Annual report cards close up: How troubled schools are managing to improve | St. Louis Public Radio

Annual report cards close up: How troubled schools are managing to improve

Oct 23, 2015

For three of the St. Louis area's low-performing school districts, this year's Annual Performance Review showed marked improvement. But the success has not been even across the board.

While St. Louis Public Schools' score takes it out of the provisionally accredited zone and Riverview Gardens' improvements could be the first step toward regaining its accredited status, Normandy School District is still below the margin. The key to these districts' successes isn't universal.

Riverview Gardens: Perseverance and focus

In Riverview Gardens, Spurgeon knows that because his district has shown solid improvement, continuing on the upswing will be that much more difficult, because a part of the state’s report card is based on growth.

“Every year,” he said, “we have to re-earn every single one of those points. So while this is such a tremendous celebration, we also know that we have to continue to stay even more strategic and more disciplined to the vision and to the focus to ensure our kids receive the best education possible.”

He said the success of the past year is all the more remarkable because of the turmoil surrounding the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, whose death occurred within the Riverview Gardens boundaries.

Superintendent Scott Spurgeon in class with some Riverview Gardens students.
Credit Kimberly Ney | Riverview Gardens School District

“I think character is revealed not in times that are going well,” Spurgeon said, “but in times that are in crisis or in stress. Through the Michael Brown incident last year, I believe our district revealed its character. We persevered. We stayed focused. We stayed disciplined. It really gives you a sense of who's teaching your children each day. They showed up every day and got through it, regardless of what they say on the news or what may have happened on the streets or the protests or all the other things.

“That list goes on and on and on. But the bottom line is that we have an organization that believes in the mission, and that mission is all about children. So we knew that coming to school every day, making sure stay we stayed focused, was absolutely what we're all about, and that's exactly what we did.”

Another factor in determining whether the district will be able to maintain its momentum is the upcoming change in state assessments. Spurgeon said those changes are beyond his control, so Riverview Gardens will continue doing what it has been doing.

“Education is a ship that doesn't turn easily,” he said. “For us, the changing of the test is what it is, so it's our job to ensure that we have the most up to date, accurate information based on the standards and how that' s going to be changing, so that our classroom teachers can make those subtle adjustments in the classroom.

“But the bottom line is that quality instruction is quality instruction, regardless of the assessment that they take.”

St. Louis Public Schools: A marathon, not a sprint

At St. Louis Public Schools, where the report card score has risen from 24.6 in 2013 to 76.1 this year, Superintendent Kelvin Adams said the difference is in the data.

“We look at data probably like nobody else on a regular basis,” he said. “And we feel comfortable that looking at that data helps us make the right decisions to support kids. Parents and student and teachers, especially, employees, need to be proud of the work that they've done. They've been challenged a great deal about not being competent and all of those kinds of things, and I think the results say that, yes, great things, good things can happen here if you are willing to work hard and look at the right data points

“We don't wait a long period of time when things are not working out. We're willing to take the risk and make the change, whether it's in the classroom, the schools or even the central office. So I think that speaks to the notion of looking at data, and data driving the decisions, not personal beliefs.”

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams
Credit St. Louis Public Schools

But, Adams cautioned, no one should interpret the improved numbers for this year as being the certain start for a long-term trend.

“This is a one-year piece of data,” he said. “We want to warn everybody that this is a marathon, not a sprint. So, we still have a lot of work to get done.”

Still, he said, this year’s results are a sign that his seven years at the helm of the city schools are yielding the kinds of results he has been seeking since he was hired.

“This didn't happen overnight,” Adams said. “The district has not been accredited since the year 2000, so you've had 15 years of the district being in an unaccredited or provisionally accredited status. For the first time, the district has enough points based on a system that's been in place, to be considered fully accredited, if we are able to clean up the data points that we've talked about and get a report Monday that says ... I think that's a real celebration piece.” 

And, he added, at least part of the success can be attributed to a new spirit of cooperation among area school superintendents.

“I think we all believe that we’re in the same boat,” Adams said, “So we have to work together to get good results. I came here seven years ago, and that wasn't necessarily the tone. Not that people were not reaching out and wanting to be helpful. I think what you have now is a group of persons who understand urban education a little bit better because they've been in those places a long period of time, and they really believe that kids can learn.

