Editor's note: Embed America is a partnership between CNN Radio and CNN iReport. This series tells the story of the 2012 U.S. presidential election through the people most critical to the campaigns: the voters. CNN Radio is traveling across the country to interview iReporters on election issues close to their hearts. These issues were named important by iReporters during phase 1 of the iReport Debate.
East St. Louis, Illinois (CNN) -- In a letter sent to the East St. Louis school board in April, the Illinois superintendent of education said the board was engaged in acts of corruption.
Specifically, the letter alleges, board members tried to hire unqualified family members to administrative positions. The letter also alleges that board members stonewalled reforms, disobeyed state rules, mishandled important personnel issues and hired a lawyer who has never counseled the board, at a cost of $6,000 per month.
State Superintendent Christopher Koch has ordered the state to take over the district.
But in an interview with CNN, school board member and former East St. Louis Mayor Carl Officer says it is the state that's corrupt. He denies the charges of widespread cronyism and blames poor performance at the schools on greedy politicians and "poor parenting."
Officer is suing the state to keep local control of the board.
Caught in the middle are the approximately 7,000 students attending schools in the district.
East St. Louis is an impoverished, blighted and economically depressed area. There are many abandoned lots and partially burned houses. Violent crime in the city is more than 15 times higher than the rest of nation, according to police statistics. The unemployment rate was 13.9% in May 2012, more than five percentage points higher than the national average. U.S. Census figures show 41% of the 27,000 residents live below the poverty line.
Louis Jones grew up in East St. Louis. The 17-year-old brought the school district's problems to our attention through his video submission. Jones, who says he was "lucky" because he went to a private school, lived next to an East St. Louis middle school. Although Jones didn't attend public school, he says his friends that did often complained about poor teachers, a lack of school support, and shoddy classroom conditions.
"It was extremely horrible," Jones says. "The teachers didn't really care. They were basically there to have a job, and they didn't really care for the kids. Like, they didn't learn anything. They came out with basically nothing. Nobody ever took books, nobody ever took a backpack, nobody, like ... it was almost like it wasn't even a school, it was just like a day care center."
According to the most recent U.S. Census statistics, more than 25% of youth in East St. Louis did not graduate high school. Only 11% of students met or exceeded exceeded proficiency standards in math and reading in 2011.
East St. Louis High School student Danasia McDonald says some of her teachers will show movies during class time. McDonald recalls a time that her teacher insulted the entire class.
"We (were) working on something, and (the teacher) was moving too slow," McDonald recalls. When they tried to tell the teacher that they were retreading old ground, the teacher, according to McDonald, said: "Well, we dumb the lesson down for you all so you all can get it. You act like y'all can't comprehend."
For over a month, CNN Radio contacted several East St. Louis schools for comment, including East St. Louis High School, but those calls were not returned. Schools in the district had closed for summer recess when CNN Radio made the phone calls.
"You got to realize that kids are coming from homes that are distraught ... divorces, job losses (and) family problems," says Brenda Mitchell, an elementary school teacher who works for the adjacent Cahokia School District. Mitchell says many of her students will attend middle and high school in East St. Louis.
"It's just not (the lack of) money for our district, but there's, you know, a lot of challenges we in education have to face, and we have to pick them up from where they are and take them on forward," Mitchell says.
Officer says the problems in the district are no different than those in other blighted and economically depressed areas.
"Quite frankly, what happens here is probably not any different than what's happening in Harlem or Cleveland or Appalachia," Officer says. "There's no difference between a fifth-grade student in West Virginia and a fifth-grade student in Louisiana or California. It really starts with the basic premises of having a moral commitment by parents. I don't care how good the teachers are or how much money you have inside of the school district. Unless a parent wants to see their child succeed, you're fighting an uphill battle."
Several studies, including one from the child welfare foundation America's Promise Alliance, show a high dropout rate in the nation's 50 largest cities. In those cities, only 53% of high school students graduate within four years. That rate drops further in urban schools in economically depressed areas; Indianapolis, Cleveland, Baltimore and Los Angeles all have low graduation rates. For example, in Cleveland, only 34% students graduated in 2009 from inner city high schools, according to the America's Promise Alliance study.
CNN iReporter and East St. Louis native, Louis Jones, says the federal government has to do more to improve public education, especially in blighted areas.
Jones says he wants to see President Barack Obama and the GOP challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, make a top policy priority the improvement of public education, especially in inner cities.
Jones also says he would like to see inner city students given more of a voice in their education.
"I feel like students should have the right to evaluate their class and their teacher," Jones says. "I feel like teacher evaluations by the student, and looking at their academic record, I'm pretty sure you can tell a good teacher from a bad teacher."
CNN's Gavin Godfrey and Jonathan Binder contributed to this report.