Lynn Beckwith remembers very well what happened on May 20, 2010, and how it set into motion a scramble to get the Riverview Gardens schools ready for the coming year.
That was the day Beckwith was named to head the three-member special administrative board that is running the unaccredited north St. Louis County school district.
Exactly four years later, on May 20 of this year, the state board of education voted to replace the Normandy school district with a new entity, the Normandy Schools Collaborative, to be run by another state-appointed panel, this one called a joint executive governing board.
The size and the makeup of the new board weren't set and are expected to be made public until later this month, when the state board meets again on June 16-17. To Beckwith, that makes a compressed calendar all the more difficult.
“We have said to the state board of education that you don’t appoint a new board a month and a half before you want them to take over and expect them to be able to do what they need to do,” Beckwith said in an interview. “So what happened to us in Riverview Gardens has happened again.
“In my judgment, boards like this should be appointed much earlier than a month and a half or less than a month before the school year will end and another school year will start.”
How well have appointed boards performed?
Though the Normandy board won’t be precisely like the special administrative boards now in place for the Riverview Gardens and St. Louis school systems — and the one put in place in Wellston before that district was dissolved and attached to Normandy — it has the same basic premise: It removes power from an elected board and gives it to one chosen by and accountable to the state.
The performance of those districts under appointed boards hasn’t always gone according to plan. Wellston is no more. The St. Louis Public Schools have shown progress in their finances and governance, but even though they have moved from unaccredited to provisionally accredited, their first score under the state’s new evaluation system was low enough to bounce them back into unaccredited territory if it persists.
As far as Riverview Gardens, Beckwith acknowledged that progress in terms of academic achievement has been slower than he had hoped for. He expects improvement, if not this year than the next, but he wants to see a greater sense of urgency among the staff, and he cautions against expecting too much too soon in Normandy after many years of subpar performance.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. “Neither was it destroyed in a day.”
How will Normandy's new organization function?
The new structure for Normandy recommended by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and approved by the state board last month was based on a recommendation by the Normandy transition task force named by the board earlier.
DESE is still working on details of the plan, including how many people will be on the new board, whether it will include any members of the elected board that it will replace and what the initial accreditation status will be when the Normandy Schools Collaborative becomes effective on July 1.
That last point will be key to whether students living in Normandy who have transferred to nearby accredited districts under current state law will still be eligible to do so. If the collaborative starts off as unaccredited, the transfers will still be possible.
With transfers still available, the district could face the same kind of financial pressures that drove it to the brink this past school year, with the costs of tuition and transportation for about 1,000 transferring students draining the Normandy budget.
But if the state board determines any other status for the new Normandy, the transfers are likely to be in jeopardy.
Margie Vandeven, deputy education commissioner of learning services for the state, said establishment of the board and determination of Normandy’s new accreditation status are two of three key decisions that have to be made before the state board meets in Jefferson City in a couple of weeks. The third is figuring out who will be working at the newly configured district, because all contracts – from that of Superintendent Ty McNichols on down – will no longer be valid as of June 30.
Such a tight schedule is difficult, Vandeven said, but the timing of events this spring made it necessary.
“People have to make the best decisions they can make,” she said. “People who are committed to making things happen in Normandy will be working with us to make sure that happens. But contracts will lapse effective June 30. We certainly understand the urgency. We will need good teachers. We will need good administrators in the Normandy Schools Collaborative.”
What impact does the student transfer bill have on Normandy?
Some who attended the board’s meeting in Columbia in May wondered why the decision about Normandy wasn’t put off until this month, to see what Gov. Jay Nixon planned to do about the broad-based student transfer bill that passed in the final week of the legislative session.
Nixon has since said he will veto the bill, citing a provision to allow students to transfer to non-sectarian private schools using public money for tuition. But Vandeven emphasized that waiting even longer to make changes in Normandy would have squeezed the process too much. In addition, she said, everything that was done was authorized not by the newly passed bill but by authority granted to state education officials by a law approved last year.
As far as why the state waited as long as it did to make changes in Normandy, Ron Lankford, deputy commissioner of financial and administrative services, said that “some of the decisions that we might have been making much earlier we could not make and should not have made.”
And why try a whole new type of structure, instead of doing the same thing with Normandy that was done with Wellston back in 2010?
“The simplest thing for the state board to have done,” Lankford said, “would be just to dissolve the school district and attach it to another school district. We’re not certain that would be the most stable idea….
“We need fresh ideas. We need a fresh set of plans with this new governing board.”
How is Normandy's new structure different from the SABs in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens?
Though Normandy will have a state-appointed board, it will quite different from the special administrative board in one respect: It will be supervised directly by the state.
“This model holds everyone much more accountable, including the state department,” Vandeven said. “In the past, we have been a little more hesitant to be prescriptive or to talk about the things that need to be done. We’ve even heard from some of the past special administrative board that they would have liked for the department to have been more engaged in some of the work that they were doing.
“So this would provide for the department and the local board to work together collaboratively, with the ultimate authority resting with the state board of education.”