“And they are pushing the envelope, whether it's Tiffany Anderson (in Jennings), who takes no prisoners, or Charles Pearson (in Normandy) or Scott Spurgeon. You have people in these districts who are working really, really hard and are committed and talking to each other, and are willing to share information, to talk about best practices to support kids.”

With district enrollment shrinking, the financial support that follows each student in the city has been declining as well. Adams hopes that the solid evidence of improvement will mean a turnaround in the minds of parents.

“We feel comfortable enough that the resources that were in place last year will continue to be in place this year to support what happens with kids,” he said. “I think next year is a different story. But we are working really, really hard to make sure that we can recapture some students who may have left, and the fact that the data shows improvement, we're hopeful that parents will look at that and make some other choices.”

Normandy: Validation despite changes

The Normandy Schools Collaborative, in its first year as a district revamped by the state, still had the lowest reprot card score in Missouri. But given the fact that both the superintendent and the head of the appointed board left during the year, their replacements said the score validated the district’s efforts to improve.

Superintendent Charles Pearson said he thought the new emphasis on reading and close attention to data had paid off. Richard Ryffel, president of the board, added:

“I was especially pleased and proud of Charles and the staff and the teachers and, of course, the students who are actually responsible for generating the scores. It was good all around.”

Ryffel said the mid-year changes made by Pearson were successful both qualitatively and quantitatively.

“The feel of the district is different with Charles there,” he said. “There’s a real strong sense of ‘We can get this done.’ There’s a sense of confidence that’s pervasive in everything that we do.

“Culture never moves quickly, but you can definitely tell when you meet people at all levels that we’ve begun to move the culture form one of compliance to one of coherence.”

Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson addresses a public hearing.
Credit Wiley Price | St. Louis American

Now, Ryffel added, the issue becomes whether the district will be able to survive financially, given the drain on its budget from payment of tuition and transportation for students who transfer elsewhere. Pearson said the number of transfers is down from those who signed up to leave at the start of the year, but the specter of bankruptcy still remains, and people wonder if Normandy will be around for the long haul.

“Our fate financially lies largely with the legislature and the other districts,” Ryffel said. “While we’re glad they offer our children an educational alternative, we certainly wish more of them would do so at a reduced tuition rate, to allow those that remain to have a viable neighborhood educational option.

“I suspect that even if people were highly confident that ultimately we’re going to regain accreditation, they might be concerned that the clock might run out on us financially. So we may not reap the full benefits of our execution success because of that interplay with the financial matter.”

Are upgrades coming?

So will the upswings in local districts’ scores mean that they will be going to Jefferson City to plead their case before the state board of education for full accreditation?

Adams said if that effort is made on behalf of the city schools, he won’t be the one making it. But he did send a letter this week to education commissioner Margie Vandeven, asking the state to reconsider the district's accreditation status.

“I personally will not be going to the state board to make a request to them in any kind of open forum. The real question will be has the district earned a status change. That's really the question. And other persons have to make those decisions. Those are not mine to make. I obviously have an opinion, but that's somebody else's decision to make.”

Like Adams, Spurgeon can’t say whether the state board will upgrade his district’s accreditation status based on this year’s performance. However, he said his district is appealing to the state for consideration of upgrading its status to either provisionally  or fully accredited.

“I'm hoping that the scores stand by themselves and that they tell the story,” Spurgeon said. “I would never want to put our district and the state in the position of being adversaries, because they have been a close ally to us and have been with us step by step right along the way.”

And in Jennings — where the scores have been risen from  65.7 percent two years ago, to 78.2 percent last year, to 81.1 percent this year — superintendent Tiffany Anderson said she hopes her district’s record of sustained improvement merits full accreditation, but she’s prepared either way.

“We do believe that our history of growth, in addition to scoring above the fully accreditation benchmark now for two years in a row, and adding growth every year since I've been here, is a demonstration of significant progress and achievement that would warrant full consideration for being fully accredited,” she said.

“If they choose to make that change, we will be excited. If the state does not make that change, we accept that as well and will continue to work for continuous improvement.”

You can read more about the 2015 school report cards and look up the scores of individual districts by reading the story, Report card time: Struggling school districts sow improvement