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So bad it can only get better?

Here, in one of America's worst school districts, this is what children could expect this fall: Classes led by janitors or other students; an hour wasted in a gym every day because a math class had no teacher; kindergarten classes with 50 children.

Substandard schools were tolerated here for years. But this fall the system completely broke down, leading the state of Illinois to take financial control of it on Oct. 20, as it had of City Hall several years ago. And if the takeover of the East St. Louis School District promised some relief, it also raised a question: Will the solution go much beyond a return to the merely substandard?

Routine failure in this impoverished district has been accepted almost as a matter of course. These are schools, after all, where Gloria Dismuke, who teaches a class of fifth- and sixth-graders, had to pause when asked to recount any success stories.

She thinks of one girl who became her high school valedictorian and went on to a state college in Illinois. "We don't see too many of the boys, after they leave. But I know of one who finished high school and is working in two fast-food restaurants."

Whether the state can raise expectations is an open question. In assuming financial oversight of the schools here, the Illinois Board of Education approved a plan that would allow the district to rehire 41 teachers released a year ago in the midst of a financial crisis. It also clears the way for state oversight of a district long known for inadequate resources, financial mismanagement and nepotism and cronyism.

"What's happened this year hasn't been a disaster, or at least it's been a wonderful disaster," said Irl Solomon, who has taught for 30 years in the district. "It's finally making people take notice of what's happening here."

But for now, the takeover means no more money to fix broken furnaces, replace the missing sinks in the fetid bathrooms, repair the worn-out buildings, or upgrade the lunch programs.

And in the long term, some skeptics say, dealing with this year's crisis does not guarantee that any of the district's chronic problems will be solved.

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