As problems with student learning persist in the Normandy school district, and lawmakers in Jefferson City appear to oppose a cap on tuition paid for student transfers, the vice president of the Missouri state board of education said the end of the district could be close.
Mike Jones of St. Louis reacted Tuesday to a recent story in the Post-Dispatch detailing the academic woes of honors student Cameron Hensley, a senior who chose to remain in Normandy rather than transfer to an accredited school at the district’s expense.
With no honors classes available, a shortage of textbooks in pre-calculus and classmates who spend part of their time sleeping instead of learning – plus some teachers who don’t seem to care – the atmosphere at Normandy High School brought negative reactions from Gov. Jay Nixon on down.
Even Charles Pearson, who took over as interim superintendent in Normandy after the departure of Ty McNichols in January, joined the chorus, saying in a statement posted on the district website:
“Regardless of how long it has taken for this situation to develop, regardless of the good intentions of some, it is inexcusable that any child should have to endure such a learning environment.”
When Pearson and other Normandy officials appeared before the state board in March, they won praise for the district’s apparent progress.
But Jones added this caveat: “It’s clear that you’ve got a game plan. What you have to do is develop a strategy and stick with it….. The only question is: Can they get it done before they run out of money? That’s what this is about right now.”
In an interview Tuesday, he sounded less than optimistic about the district’s chances for survival. Asked at what point the state should say it has done all it can to help Normandy improve and survive, and it’s time to try a different approach, Jones said:
“I think that’s rapidly reaching that point, if we haven’t reached that point already. I’m not the only person that gets to decide this, but if you ask me, if we’re not there, we’re almost there.”
Jones spoke as members of the Missouri House and Senate received a report from a conference committee on possible changes in the state’s transfer law, which has been a severe drain on Normandy’s finances. Later in the day, the bill won approval in both chambers but it fell short of a veto-proof majority in the House.
Though state education officials had urged that a cap on tuition paid for transfer students be included in the bill, lawmakers had other priorities, including more charter and virtual schools as options for students in unaccredited districts or individual buildings.
In a statement, education commissioner Margie Vandeven had this reaction: “We appreciate the dedication of legislators in pursuing quality education opportunities for all kids. We remain concerned about the absence of a tuition cap, limited virtual school accountability and potential unintended consequences of specified interventions.”
Explanations, not excuses
In a joint interview Tuesday at the district’s headquarters, Andrea Terhune, who heads Normandy’s appointed Joint Executive Governing Board, and Peter Kachris, the liaison between the district and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Jefferson City, addressed issues raised in the Post-Dispatch story.
They said that the situations described in the story are being reviewed, and individuals who bear responsibility will be held accountable. They also noted Pearson’s statement that a new structure to help solve some of the problems indicated in the story will be introduced in a few weeks.
But citing a variety of factors – the rushed way the Normandy Schools Collaborative began last year, the failure of the state to fund the schools’ foundation formula fully, the fact that many Normandy students start school behind children elsewhere – they nevertheless said those facts are explanations, not excuses for the conditions revealed at the high school.
“There’s the reality on the ground in Normandy and how you address those issues,” Kachris said, “and then there’s the reality of the state accountability system and what it requires. And there’s also the reality of a legislature that still hasn’t funded its formula.”
And, he added, not all resources that a school district needs are economic.
Terhune added that there are what she called “pockets of success” in Normandy, but larger issues have to be taken into account to understand the bigger picture.
“It’s important that you understand the cause and effect of decisions and outcomes,” she said. “So as you walk through all of the things that have happened with this district, then you have to be concerned with what the outcomes are going to be.”
And, she emphasized, there is no reason for anyone to think that given the proper support, Normandy students can’t perform as well as students in any other district.
“Our students have very high aptitudes,” Terhune said. “They are capable of many things, and I honestly think they can do whatever they want to do. They just need the right nurturing, which is what we’re attempting to put in place.”
No quick fix
Victor Lenz, a member of the state board from south St. Louis County, wasn’t quite as pessimistic about Normandy’s chance for survival as Jones. But he isn’t blind to the difficulties involved.
