One common goal: to educate our children

With a table full of school transfer plans, state officials wrangle with fixing accreditation problems

There’s at least one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to finding a solution for the student transfer pickle facing Missouri’s unaccredited school districts and potentially all of the state’s schools.

“We all have a common goal: to educate our children,” said Sen. Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis, at a January meeting of the Senate Education Committee.

“At the core of it all … the children need to be educated,” said Rep. Clem Smith, who represents most of the Normandy school district, which is at the center of the transfer problem and could go bankrupt by the end of the school year if the Legislature doesn’t step in.

“Everybody in this room has the same thing in mind, and that’s to provide the best education to our students in the state of Missouri,” said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, as he presented a bill to the education committee.

And at public hearings across the state, parents and teachers had the same thing to say.

“We need to make sure our public schools are funded well to provide a quality education for all children of Missouri,” said Normandy school board member Terry Artis at a meeting in St. Louis.

“We have everything we need … but we need to stop shaming,” trauma expert Beth Sarver said at another meeting in Kansas City.

But when it comes to the larger question of how to make schools the best they can be and the more immediate challenge of getting Normandy through the rest of the school year, a long list of ideas and underlying tensions face lawmakers, state education officials, and the parents, teachers and students who will be impacted most by any changes.

Ever since the state Supreme Court ruled a provision in a 1993 law that allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to schools in neighboring districts was constitutional, state officials and lawmakers have called the status quo unsustainable and kicked in to high gear to develop solutions.

More than 2,000 students transferred out of Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts in St. Louis County, moving to schools in Ferguson-Florissant and other neighboring districts at the beginning of the year. Since the law requires the unaccredited district to pay the transportation and tuition costs of the transfers, the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts have fallen into a financial death spiral, just as they are most in need of resources.

While the number of transfers is expected to be lower next school year, Normandy officials say they can’t make it to the end of the year without the $5 million supplemental budget included in Gov. Jay Nixon’s budget. Superintendent Ty McNichols, who began the job last summer, told the Senate Appropriations Committee that, without the money, seniors might not have a “prom and graduation this year.”

“The $5 million … it’s not to pay for teachers, it’s to pay for programs after school, so our kids have somewhere to go, so they’re not in the streets. It’s to give our kids after school clubs to participate in things like chess, so they can build on their skills — that’s what we’re talking about,” McNichols said at a hearing Monday.

But the $5 million is a stopgap measure to keep Normandy from going bankrupt. Riverview Gardens and Kansas City Public Schools, which are both unaccredited, and a handful of provisionally accredited districts across the state could soon find themselves in a similar position if education officials and the General Assembly do not act.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sought the input of organizations around the state and country, analyzed a handful of plans and listened to input from the public at communities in St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield and Sikeston. The state school board plans to discuss the different plans at a work session Monday and give the department guidance to develop a draft plan to present at the Feb. 18 board meeting.

The department’s goal, Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said, was to develop a plan to support and “if necessary intervene” in underperforming districts. She also hopes the department’s plan will lay down markers as lawmakers go about developing their own solutions.

Meanwhile, the state Senate has made the issue a legislative priority this session and devoted significant time in the education committee. They’ve already heard eight bills and expect at least one more this week. Pearce said he hopes to have a consensus bill from the committee for floor debate before the legislative spring break in late March.

Sen. Walsh and a bipartisan group of four other St. Louis-area senators presented their “starting point” legislation at a January hearing. The plan accredits individual schools within unaccredited districts, allowing students to transfer within their district and provides more opportunities for districts to sponsor charter schools in unaccredited districts.

“(The bill is) by no means a finished product, but we thought it was important to as best we can speak with one voice as a St. Louis delegation,” said Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale.

More than a dozen bills have already been filed in the Legislature that address the transfers, and DESE and the state school board are considering a slew of other proposals from education groups and school districts as well as public input.

Ideas under consideration run the gambit: accrediting all individual schools in the state, accrediting all schools in just the unaccredited districts, allowing students to transfer within their current district, creating a statewide “achievement district” that would oversee underperforming schools, establishing more charter schools for transfers, among many others.

