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Shuttered schools offer teacher-housing solution

St. Louis Public Schools converted shuttered school into about 40 teacher apartments
From classrooms to condos— The Wilkinson School in St. Louis, which closed eight years ago, will be renovated into apartments for teachers. Aside from offering low-cost housing, it will provide teachers with a collaborative atmosphere.
From classrooms to condos— The Wilkinson School in St. Louis, which closed eight years ago, will be renovated into apartments for teachers. Aside from offering low-cost housing, it will provide teachers with a collaborative atmosphere.

Bigger paychecks offered by wealthier suburban districts sometimes lure teachers away from St. Louis Public Schools.

But a promising solution to a teacher-housing problem faced by many districts has emerged out of another challenge confronting St Louis: a collection of more than two dozen vacant school buildings on the selling block.

While big city districts like Los Angeles and Philadelphia partner with developers to build new apartment complexes, St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams two years ago asked his team to look into whether any of the shuttered buildings were suitable for teacher housing, says Walker Gaffney, director of real estate for the St. Louis Board of Education.

The district and its contractor started design work in fall 2016 to convert Wilkinson School, which closed in 2008 and was 80 years old, into about 40 one- and two-bedroom apartments. Rents will be 10 percent to 20 percent below market value, Gaffney says.

And along with low-cost housing, district leaders hope to provide teachers with a communal atmosphere of PD. “The idea is to help retain good teachers and attract new ones who are coming out of graduate school,” Gaffney says. “We think we can offer something that’s a great amenity where they can collaborate and live together and share challenges and success.”

The building may have features similar to a college dorm, such as common rooms where teachers could, for example, work on lesson plans together.

The project, which could take about two years, should also benefit the neighborhood by filling a vacant building that could otherwise attract vandalism.

“We’re really excited about getting one of our schools back in use,” Gaffney says. “We have a long way to go but if it’s a success, we have 24 other buildings where this could be replicated.”