He pointed out that this is the first opportunity the district has had since it became the Normandy Schools Collaborative last July to find teachers and administrative during the normal spring hiring schedule. But, he added in an interview, persuading people to come to a district whose future is in doubt is not an easy sell.
“If I were a teacher looking for a position,” he said, “would I want to go to Normandy, where I’m not even certain that district’s going to exist next year?”
Lenz said that he is equally concerned about the availability of transfers to accredited schools and the education of Normandy students who choose to stay.
“Everybody talks about 639 kids who want to transfer,” he said, “and they deserve a good education. I totally agree. But we also have 3,500 kids who are still in Normandy and we’re bleeding them dry without giving them the opportunity to have a good education.”
Ideally, he added, students should be educated in their home district, not have to ride buses to better schools. But improving Normandy schools may take more money than the district has available.
“It can be fixed,” Lenz said, “but we have to have the resources. As an educator, if you gave me that district and said we want you to fix it, I’m going to look at it and say, OK, we need this, this and this. And most of those things that they need cost more money, not less, I don’t see anywhere on the horizon that we’re going to have more money available.”
He would like to see Normandy work more with the mayors and ministers in its community, plus organizations like Beyond Housing with a stake in its success. But he’s under no illusions that an answer to district’s stubborn shortcomings will be easy in coming.
“If it was a simple fix,” Lenz said, “I can guarantee you we would have tried to fix it…. It’s a very, very complicated situation, and you’ve got a lot of people involved, and everybody seems to have their own ideas on how to make it happen.”
Culture trumps strategy
In his analysis, Jones noted that the first year of the Normandy Schools Collaborative was “chaotic at best,” and things should improve when the district has the opportunity to hire teachers on a normal schedule, instead of the rushed hiring process of last summer.
But, he added, “even if you ended up and you could find the best, most dedicated people in the world, you still may have them operating in an environment, in a structure that will not optimize their ability to get maximum results.”
He doubted the effects of Pearson’s upcoming structural changes will have much effect unless and until Normandy’s culture changes as well.
Quoting management expert Peter Drucker, Jones said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast every morning.”
And changing culture is a tall order, Jones added. “You can't fix a culture overnight,” he said. “You can't take two aspirin and call me in the morning and voila, it's fixed…..
“Rearranging or reshuffling what has been done for the last 25 years wouldn't work. That's already been tried and failed.”
As far as financial resources go, Jones compared funding for education in Missouri with efforts to keep the Rams in St. Louis.
“The public space is moving at warp speed to try to figure out how to spend $400 million on a football stadium,” he said. “And you wouldn't have enough people for a poker game if the discussion was trying to fix education in Normandy.”
What is needed, Jones concluded, is a plan that takes everyone affected by education in Normandy into account.
“The real conversation we need to have,” he said, “is with the Normandy community about where we are, what we legitimately can and can't do. Once they have a clear understanding of the parameters of this situation and what the options are, we can engage them in a conversation about what do you want us to do. Given the options, what do you support? I think that's where we are.”
Carole Basile, the dean of the school of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, headed the task force last year whose ideas helped lead to the collaborative. She said Tuesday that she has been disappointed with the district’s progress so far but hopes Pearson’s new structure can get things on the right track.
Structure can make a difference, she added.
“How do you make sure everybody is on the same page,” Basile said. “How are you addressing all of the issues that kids are coming to the table with? How do you build relationships in a district that is constantly in the newspaper and getting a lot of attention, and kids and teachers and administrators not feeling the best about their school district as they should?”
Whoever becomes the next superintendent, she said, needs to move boldly.
“It needs to be somebody who's willing to take a risk,” Basile said. “It needs to be somebody who really has nothing to lose, and is willing to really put in the time and effort to plan and to get this thing moving….
It feels like we just continue to have false starts. I'd like there to be a real start.”
If things don’t work out, Basile added, DESE may have to make the move that Jones hints could be coming soon – the end of Normandy.
“This is a financial and moral decision,” she said, “and it's a terrible, terrible decision to have to make.”