Some of the changes DESE will implement itself, but others will require legislative action, and it remains unclear how the politics will shake out. While the Senate has made the issue a high priority, House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, indicated at the beginning of the session he was not all that concerned with the transfers. Hang-ups over charter schools, capping tuition costs, how to plug funding shortfalls and allowing districts receiving transfers to set standards for class size and student-to-teacher ratios could derail any legislative fix.

Finishing the year

Raquan Smith, a senior at Normandy High School, was in the eighth grade when the Wellston school district lapsed and was forced to merge with Normandy. He had to transfer schools then, and said that was the one transfer he wanted to make.

“I felt like I already came from one home to another — I made Normandy my home, my second home — and to be told you can go somewhere else, it doesn’t mean anything to me. I feel like I’ve made Normandy my home, so I shouldn’t have to leave again to go to another one.”

Smith testified in favor of Normandy’s supplemental budget at the Senate appropriations hearing, and he told the senators the specter of closure hung over the school and its students.

“You’re doing something and something is holding you back from performing at full potential,” he said. “Dealing with SAT, ACT, trying to get college ready, having this weighing on our shoulders is hard on the seniors. To not know whether you’re gonna have a graduation or a prom kind of takes away your motivation or your ambition to even do anything.”

At the same hearing, McNichols urged the lawmakers to approve the bailout, and said the district was beginning to turn the corner toward more engaged teaching and learning and addressing the child’s entire condition.

“Our kids come with a lot of abilities, but they don’t have a lot of experiences in which to make those abstract connections to,” he said. “Our kids are committed, our kids can learn, they just don’t have a lot of background, and they don’t have a lot of external resources to offset school.”

But some of the senators expressed concern the supplemental money would set a bad precedent. Rep. Sue Allen, R-Town & Country, suggested taking the money out of the formula and not general revenue as a way to show other schools that they are all in the same boat.

“The other concern is the domino effect,” said Sen. Kurt Schaeffer, R-Columbia. “Are we gonna be right back here in three more years with somebody else sitting there in that seat, and it’s their district, and we have the same problem?”

If Normandy failed and its students were moved to neighboring districts such as Jennings or St. Louis City — two provisionally accredited districts — those districts would have a difficult time sustaining the influx of new students and could slide into unaccredited status.

Senate takes the lead, House waits

The bipartisan St. Louis plan accredits all individual schools within unaccredited districts and allows both unaccredited and accredited districts to sponsor charter schools for students in unaccredited districts; it also allows unaccredited districts to extend the length of the school day and school year. Accrediting by school wouldn’t help Normandy, because they have just one middle school and one high school, neither of which would be accredited.

The plan would also require students to take any available space at an accredited school within the district before transferring to a new district and would require all school districts publish a policy that determines its capacity and how many students it could accept through the transfer process, as well as establish a clearinghouse to coordinate student transfers.

Sen. Pearce’s plan establishes a statewide “achievement district” overseen by a three-member board appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. It accredits all individual schools in unaccredited and provisionally accredited districts and transfers all underperforming schools in unaccredited districts and some underperforming schools in provisionally accredited districts to the “achievement district.”

Pearce gives the state district the power to manage schools assigned to it, oversee facilities, develop a community outreach plan to engage local stakeholders and make employment decisions, including requiring all staff to reapply for their job. And like the St. Louis plan, it requires students to take any available space at an accredited school within the district before transferring.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, dominated much of the first two hearings, peppering her fellow senators and witnesses with a bevy of questions and pointing out many flaws in the different bills.

“Are we going to allow individual schools to be looked at very carefully … or are we going to wait until the district falls off a cliff?” she asked of waiting to accredit individual schools until after the district lost accreditation.

On Wednesday, Chappelle-Nadal took to the witness table herself and presented her detailed plan. It accredits all schools across the state and doesn’t allow a district to lose accreditation until 65 percent of the individual schools are unaccredited. It also limits the amount of time a special administrative board can serve to seven years, considers transient students when scoring schools and would not allow students to advance from fifth to sixth or eighth to ninth grade without scoring proficient on state assessments.

Pearce said the goal of the hearings was to “be persistent but give plenty of time for discussion and debate and to digest the different bills.”

