In a couple of years my father, Dr. Ronald Stodghill, is planning to retire after 16 years as superintendent of Wellston Public Schools, a small, predominantly black district of 725 students just west of St. Louis. It is the poorest city in St. Louis County, a place where unemployment reaches 60%, and 90% of the district's students live without their father. At the elementary school last April hung a picture of a 9-year-old killed when a bullet punctured the front door of her home. The middle-school administrator estimates that two-thirds of her students were exposed to drugs in the womb.
For years my father subscribed to the philosophy espoused by many of America's politicians and school administrators: cash trumps culture. When he took over in 1984, he believed that with the help of a new and committed board, a few bright teachers and modern technology, he could rescue Wellston's school district, which had lost its state accreditation nearly two decades earlier. To that end, he spent lots of time lobbying state legislators and private foundations for money, which he plowed directly into his staff and into developing programs to extend the district's embrace of its children, such as after-school tutorials and weekend study at the neighboring University of Missouri-St. Louis.