour. This is a list of questions you can ask the principal. This is how you should formulate an email.” Then they’re going to check in on you after they’ve given you all these tools to make sure things went well. If it did or if it didn’t, “Let’s schedule a follow up to make sure we’re still getting the most out of it. And if you need help or want to recommend a friend, we’ll to be there to help, too.”

Navigate STL Schools Mask

The only thing parents need to understand is that your kid isn’t broken. Your kid is not broken because they don’t fit into the system. Your kid is not broken because they don’t learn like other kids learn or they need additional help. A lot of what prevents parents from even wanting to ask these questions — or say they’re not in the best environment or that their school system isn’t working — is because they think it’s going to mean something is wrong with their kid, their child is going to be put on an IEP, or going to be reprimanded for being different. If we can build an education system that doesn’t penalize kids for not fitting the status quo, then that’s the first step. The individual quirk of your kid, the individual thing that your kid needs, is valuable. It does make them special and you can advocate for that. If you know that, then you know you can start finding resources to help you with that. There are experts who’ve studied these things their whole lives and know all the important words. And if you know you can get connected to those things, somebody else can help you. There’s no shame in having a kid who’s different or who needs more or less attention. If we can get parents to understand that first step, then we can connect you to all the other resources to help you fight. You don’t have to take on the system by yourself. You just have to know you matter enough and then somebody can help you along that process.

Humans of St Louis photo credit

What difference would it have made to you or your family if you had something like Navigate STL Schools when you were growing up?

Honestly, I think I might have a Ph.D. by now. If somebody had had this conversation with me before I felt like a failure because I was no longer the “A” student, it would have impacted my youth quite differently. Somebody would have taught me how to study. Somebody would have challenged me academically. And when I got to college, that challenge wouldn’t have been so scary or have shaken my identity. I would have gotten out of my head a lot earlier that being smart was this thing that made me better than everybody else and started to think a lot earlier about how I can effect change. 

I tell people this story often — I didn’t know I was a woman until the second semester I was in college. Like, I have been Black my entire life. I knew what it meant to be Black. I am Black. Yes, Black Power. I was going to be a Black Panther. I was gung-ho for Black people. And then this mentor of mine came along and she said, “Cool, Staci. But you’re also a woman.” I was like, “Wait? I am. I am being oppressed as a woman, too. Like, there aren’t readily available feminine sanitary products and I am actively being sexually harassed and, if I have a baby, am I going to have maternity leave? And I’m pushing all of that to the side because I have chosen to just live Black. But there are all of these other things that affect my identity, too.”

Had somebody given me that same awakening about being a smart Black girl early on in life, that would have changed the entire way I grew up and how I viewed myself. Nobody talks about that. Nobody talks about what happens to gifted kids who are flung out of their regular classrooms and communities and put into these other environments and told that they’re special. They’re not given all of this access to upper echelon things and then put back into their community realizing that, “Hey, something is different.” But not having a name for it or not having a word for it or not knowing what to do, they have to live in two different worlds.

Anna-Stacia Allen with Navigate Water Bottle

Navigate STL Schools is 100% free to everybody regardless of income level. The school finder tool will always be free. The navigator assistance will always be free. Our goal is to make sure everything remains 100% free, regardless of socioeconomic level, regardless of how difficult of a case your family might be in, regardless of how many kids you have. This service is available for you. Call us and somebody will help you.

Masked Anna-Stacia Allen in Park

Somebody does this large study and tells the community there is a problem. But the community that has been studied is like, “Well, that’s just how things are. It’s not really our problem.” They don’t see it. Then you have an organization like Navigate STL Schools which comes in and, one by one, we’re talking to parents, saying, “No, this is your problem. Just because this is how things have always been doesn’t mean this is how they have to be.” Now we’re empowering those parents to feel like this thing that studied them is actually worth championing for them. We’re turning these parents into advocates. Forward Through Ferguson’s “Still Separate, Still Unequal” is pushing from the top by saying, “Larger systemic issues have been created.” Navigate STL School is empowering parents to push from the bottom and demand the change they want to see. Until people start demanding change, you don’t really see a lot of change happening as fast. We’re in a great position to help parents become advocates — questioning their school boards and becoming inspired to run for school boards. It’s about them starting to see themselves as the people who can make change instead of having to wait to be saved by organizations and policies.

Humans of St Louis Photo

I point to people like the Navigators we hired who were doing this work before we got here — who would do this work even if we weren’t here and who would say they’re going to try to make a change. They were using whatever time, money, and resources they could gather to do it on their own. And they were partnering with people knowing they weren’t the only ones in this situation. It was scary when we first started this organization because we asked ourselves, “How are we going to find people who understand what our mission is?” Now that we found them and they want to work with us, it helps me understand that even more people need this resource. Once we’re able to connect with them, they’ll be able to take advantage of it. There are people doing this work looking to be connected to other partners so they can do this work on a larger scale. Those are the stories that make me know this is possible.

Smiling Close-Up

When I got in this position, I had to start writing grant applications to funders and I got a lot of pushback because I wanted advocacy to be a key pillar of the work Navigate STL Schools does. I was told by someone that, “Navigate STL Schools can’t be impartial if they’re going to be an advocate.” I kept telling them, “I don’t want to be an advocate. It is not my job to be an advocate. But it is my job to help parents advocate for their families.” I realized that on a systems level, when you start dealing with people with money and large-scale education issues, people think of advocates as this ginormous interrupting third-party that’s going to come in and push change. And when I think of advocacy, I think of me — one person being able to speak up for myself and other people. That is the level of advocacy that we are on. It’s about how one person can spark a flame. One person can be the uprising. One person can be the change. And it doesn’t have to affect a million people. If one person steps up and is the change for their family, then we have made a difference. Now they know how to use their voice and can wield that power. I don’t know if Navigate STL Schools is going to start a bonfire that’s going to burn down education. But I do know that it’s going to spark a fire that’s going to change it for every family we interact with. And if those people get together and want to burn down systems together, then we’ll figure out a way to support them. And if they just want to do it for themselves, then that’s good, too.

Joyful Picture by Humans of St. Louis

The more people I talk to, the more energized I get. But, also, the thing that carries me is that I was the kid who needed somebody to advocate for me. The kid who didn’t have a voice, who didn’t know the words, who didn’t know exactly what she needed, but knew she needed something more. And I hated the feeling of being powerless. I hated the feeling of not knowing how to tell my parents I wanted to be in Horizons every day and needing a way to say that so they could pay attention to it and understand. And when I got in a position to take control, I graduated early. I went to college. I left. I did all the things I needed to do. I don’t want kids to be trapped and voiceless in an education system they don’t love and start to hate and resent it. 

In a very selfish way, I’m fighting for my inner child. I’m fighting for my future children. I’m fighting for all of the kids. Education should not be for academics only or be seen as this bougie, upper-class, not culturally competent thing. Learning is SO fun! I say that in the most nerdy way, but it really is. And I want other people to be excited about that. Whether that’s how primary colors are mixed or how a carburetor works or something as simple as putting songs together and being able to understand how that can affect somebody’s mood and behavior. All of those things are education. Everything we do in our day-to-day life is education. The sooner we turn the world into a learning experience, the better the world will be socially, economically, all of it. When we start to think of everything as an opportunity to learn, that can have an impact on everyone.

– Anna-Stacia Allen, Executive Director, Navigate STL Schools