BETSY TAYLOR

The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) - The president of the nation's largest teachers union began an eight-city tour with a stop in St. Louis and a visit from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, is visiting the cities across the country to gather information on innovative educational ideas and programs. She went to schools in St. Louis Thursday to learn about the district's approaches to alternative education, school-based community services and teacher mentoring. Later on Thursday, she was to talk with Duncan.

"This tour is about shining a light at the beginning of the school year, shining a light on good things going on in schools and what we need to do," Weingarten said.

Educators who are busy helping children fulfill their talents don't always stop to see what has been successful elsewhere, she said.

The St. Louis schools, like many other urban districts, have long faced academic struggles, declining enrollment and financial problems, such as its more than $50 million deficit for fiscal year 2009-10.

The school district's leadership has also had its troubles. While several educators have praised the efforts of schools' superintendent Kelvin Adams since he was hired last year, he is the district's eighth superintendent since 2003. The failing district needed state intervention in 2007, and a special three-member school board was appointed. An elected school board remains vocal, but isn't able to make decisions for the district.

Weingarten said she believes the district is beginning "a renaissance."

This year, the district launched 13 "full-service" schools each intended to serve as a community hub. The idea is that students, their families and the public can get support inside a school building on issues like child rearing, employment and housing.

In some cases, medical and mental health services are being provided by outside agencies and universities and businesses are helping with tutoring and job training.

The union said the tour gives cities a chance to share ideas. The union is trying to "stop the blame game" and encourage cities, schools and their communities to share responsibilities for education, Weingarten said.

Other cities on the tour are Houston, Baltimore, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, the Buffalo, N.Y. suburb of Kenmore, Boston and Philadelphia.

On the 'Net: www.aft.org/tour