In East St. Louis, Reading, Writing, and No Teachers

TENNILLE REDD, a student at East St. Louis Senior High School, wants to learn French. But her new teacher can barely get past ``bonjour.''

When Tennille and the 14,000 other students in the East St. Louis, Ill., schools showed up this fall, they found empty teacher desks in French and many other courses. Eventually, a retired drafting teacher was enlisted to teach the class - but he didn't speak any French.

Though schools in this beleaguered city across the Mississippi River from St. Louis are notorious for crumbling buildings and shortages of supplies, this year's teacher crisis underscores why the district has become a case study in the problems facing schools in urban America.

The situation has become bad enough that the Illinois Board of Education last week took financial control of the district. That puts East St. Louis in rare and unenviable company.

A handful of states have passed laws allowing the state Board of Education to take control in cases of serious academic deficiencies or financial misman-agement. But few have done so.

In the last five years, New Jersey education officials have taken over the operation of the Jersey City and Paterson school systems. State officials are also in the process of taking over the Newark, N.J., school district, although local officials are resisting.

California's Board of Education has taken financial control of school districts in Compton and Richmond.

``The states are responsible for public education, and they delegate it to local school districts so there is an implicit ability to retract it and reclaim the responsibility,'' says Edward Kealy, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. ``But in practice ... local control of the schools is usually respected.''

In Illinois, a three-member financial oversight panel is expected to be named within a week to deal with the system here. The East St. Louis school board will still be responsible for running the district's day-to-day operations. But the state will control all budget decisions affecting the district, down to how many teachers can be hired and what books can be purchased.

Many students and parents in East St. Louis greeted the state financial takeover enthusiastically. ``The state should have stepped in a long time ago,'' says Kim Green, a student at East St. Louis Senior High. ``I don't know why they waited so long.''

Many students blame the local school board for mismanaging funds. ``This city has a long history of corrupt politicians - people getting paid off to do this and do that,'' says Tennille, an outspoken honors student. ``The money always seems to disappear until somebody's on their back asking where it all went.''

Last month, a group of East St. Louis students walked out of classes, joining their parents in a protest outside the school district's headquarters.

``All the games that they've played with the money are hitting the kids in the face now,'' says Sharnell Parker, the father of three children in the system here. Mr. Parker, who graduated from East St. Louis schools himself 10 years ago, says: ``Things were going downhill when I was there.''

Most of the problems in the school district - except for the teacher shortage - have been going on for years. In 1988, the state began requiring local school officials to file annual financial plans. Last year, the state Board of Education ordered the district to reduce its $10-million deficit. That led to a layoff of 208 employees, including 114 teachers. Another 120 teachers retired under the state's incentive program.

An unexpectedly high enrollment this year exacerbated the teacher shortage. One school opened this fall with only three teachers for 225 students. Some elementary schools have more than 50 kindergartners jammed into one class.

At East St. Louis Senior High, Principal Walter Hood tries to keep his 1,200 students on schedule despite the politics playing out around them. He roams the halls with a bullhorn, clearing students out when the tardy bell rings.

In Room 148, history teacher Irl Solomon leads a class discussion on the qualifications for becoming president. ``I've been hooked by the kids,'' says the long-time teacher, explaining why he turned down a lucrative early retirement offer last year. ``There's a desperate need for good teaching in this district.''

The indignities of attending East St. Louis schools show up everywhere, senior Sabrina Smith says. ``Our bathrooms are unspeakable. Half of them don't even have tissue. We have no running hot water - hardly any running water at all. There's no heat, and a lot of the windows are broken.''

Dedra Brock agrees that the local and state officials must not care about students. ``But,'' she says, ``we really can't put so much blame on them because if the parents would really get involved and do more things - like start a PTA - the school board would have to do something.''

Students have mixed feelings about the publicity the district is receiving. ``I'm happy that people are hearing about the conditions that we have to put up with,'' Tennille says. ``But it's sad that everybody in the United States knows how bad our city is and how deprived the children are.''

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