Because of the resources and leadership the new structure will have, Don Senti, head of EducationPlus and a former superintendent for the Clayton and Parkway schools, said he hopes there will be more sharing among districts that could help Normandy succeed.
“I’m hopeful this will be different from what SABs have done in the past,” Senti said.
What changes will Normandy make to improve academic achievement?
One of the big challenges that the transition task force discussed at length was providing so-called wraparound services – everything from nutrition to health care to housing – to make sure students come to school free from problems that keep them from learning.
Vandeven said those services can be crucial, but an elected board in charge of underperforming schools can get too easily enmeshed in such problems. A new board can bring a fresh outlook, she said.
“One of the things that you’ll see in a struggling school district,” she said, “is that they’re inundated with all sorts of approaches to improve and all sorts of wraparound services and all sorts of opportunities. The big thing is to bring a group together that knows the community’s needs, that understands the community’s needs and can really direct the appropriate resources that can affect the problems in that district.
“What we’ll be looking for is a clear focus, a clean start to what’s happening, recognizing what those needs are and being very prescriptive.”
Added Lankford: “A new board can bring ideas that are different and make a difference.”
On the academic side, Vandeven said, the state will be working with the new board to keep a detailed track of how learning is progressing.
“We’ve learned that waiting too long for a classification determination is waiting too long,” she said. “We’ve got to have interim benchmarks. The task force committee recommended that we measure every eight weeks.
“Our regional school improvement team will be meeting with them monthly, so we can really be able to measure what’s happening, look at the performance much more closely throughout the school year, not waiting until the very end. If adjustments need to be made, we can be nimble enough to make those assessments midyear.”
Will Normandy ever have an elected board again?
Vandeven and Lankford acknowledged that the coming school year will be a transitional one, as the new structure takes hold and new personnel get their bearings.
Ideally, she said, the joint executive governing board will end up bringing the district up to a place where a special administrative board, with less oversight from the state, can take over. If that board succeeds in making further progress, Normandy could once again be governed by an elected board.
“For the actual transition back to the SAB,” Vandeven said, “we would need to see that they were making some sustainable change, over two to three years. Then, once the SAB is in place, and the district has established provisional classification for at least two years, the law actually explains the transition back to local control.”
So can an appointed board travel the road back to local control? With his experience of 31 years in the St. Louis Public Schools, as a superintendent of the University City schools and as a professor of urban education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Beckwith brought a wealth of knowledge to his post as head of the Riverview Gardens SAB.
What can a special administrative board do? Where does it have less power to bring change?
“They have an advantage,” Beckwith said. “They are not an elected board. They are appointed boards. It makes a difference in the political landscape. You don’t have to be reminded of who supported you.
“It has allowed us in Riverview Gardens at least to take the politics out of decision making and simply make the best decisions in favor of the district and the children that we serve…. I’ve been told that in Riverview Gardens, there’s far less politics at the board level and in the district since the SAB took over as opposed to the elected board.”
In the St. Louis Public Schools, the three members are appointed not by the state board but by the governor, the mayor and the president of the Board of Aldermen. President Rick Sullivan, who was appointed by the governor, agrees that not being elected helps fix the focus where it belongs.
“They were very respectful in letting us do the job in the way we thought it needed to be done,” Sullivan said of the three officials who appointed members of the city's SAB. “I don’t believe all of the three of us have gotten direction or have been told what we were supposed to do. But we were asked to go and do the best job we could for the sake of the kids.”
He said those kids are learning better, and there is a dramatically improved environment in the classroom, even though the district’s achievement numbers aren’t yet where they should be.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there has been academic progress,” Sullivan said. “But we still have got so much more improvement to make.”
He said that he and his two colleagues have also changed the climate at the top of the district.
“While we might disagree on a matter,” he said, “we wouldn’t be disagreeable in the way we discussed it. So I think that all three member of our board have always been professional.
“We all have different backgrounds, different experiences, and I think we’ve made that different experience serve a purpose.”
With a three-person board, changing the culture can be less of a struggle because it is easier to come to consensus, Beckwith added.
“Sure, the instructional process still has to take place,” he said, “but I believe students are a product of nature and nurturing. Nature happens in the family, before they come to school, but to the degree we can nurture and instruct and let the governing board allow you to do that, I think they can make an impact.”
One area where Beckwith wishes the Riverview Gardens had had more impact, he said, is getting across to everyone involved how important it is to change quickly.
“The most disappointing thing is the slowness of improving academic achievement,” he said.
“What I found at the beginning was a lack of urgency on the part of the teaching staff, that we don’t have years and years to do this. We really have to have a great sense of urgency to turn this thing around.”
So what advice does he have for whoever is named to the Normandy governing board? “They’re getting the chance that few districts have to start all over again,” Beckwith said. “Make the most of that effort, and let the focus be on the children….
“It’s a steep hill to climb, but it can be done.”
And if it doesn’t get done in Normandy in a reasonable period of time? That’s a prospect that Vandeven doesn’t want to be forced to consider.
“If this doesn’t work,” she said, “the last option is to dissolve the district, and we heard very loudly that this cannot happen with the Normandy school district. There is no option. This has to work.”