Dianitia Butler has been in the Normandy School District her entire life.
The senior at Normandy High School is quick to tell you that it’s been a rough year, and she’s especially frustrated by staff reductions brought on by expenses associated with school transfer.
Despite the challenges, she’ll also tell you that school spirit is alive and well.
“It’s definitely students coming together as one,” Butler said, who is also the student representative for the school board. “Seeing that we’re all in this together.”
That sense of optimism was echoed by Superintendent Tyrone McNichols, who laid out a sweeping plan to improve academic achievement in the district, which is seeking to earn back its state accreditation.
Inside a packed Normandy High School Gymnasium and in front of state education officials, McNichols said a partnership with the University of Missouri St. Louis is helping to ramp up literacy instruction and experts from Washington University are assisting with science education. Community partnerships ties are being strengthened, especially through the 24:1 initiative, which pulls together leaders from all the municipalities within the district’s boarders.
At the same time, there are serious challenges.
McNichols noted the high poverty rate in the district, second only in the state to the other unaccredited in Missouri, Riverview Gardens.
“We’re acknowledging that those issues exist,” McNichols said. “We’re using that as means to saying, ‘we have to do things differently.’”
While he said poverty can’t be used as an excuse for low academic achievement, at one point during his presentation, McNichols turned to the crowd and said: “We can’t do this by ourselves.”
The crowd erupted with applause.
The financial toll of school transfers was also a big part of McNichols presentation.
Tuition and transportation bills are expected to total between $13 and $15 million, he said, forcing layoffs of more than 100 staff and the closing of Bel Nor Elementary School.
There was frustration, too.
Signs in the crowd read “Save our teachers” and “Where is our help from the state?"
McNichols said the financial strain makes the climb back to state accreditation that much steeper.
“We can’t be sending $13 to $15 million out and be expected to do more with less,” McNichosl said. “We just need time. So, when it comes down to time and resources to put those systems in place, that’s what we’re asking for.”
While she applauded the enthusiasm and optimism of the Normandy administration, Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said she would have like to have seen more specifics.
“Certainly our folks have seen evidence of some of those details actually being put in place,” Nicastro said. “It may not have been presented tonight, but we do know that they have been taking some specific strides and we’ll continue to help them to do that.”
McNichols said additional details will be “forthcoming.”
Nicastro said should Normandy not be able to pay the tuition and transportation bill for sending students to accredited districts, the state will have to step in to cover the costs. Earlier this year, the state board of education submitted a $6.8 million supplemental budget request to the legislature. The earliest it could be considered is when the new legislative session opens up in January.
Normandy and state officials will hold a second public hearing next month. A similar meeting for the second unaccredited district in St. Louis County, Riverview Gardens, is scheduled for Wednesday next week.
Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd