Even though they’ve been talking all semester, high school junior Meagan Nalepa and senior Shakiyla Hughes have finally sat at the same lunch table.
Nalepa goes to Parkway North High School, Hughes attends Normandy High School, and both have been participating in a series of video conferences on education policy between students from the two schools. For the first time, they met face to face at Normandy High School on Tuesday.
The online conversations covered topics including the school transfer law, state accreditation process and school culture. Hughes and Nalepa said students are getting to know each other as people, rather than statistics or through news stories, and that helps breakdown stereotypes.
“It kind of got me realizing that just because we go to different schools and just because Normandy is unaccredited, doesn’t make the students any different because they’re just like us,” Nalepa said.
For her part, Hughes said it was a chance to show off the real Normandy students and that perception doesn't always mirror reality.
“Opposed to what they see on the news, we’re just like any other high school student,” Hughes said. “You know, we have our obstacles and our challenges as a district. It was a learning experience for the Parkway students and us, as well.”
Ed Wright, a consultant with the group EducationPlus, organized and moderated the discussions. At first, he said students brought their preconceived notions to the table. Those impressions eased over the course of the semester.
“It was mentioned, ‘aren’t there a lot of fights at the school and this and that?’” Wright recalled. “And the Normandy kids spoke right up and said, ‘we’re going to Carnegie Hall.' And eventually it led to, ‘we want you all to come see us, to see our school.’ ”
A total of 40 Parkway students took part in the online dialogue. Normandy spokesperson, Daphne Dorsey, supervised the roughly 15 Normandy students who participated in the series of discussions.
“Each side was asked to come up with a top 10 list of things about their school that no one really knew about,” Dorsey said. “On the Parkway side, one of the top 10 things was, ‘we’re not all rich.’ ”
Scott Moeller teaches government at Parkway North High School and said the dialogue between students will ultimately help them connect how policy decisions relate to the lives of regular citizens.
“Through the process, through the conversation and video conferences, it caused us to pause and reflect about what we thought we knew about student experiences on the other side,” Moeller said.
Bottom line, said Normandy Superintendent Tyrone McNichols, the students' experiences reiterate that ultimately kids are kids.
“I think kids will walk out of here believing and seeing that students are students are students, no matter where they go to school and where they live,” McNichols said. “The amenities might look different, the physical structure might look different, but learning is learning.”
Meanwhile, the costs of student transfers have taken a heavy toll on Normandy and its financial outlook remains uncertain. In April, the legislature approved sending the district an extra $2 million which will keep it afloat through June.
At the same time, a state-appointed task force is busy drawing up recommendations for the district’s future.
After Tuesday, the fiscally troubled district has some new supporters.
“I’m really sad the school might not make it next year,” said Parkway North Junior Alex Fenlon. “I’m really hoping it does.”
From student discussions to policy talks
The state-appointed task force charged with coming up with recommendations for the future of Normandy schools will hold its final meeting next week before submitting its work to state education officials.
The panel has talked about a wide range of issues from school climate to parental involvement to wraparound services to make sure kids are healthy. Still, Carole Basile, who heads the task force, says the focus has to be on learning in the classroom.
“We’ve got to make sure that the instruction that is happening in these classrooms is the best instruction we can give them,” Basile said Tuesday, “and that we are making sure that every single teacher is using high-leverage practices that we know are available and that work and we collect the data to make sure that those benchmarks are being addressed.”
Basile, who is the dean of the school of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said money and the governance structure have to be taken into account as well.
“We don’t know where the district will be financially or fiscally,” she said after Tuesday’s task force meeting. “So we’ve got to make good decisions and make some recommendations that we hope the district an follow through on.”
She said she looks for better things to be happening in the future for Normandy than have happened in the recent past.
“We need to improve the school district,” Basile said. “This community needs good schools. We need kids to learn. We need to make sure that every single kid has an opportunity for success.”
The guiding principles set out for the group include:
- Access to high-quality pre-kindergarten
- Autonomy for schools and educators to reach shared performance goals
- Accountability to make sure those goals are met
- High expectations
- Better information for parents and the community so they can become more involved
At Tuesday’s session, task force members spent a lot of time discussing priorities. While some said that the wraparound services are vital to make sure kids come to school healthy and fed and ready to learn, Gary Cunningham, a Normandy graduate who is a former head of the Missouri state school board, wanted to make sure that student achievement is the top priority.
“The goal is to better prepare children for life,” he said. “College, career, whatever.”
The state lawmakers are talking, too
While the task force continues its work, lawmakers could limit what they recommend. An amendment introduced last week to the school transfer bill moving through the Missouri legislature would bar the state from breaking Normandy up or merging it with another school district.
The provision, introduced by Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, says a district reformation plan would have to be used by Normandy, but the state board would decide whether the district would be run by the current elected school board, a special administrative board or a newly elected board.
The legislation is now in the hands of a conference committee; it would have to be approved before the lawmakers adjourn May 16.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the uncertainty about the district’s future, two assistant superintendents are leaving the Normandy district. Philip Boyd, assistant superintendent for support resources, was recruited by the Jennings School District, and Trish Adkins, assistant superintendent for administrative services, is going to the Waynesville School District in mid-Missouri.
The task force met in closed session for nearly two hours Tuesday despite an objection from St. Louis Public Radio that it did not have the authority to do so under Missouri’s Open Meetings Law.
The panel cited a portion of the law that allows for private discussion of individually identifiable personnel records. Basile said they were discussing specific individuals who might be good to lead Normandy in the future.
But the panel has no power to hire or fire personnel. Its charge from the state board calls for it to submit “recommendations for identifying and appointing educators to teach in and lead the schools,” not for recommendations of individuals.
Asked how the process has gone, Basile said she was pleased with how the panel has worked together.
“This is a fabulous group of people,” she said. “These are very smart people who not only care about the schools, they care about kids. They are about what happens in this community. This has been a good process because we have good people sitting at the table.”