Updated at 3:50 p.m.: JEFFERSON CITY – The Jennings School District’s steady improvement in recent years was rewarded Tuesday when the state board of education granted it full accreditation. But requests for upgrades by the St. Louis Public Schools and Riverview Gardens were put on hold.
The state board of education paid special attention to the Riverview Gardens request to move from unaccredited to provisionally accredited, because the change would affect the ability of students who live in the north St. Louis County district to transfer elsewhere.
In recognition of Riverview Gardens’ improvement – its annual performance score has moved to 79.3 percent from 28.6 percent in just two years – the state board said it would take another look at the district’s status at the end of the current school year. Normally, such reviews take place annually in December.
The board asked the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to come up with a procedure for the expedited review for discussion at its meeting in January. The effort could be adapted for use with other improving districts, including Normandy, which is the only other unaccredited district in Missouri.
The board took no action on a request by the St. Louis Public Schools, whose annual performance report also showed dramatic improvement, to move up from provisional to full accreditation.
Jennings Superintendent Tiffany Anderson was in the audience at the meeting and received applause for her district’s improvement. She said in an interview after the meeting that the new designation means a lot to a community where 100 percent of the students live in poverty.
“What we're showing is that poverty doesn't make a difference,” she said. “Your ZIP code should not determine what kind of education you get, and we're showing that it doesn't have to.”
Asked how other districts with similar demographics could achieve the same goal, Anderson said it’s important to use all the resources you can find. She cited the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as well as local universities and others organizations as being partners in Jennings’ improvement.
“Any district that's looking to improve, you have to know you can't do it alone," Anderson said. "You have to rely on the collective energy around you, within your community, to make it happen.”
Also in the audience was Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon, who said after the meeting he was encouraged by comments from state board members.
“I'm going to go back and continue doing what we've been doing for the last two years,” he said. “It's proven to be very successful, and we're going to continue to work with the state board of education and the department's leadership to continue to work toward accreditation.”
One of the big issues involved in any decision to upgrade Riverview Gardens’ accreditation is what happens to students who have taken advantage of the transfer law since it was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court in 2013, right before Spurgeon became superintendent.
In the state board’s discussion of the Riverview Gardens request, many members of the board said the students’ future should be determined before any decision on a change in accreditation is made. But it wasn’t clear how that determination could be made.
“We need to look at this much earlier,” said Vic Lenz of south St. Louis County, vice president of the board. “Districts deserve to know as soon as possible. The real critical piece is the kids. They need to know where they are. We can’t be moving them back and forth. Let’s spend as much time as we need so we can sit down and really hammer through it.”
Board President Charlie Shields, a longtime member of the legislature, said he wasn’t sure that DESE could change policy on its own, especially given the reluctance of some accredited districts to accept transfer students unless ordered to do so by the courts.
“In the end,” he said in an interview after the meeting, “you've got this very interesting situation that affects real students with real parents, and we have to figure out a resolution to that. We'll look at the board level to see if there's something we can do, if we can create encouragement to allow the receiving districts to continue to take those students. But without that, it may require some action by the General Assembly.”
For the past two years, lawmakers have passed bills that created a so-called transfer fix, but each was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon. Legislative leaders have expressed little appetite for trying a third time, but board member Mike Jones of St. Louis said that given the uncertainty for kids who transferred and those who stayed, plus the financial strain on Riverview Gardens and Normandy, someone has to take the lead.
“The thing in the room that nobody’s talking about is the extraordinary unintended consequences of the transfer law and the legislature’s failure to fix it,” he said.
“I think we deferred to the legislature last year in the hope they would come up with a solution that worked. What they came up with was worse than what we’ve got.”
A number of parents whose children have transferred out of Riverview Gardens wrote letters to the state board asking it to leave the district unaccredited so their students can continue in their new schools.
Patrice Bryant said her daughter Micah has found great success in her new school in Mehlville.
“She is treated the same as any other child in the Mehlville district,” the letter said. “She is getting to experience new things in classes like in physics she is able to prove the theories she learns in the book through labs. At Riverview, she had only taken part in basic science classes.
“I believe every child should be able to have a school environment like Micah has right now. Please do not reaccredit Riverview Gardens School District. They have not proven that it [sic] can educate children!”
Parent Robert Colyer, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said that even if Riverview Gardens’ total score has risen, its basic academics still are below par. He has sent his twin sons to Parkway West high school, where he said they are thriving.
“When I see the excitement and enthusiasm in their hearts and eyes, that makes me feel good as a parent knowing that I made the right decision to transfer them," he wrote. "I have read how other schools have had to show consistency in growth in those required ranges. I feel Riverview should have to do the same.”
Asked how he would respond to parents with such concerns, Spurgeon said:
“I would invite them in to have a conversation, to take a look at who Riverview Gardens is now, versus what they may have known Riverview Gardens to be three years ago.”
More help for poor districts
The accreditation debate by the board often veered into a more general discussion of what Missouri can do for districts that are struggling. Members agreed that the state’s policy of early, strong intervention is the best path, but they also said DESE needs more money to carry out that plan.
Joe Driskill of Jefferson City put it this way:
“We, unfortunately, have got to the point where we almost are just a traffic cop. We give a thumbs up or a thumbs down, where I think the state should provide resources to provide a helping hand for some of these districts that seem to be continuing to have difficulty.”
Jones said that kind of assistance can help districts achieve the consistent, sustained improvement that the latest school evaluation program calls for. He said many of the districts in poorer areas suffer from what he called the “bigotry of low expectations.”
“A lot of these urban districts of color have gotten into trouble academically,” he said, “because we use a dual standard. We allow things to get bad, and we never intervene.
“We still have very separate and unequal education, no matter what geography a kid happens to be educated in.”
New Normandy board member
The state board also approved adding Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge to the Joint Executive Governing Board that oversees the Normandy Schools Collaborative. She is an executive with Express Scripts and a graduate of Normandy High School.
“She brings a wealth of experience,” education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said of Westbrooks-Hodge.
“The most exciting part about recommending her is that her heart is in the right place. She is taking the job for all the right reasons.”
Westbrooks-Hodge replaces Andrea Terhune, the former Normandy board president who resigned earlier this year.