Webster Magnet School: Minnesota's early experiment with voluntary desegregation

Students at blackboard
Gretchen Lilyholm with unidentified student in brochure promoting Webster Elementary School in St. Paul in the 1970s.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In the early 1970s, a "back to the cities" movement was spurring interest in revitalizing inner cities and renovating buildings and old homes. Carol and Len Lilyholm were drawn to the faded glory of St. Paul's historic Ramsey Hill neighborhood.

"But if you grew up in St. Paul, you didn't consider that a good area," said Carol Lilyholm. "People were telling me, 'You're going to move there? Have you really thought about that?'"

The Lilyholms waved off the concerns and snapped up a grand brick house one block off Summit Avenue. They had two young daughters and needed to enroll them in school. Webster Elementary, founded in the 1880s, was in tired shape.

"We couldn't find even any enrollment forms," said Carol Lilyholm. "Finally in the corner, we found a stack of enrollment cards covered in dust. The principal came out. He was ready to resign. The campus could hold upwards of 900 students. The population was under 150, so it really was a dying school."

Community organizers knew beautiful old homes wouldn't be enough to draw people back to the city. The neighborhood needed a great school.

FROM DYING SCHOOL TO MAGNET

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In 1974, the Minnesota Department of Education required St. Paul to put together a desegregation plan in two years. The district was 86 percent white. Minority students were concentrated in a few schools. Webster was 75 percent African-American.

Teacher Steve Johnson.
Teacher Steve Johnson at Webster Elementary School in St. Paul in this undated photo from the 1970s.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

There was money to create the city's first magnet school, and voluntarily bus kids in from all over the city to improve the racial balance. Attracting more white kids into the inner city school would satisfy the desegregation plan, and provide Lilyholm's neighborhood with a top-notch school.

Webster Magnet School opened in 1976, as a foreign language and enrichment magnet. The idea worked. Enrollment zoomed to 900, with a waiting list.

"Our goals were so clear then," said Lilyholm. "It was basically just to keep a school alive. It sounds like the question we've come back to. How do you keep a school alive?"

GARRISON KEILLOR PAYS A VISIT

In 1981, the revitalized Webster caught the attention of radio host Garrison Keillor, who brought his A Prairie Home Morning Show to the school for a two-hour broadcast on May 14, 1981.

Listen to the entire interview.

Keillor led his radio audience on an audio tour of Webster, popping into Spanish and French classrooms, interviewing students and even the lunch ladies serving breakfast.

"We're able to do this without cords because this is a wireless microphone, a new invention," Keillor said as he walked down the hall and out the door to where buses were unloading children that morning.

Students at Webster Magnet
Students at Webster Magnet School, which opened in 1976 in St. Paul.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

"The sun is out. What a beautiful day and kids are streaming off two big yellow school buses out in front," said Keillor.

Webster was a snazzy school, complete with an early computer lab. "Computers in school, have you ever heard of such a thing?" Keillor asked his audience, as he bent to interview a boy plucking keys on one of the whirring machines.

The two-hour show captured a multicultural beehive of learning and exploration. Keillor gave an off-handed benediction on his way out.

"It's been a wonderful visit. I sure wouldn't mind having my child attend Webster school, not in the slightest."

Keillor didn't end up sending a child to Webster, but he coincidentally did buy Carol and Len Lilyholm's Ramsey Hill house four years later.

TEACHER OF THE YEAR LOOKS BACK

The same year Keillor broadcast from Webster, a new teacher arrived at the school: Rhoda Stroud. In 1991, she was named Minnesota's Teacher of the Year. Stroud was the first African American, and the first teacher from St. Paul to win that honor.

Listen to an interview with Rhoda Stroud after she was named Teacher of the Year in 1991.

Stroud retired from Webster in 2002, but she agreed to come to the Minnesota History Center to explore Webster's archives and share her recollections of the integrated magnet.

Stroud unearthed old school directories and scanned her class list from her first year of teaching 6th grade. There were 20 kids in her homeroom back then. Their home addresses show they came from all over the city.

"We not only got smart white kids from all over, we got smart black kids," said Stroud. "We had lots of smart black kids who didn't live in the Webster area who bused in there."

Stroud described her classroom at Webster as a "little United Nations." When they would break into small groups, Stroud insisted they be "multicultural and gender-fair."

Rhoda Stroud
In 1991 Rhoda Stroud was named Minnesota's Teacher of the Year. Stroud was the first African American, and the first teacher from St. Paul to win that honor. She retired in 2002, although she still works as a substitute teacher in the district.
Sasha Aslanian/MPR News

After a while, she said, it became second nature. When they would go on field trips, Stroud's students would notice children from other schools sticking together along racial lines.

"They said, 'Miss Stroud, they're not multicultural, gender-fair!' and I said, 'They have to be taught that. That's the beauty of Webster School," said Stroud.

