Now that the dramas of the state takeover and the uncertainty of student transfers have mostly passed, the board of the new Normandy Schools Collaborative started working Monday night on their main goal: Raising student achievement.
Missouri's education commissioner Chris Nicastro sat at the board table while some of her assistants presented detailed plans on how to evaluate teaching and learning. The five board members heard the state’s plans for turning the district around.
In their presentation, the process was described this way:
“Starting fresh allows a state, district or other authorizing entity to break the cycle of low achievement by making deep and fundamental changes to the way the school operates.”
For the new Normandy, that means intense, 80-hour training for teachers – once they are all hired – before school begins for students on Aug. 18. For students, it means constant evaluation to make sure they are learning. And, Superintendent Ty McNichols stressed, for the Normandy community, it means a new way of operating to make sure parents and others feel welcome and their opinions are considered valuable.
When he described how parents who were pulling their kids out of the district would come to the district office and complain that they weren’t being heard, that no one would even return their phone calls, some members of the crowded audience murmured their agreement.
Changing that part of the Normandy culture, McNichols said, and becoming more responsive to parents and students is a big part of the job the district has in front of it.
“We’ve got to be dynamic enough to provide for flexibility in our curriculum, to address each of our children," he said. "Normandy is in flux. It’s in flux because demographics are changing constantly. We deal with a lot of dynamics that 97 percent of the districts in the state don’t have.”
State school officials presented a variety of techniques, approaches and benchmarks that will be used in the coming year as the state-appointed board takes over district operations from the elected board that went out of existence at the end of June.
In its place, the state board of education confirmed five members of an appointed board that will run the Normandy Schools Collaborative. Only one of them, Sheila Williams, served on the old, elected board.
Among the strategies enumerated by officials from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education are explicit expectations for student performance; school leaders who are capable and empowered; recruitment and retention of skilled and committed educators who are deployed to the classrooms where they are needed most; and an engaged community.
The improvement plan for the restart of Normandy, said assistant commissioner Sharon Helwig, has to include everything from governance to instruction.
One of the keys, according to assistant commissioner Paul Katnik, is consistent and constant feedback – not only teachers grading students but students giving their opinions of teachers. He called the technique “an ongoing dialogue throughout the school system.”
And, he added, the evaluations have to be more specific and more helpful than simply rating someone satisfactory or unsatisfactory.
“That maybe creates a label for me,” Katnik said, “but it doesn’t help me grow.”
Why does a student go to school?
How difficult the task ahead is came out in questioning from members of the board.
Andrea Terhune, whose background is in information technology, questioned the specifics of the plan. Will Normandy students improve by 80 percent over the next year? By 10 percent?
“What outcomes do you expect? When do you expect them?" she asked the DESE personnel. "I’m not trying to put you on the spot, but I do want to understand.”
Nicastro responded that there will be “significant quantifiable measures” involved.
“We will be able to establish specific benchmarks so we know where a student is, where a teacher is, and how much growth they have made. It will be frequent, and it will be specific,” Nicastro said.
Board member Reginald Dickson asked a far more basic question:
“Why does a student go to school in the first place?”
Katnik responded by saying everything that the department plans is designed to help student become successful. Then, Dickson answered his own question this way: “To me, the reason a student goes to school is to get a job. That’s why they go to school.”
So, he added, there have to be incentives for them to want to do better.
Asked after the meeting what he thought of Dickson’s view of education, McNichols said he thought the real issue was giving students the basics they need to make sure they can find worthwhile employment.
“I think our job as educators,” he said, “is to prepare kids to have choices.”
As far as Terhune’s question about what kind of progress Normandy students will make this year, McNichols said the district is entering “a transition year. That doesn’t mean we don’t expect students to do well in assessments. We expect to see improvement.”
And that improvement, he added, will help fulfill Dickson’s goal of making sure they get good jobs.
“We’re not preparing them to work on assembly lines,” McNichols said. “We’re preparing them to work in the 21st century.”
The board’s next meeting is scheduled for July 16 at 6 p.m.