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Under Pollie Richardson's guidance, almost 3,000 students have benefited from South County Opportunity for the Purpose of Education alternative education program. Char Mason photo

Richardson serves as the driving force behind south county alternative school


It was way past 5 p.m. when we finally got to sit down with Pollie Richardson, a woman who had been described to us as "the force and soul'' behind a south county alternative education program.

Although reluctant to blow her own horn, once Pollie Richardson started talking about South County Opportunity for the Purpose of Education — SCOPE — it was easy to see that without her, this program might never have gotten off the ground.

It also was easy to see that with her it will continue to make a significant impact on the lives of young people in south county, their families and the community in general.

We found Richardson running from meeting to meeting in the SCOPE building at Grasso Plaza. SCOPE began in 1996 as an alternative school cooperative involving several area school districts and was designed to reclaim young men and women whose education is interrupted by suspension or who are not meeting success in their current educational school setting.

SCOPE, which has been expanded to serve young people up to the age of 21, offers guidance in working through problems and tapping into the resources that make people successful without the peer pressure of a large school setting. The center Richard has designed is friendly and immaculate and filled with posters that offer reminders like, "Don't make excuses, make improvement,'' and "YOU are responsible for your actions.''

In 1998, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education identified the SCOPE program as a "model alternative program" for other school districts to emulate. Today 498 students in grades six through 12 attend classes at SCOPE.

One student remarked, "I feel safe for the first time. I don't have to prove anything to anyone here. I can just do my work.''

Participating school districts include Affton, Bayless, Hancock, Mehlville and Webster Groves. The program is funded by a Safe Schools grant and assistance from the partner districts. It provides not only academic skills, but behavioral and societal skills and includes a component that requires the involvement of family members of every student.

Several local businesses support the program through donations of supplies, food for monthly family meetings and jobs for participants.

What makes a woman with five of her own children take on an ambitious project like SCOPE which requires jam-packed schedules, long hours and tough problems to solve? Perhaps it is because she is first and foremost, a mother.

As a young woman. she dropped out of school to get married. After starting her family she realized that she needed to know more and she could go further if she went back to school, so she did, earning a four-year degree from Harris Stowe. Richardson seems to be someone who just can't walk by a problem and not do anything about it.

"When I taught grade school,'' she said, "I learned that there were always going to be those kids who, every time you ask a question, they have the answer. Their faces light up and their hands go up.

"Those kids are going to make it no matter what. Usually they sit right up front and they pay a lot of attention. but those kids who sit in the back do it for a reason,'' she sighed. "They don't want to be seen and they have nothing to say. They figure that if they don't make themselves known, you'll just leave them alone. They don't know the answers and sometimes they don't even know what you're talking about. Those are the kids I wanted to reach.''

Richardson found herself drawn to those students, unable to just let them fall through the cracks. She wanted to know what was wrong and what it would take to reach them.

After a few years of teaching she went on to complete her master's degree in social work at the University of Missouri and took a job at the Epworth Center. When the newly conceived SCOPE position became available, she was honored and eager to accept the position.

"The hardest part was finding the location,'' she remembers. "We were dealing with five different schools in five locations and they all wanted it to be close to their students. I was thrilled the day we found this place. I invited all the administrators to come and look at it and they all agreed. That was a relief.''

Then Richardson set about renovating the facility to meet the needs of the program, furnishing it and finding a staff. All of that she did and has done consistently for almost six years.

During that time almost 3,000 students have benefited from the program. Not all of those students have scored rousing successes, but significant numbers have shown great improvement and found direction in their lives.

Part of that success is due to Richardson's "upfront'' attitude.

When the center first opened, the young men and women "hanging around'' Grasso Plaza and wandering through the neighborhood alarmed some neighbors. Richardson directly confronted their fears by taking a walk of her own.

In a five-mile trek she went door to door, visiting neighbors and businesses and inviting them to come and see what was going on at SCOPE. They came and learned about SCOPE. Now, many of them are supporters of the program who keep a different kind of eye on participants, contributing to the cause.

Dr. Fradi Spilberg of the St. Louis County Family Mental Health program, who provides psychological evaluations for the center, said, "Pollie, as well as her wonderful and caring staff, have managed to make good use of the space in Affton. It is a place where kids feel safe.''

At a holiday party for the students and their families she saw "a caring community of teachers, parents and students held together by Pollie. Pollie is a mother, grandmother and a dynamo of a woman who has made our community a better place to live in because she works nonstop to help students that others have given up on. And, she succeeds at it.''

Those sentiments were echoed by Gay Tompkins, superintendent of the Affton School District, which participates in all aspects of the program.

"Pollie Richardson is an exceptional person who saves children,'' Tompkins said. "She reaches out and connects with kids and helps them succeed. Pollie works with an at-risk population, but finds ways to help them and their families. She is there from early in the morning until late at night and is truly the glue and the soul that holds that program together. I could go on and on about her and the program.''

When it came time to leave, Richardson was heading home to administer a little SCOPE philosophy to her own teen-age son, an Affton School District student.

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