But it wasn't idealism alone for Stroud, integration money brought resources to the inner city school.

She'd previously taught at Maxfield Elementary in St. Paul, where all her students were black. She said she loved the pride and the spirit there, and many of her students went on to do well in life. But the school lacked the investment that Webster received.

"It didn't matter so much about who they were sitting next to, more what kinds of funds were sent into the school, and what kinds of teachers were sent there," said Stroud. "And that really made a big difference."

One of the goals of an integrated school like Webster was that kids of color would get a better education. But Stroud remembers sometimes her black students struggled with an inferiority complex.

"They just didn't think they were smart. They didn't think they were as smart as some of the white kids," said Stroud, who would show them evidence that they were just as smart and could do just as well.

But she also had a tough message. "You know why they do better? They go home and study instead of going up to Oxford to play ball." She laughed when recalling that she was not too popular when she'd show up at the recreation center to send kids home to study.

FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS

For all the positive connections that were happening at Webster during its heyday when Stroud offered insight into how it became the school it is today, with low enrollment and failing test scores.

"We were doing a really good a job for the high-middle and the top," said Stroud. "But for the children who were low-average and below, we didn't concentrate enough on them."

Stroud said the weaker students needed more individual attention and specialists trained in remedial education. The rising tide of enrichment education was not lifting all boats.

Students at the beginning of Webster Magnet
Students wearing hats from Webster Magnet School in an undated photo from the Minnesota Historical Society. Webster Magnet School opened in 1976, as a foreign language and enrichment magnet. The idea worked. Enrollment zoomed to 900, with a waiting list.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Webster began to suffer a double-whammy. The kids at the bottom weren't getting what they needed, and the kids at the top, suddenly had many other options to choose from.

The district wanted to replicate the success of Webster. In the mid-80s, it launched ten other magnet schools, including Adams Spanish Immersion and Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet, which eventually drew the kinds of kids who had previously lined up for Webster.

Funding also needed to reach those magnets. Webster began to scale back on its enrichment programs. It went through a string of administrators. To Stroud, it began to lose its magic.

She retired in 2002, although she still works as a substitute teacher in the district. "This past decade is not the Webster I knew," said Stroud. "I don't even go there to sub. It hurts too much."

To Stroud, Webster gave up on the dream of integration.

fROM WEBSTER TO OBAMA

While the school is not the academic powerhouse it once was, not everyone sees the changes as all bad.

Sallie Sheppheard is a long-time Webster parent and now grandparent. She's raising six grandchildren, and the youngest two are still at Obama Service Learning Elementary. She agrees with Stroud's observation that Webster was failing its struggling students. She says the Obama school today is better dialed in to their needs.

Her first child started at Webster in 1994, in the days when Rhoda Stroud was still there. Sheppheard remembers when her granddaughter, an affectionate little 2nd grader, wanted to hug her teacher in the morning and talk about her day. That didn't fly at the hard-charging Webster.

"The teacher said, 'I'm sorry, we don't have time to hear this," recalled Sheppeard. The teacher pointed to the schedule on the wall showing what the class needed to work on every minute of the day. The teacher suggested if the girl wanted to talk with someone, she should see the school counselor.

These days, Sheppeard feels Obama Elementary is more sensitive to the social, emotional and academic needs of the whole child. The challenge now is to help these students with academic success.

Sheppeard believes one-on-one tutoring offers the best hope for kids who are working below grade-level because she says there's only so much a teacher can give.

No Child Left Behind requires that schools in the fourth year of not making Adequate Yearly Progress offer free tutoring services to students most at risk. Sheppeard says that tutoring helped her youngest granddaughter catch up in math.

"When my granddaughter was in third grade she was maybe doing first grade math. When she was done with the tutoring, she far excelled, to the point that she started passing her MCA tests," said Sheppeard. "She was rattling those multiplication tables off like she didn't have think about it."

Sheppeard thinks Principal Adrain Pendelton's plan to redesign the school as Obama Prep this fall will work, if parents get behind it and support her.

Sheppeard isn't sure Obama Prep needs to settle on an Afro-centric curriculum. She's a little worried already that having the school named after Obama contributes to the perception that it's a school just for black children.

When the school community voted to rename itself Michelle and Barack Obama Service Learning Elementary in 2009, some bloggers mocked the early tribute to the new president.

But Sheppeard says taking the name Obama energized the students. "It's almost like it established some new-found pride within them," said Sheppeard. "Having a man of color who's representing the nation...now you know you can be anybody you want to be."

President Obama hasn't yet visited the school named after him on Holly Avenue, but Principal Pendelton is holding out hope that he will.

She tells the students, "When we move this school [forward] and you show what you know, he's going to want to come and see you."

She's hoping President Obama might be able to come in October, in time for the dedication of Obama Prep's new library.