He said the goal was to move forward with one bill if possible that could combine features from the various plans and gain the support of the committee. He hoped the full Senate would be able to give the legislation ample debate on the floor before the spring break.

“We don’t want to rush it, but we want to show that it is a top priority this session,” he said.

Appropriators will have the final say, Pearce said, but he thinks the best way to move forward is to grant Normandy the $5 million supplemental budget out of general revenue.

The House is waiting and seeing. At the beginning of the session, Speaker Tim Jones indicated he was not as concerned with the transfers as senators said they were. House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee Chair Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, said his committee was waiting to see how the Senate would address the issue and would take up bills similar to what the Senate was putting together.

DESE and state board set to act

DESE and the state school board have also sprung into action, holding numerous public meetings across the state. They have also solicited input from various education organizations in the state and a private consulting firm that studies the Kansas City district.

The Missouri School Administrators Association, the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association and the Missouri School Boards Association have all kicked in their own plans and guiding principles.

At recent public hearings at Paseo Academy and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, hundreds of parents, students, teachers and other interested residents packed auditoriums, lining the walls of large theaters and gave Missouri officials pieces of their minds. Members of the state board and commissioner Nicastro sat in the front rows and listened.

The speakers expressed deep concern and resentment with how the department has handled the transfer situation and the overall accreditation process, but they also took responsibility for not becoming engaged in the schools’ challenges earlier and showed a sense of optimism about moving forward.

At times, the attacks on Nicastro and the board were emotional and direct.

“Has anyone considered the idea that maybe DESE should be unaccredited? And that maybe the state school board should be replaced by a special administrative board — just a thought I’d like to share with everybody,” Artis said at the UMSL meeting to a loud round of cheers and applause.

Speakers questioned whether the plans would privatize schools or take control away from local boards.

“The state administrators don’t intend to do a damn thing but continue the chaos. They are not educators, they are administrators and politicians,” said Lezell Smith, who taught in the Kansas City district for 35 years. “Highly degreed (officials) often are higher than the level of the problems.”

In Kansas City, they argued they earned provisional accreditation last year and should not be subject to transfers, asking the board to take its time with a decision. “We are asking the state board to take their time to look at the plans and not rush to a decision,” said Anita Russell of the Kansas City NAACP.

A woman from Trauma Matters KC said just by labeling districts and schools as unaccredited or failing, the state is doing significant damage.

“It’s not that we don’t have kids that can’t learn or teachers that can’t teach … the problem is we have trauma … and when we shame people, we’re shutting down the brain,” Beth Sarver said.

At the UMSL meeting, Artis said the district had developed a “reformation” plan and that McNichols was the man to carry it out.

“It’s a more holistic approach to the child, the family, the community, the economic circumstances and all of those things that impact learning,” Artis said.

The easiest and simplest of the solutions discussed at the meeting could be summarized in two words and one letter: universal pre-K.

“There is no such thing as a silver bullet, but if there is, pre-K is it,” said Byron Clemens said, who is the director of an early childhood center in St. Louis.

On Friday, Reps. Clem Smith and Courtney Allen Curtis, who both represent Normandy and its neighbors, spoke about the problem and the way forward.

“DESE and legislators need to be looking at Normandy’s finishing out the end of this school year,” Smith said. “It’s important. I don’t know if there’s ever been a school district to shut down with three, four months left. You’ve got seniors, juniors, making college plans.”

Smith said a lot of the underlying challenges stem from economics and a lack of good jobs. “You also had a shift in attitudes toward education … I don’t think it’s exclusive to Normandy, but you have to be involved in your child’s education or nothing will happen.”

He said he thinks transfers can continue but that there need to be changes in where and how students are able to transfer and the way that DESE goes about scoring schools for accreditation. Smith said he was open to accrediting individual schools and increasing the role of charter schools but not in favor of a statewide district for underperforming schools.

Curtis also said it was important to focus on the urgency of the challenges facing the Normandy district and making sure the solutions in the short-term would have an immediate impact and weren’t “just window dressing.”

“We have to keep trying and keep innovating in how we deal with these problems,” Curtis said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but it can happen over time.

News Tribune reporter Bob Watson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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