Tyrone McNichols
6:00 am
Thu September 19, 2013

New Superintendents Pushing Through Challenges: In Normandy, Tyrone McNichols

Now that the school transfer process is in full swing, we’re taking a look at the new superintendents who are hustling to earn back state accreditation for their school districts.

Both men have only been on the job for a few months, and facing long odds, they’re reaching out the community to help get their schools back on track.

This two part report starts on the first day of school in the parking lot of Normandy High School. 

It feels like a pep-rally as a caravan of school buses rolls past cheering alumni, parents and community members welcoming back students to Normandy High School.

It’s the first day of class after what was a withering summer for the school district in north St. Louis County. 

The school transfer process has left the unaccredited district with about 1,000 fewer students like Makayla Smith.  The bright eyed high school senior fiddles with her keys and cell phone on her way to class.   

“I believe those who left will come back, I don’t think they’re going to stay where they’re at very long,” Smith says.  “Normandy’s like a big family, it’s like a family to each other.”

But with one in four of those family members going to school somewhere else this fall, the district is spending $1.5 million a month to cover their tuition and transportation costs.

Parents and alumni waved signs in the Normandy High School parking lot, welcoming back students.
Parents and alumni waved signs in the Normandy High School parking lot, welcoming back students.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

If the state doesn’t step in, Normandy may be on the edge of running out of money.  Staff reductions, including teachers, could be on the horizon. 

Under the circumstances, earning back the district’s state accreditation would be a sizable challenge for even the most seasoned of administrator.

Tyrone McNichols, a broad shouldered man wearing a three piece suit, walks through the parking lot, watching the scene unfold.  On this balmy August morning, the first time superintendent has been on the job for less than two months.

“Well, I didn’t go into because it was easy, I knew it was going to be a little difficult,” McNichols says.  “It’s about kids for me, so, it’s easy for me to keep hopes up, I focus on what’s best for kids.”

Building Partnerships

“He never waivers in his adamancy that the children of Normandy can be successful," says Chris Krehmeyer, president and CEO of Beyond Housing, a nonprofit that focuses on community development and affordable housing.    "The children of Normandy are unbelievably intelligent and bright.” 

A big chunk of McNichols’ strategy involves reaching out to groups like Beyond Housing. The idea being that a good way to fix what happens in schools is to strengthen the community that surrounds them.

“The Normandy platform has a lot of families that are in need,” McNichols says.  “I’m not just talking about the schools, but people who live within the district, because if families are focused on the basics of life, school’s going to be secondary.”

Because the clock is ticking, unbelievably loudly, we need to move and have success quickly.

More than 90 percent of Normandy students receive free and reduced priced lunch, and the district’s tax base was hammered by the recession.  Under the weight of foreclosures, property values dropped by just over 15 percent between 2011 and 2013.  That decline is second only to Riverview Gardens , the other  unaccredited district in St. Louis County. 

Beyond Housing is spearheading an effort to round up all of the 24 municipalities in the district to focus on strengthening Normandy schools.

Krehmeyer says McNichols has intensified the project’s focus.

“‘What are the key things we’re going to work on? What are the key things we want our partners to do?’” Krehmeyer says.  “Because the clock is ticking, unbelievably loudly, we need to move and have success quickly.”      

Partnerships have also been forged with the University of Missouri St. Louis to bolster literacy instruction and Washington University, which is lending experts to help improve the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum.

Mix Of Optimism, Honesty

Grayling Tobias is Superintendent of the Hazelwood School District, where McNichols worked as a principal and assistant superintendent.

As administrators hustles to patch together a roadmap to earn back Normandy’s state accreditation, Tobias says McNichols will first listen to his staff, and then lead with a mix of optimism and honesty.

Tobias says he’d often find himself in McNichols’ office late in the day, seeking advice.

“He told me the truth, he didn’t sugar coat things,” Tobias says.  “Some things he validated and other things he said, ‘Well, we might want to make some adjustments.’”

Weeks after the start of the school year, McNichols describes the situation in the way Tobias expected he would.  Days earlier the district received a total accreditation score of 11 percent, the lowest in the state. 

First comes the reinforcement, from the robotics to the basketball team, he says there’s plenty of things to like about Normandy.   

“I’m optimistic that in a couple of years people will be talking about Normandy as a lighthouse district, as an exception to the rule to coming back,” McNichols says.   

When I think about resources and time I feel like I'm going uphill pushing a boulder and there's potholes in the middle of that hill.

To support that point, he says discipline incidents are down and about 100 of the students who were signed up to transfer out of the district have returned.  He believes that with some tightening of procedures and community outreach to help improve things like attendance rates, the district will be able to gain much needed points in its effort to earn back state accreditation.

But as the transfer process drains Normandy’s reserve fund, adjustments will need to be made.

“When I think about resources and time I feel like I’m going uphill pushing a boulder and there’s potholes in the middle of that hill,” McNichols says.

On Tuesday,  The State Board of Education approved a $6.8 million budget request for Normandy. The additional funding would come as a supplemental state budget item, and the earliest it could be considered is when the new legislative session opens up in January. 

Meanwhile, McNichols says he may  have to recommend layoffs, which could include teachers, as soon as next month.

Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd