Updated Nov. 7 at 3:55 with Nixon comments: No Missouri school districts scored in the unaccredited range on this year’s annual report cards, but that doesn’t mean that the state’s two unaccredited districts – Normandy and Riverview Gardens – are automatically headed for an upgrade.
And among charters in St. Louis, one – Preclarus Mastery Academy – scored in the unaccredited range for the third straight year. Two others that scored in the same territory, with less than half of the possible points – Jamaa Learning Center and Better Learning Communities Academy – closed at the end of the last school year.
Under Missouri’s accreditation system, school districts need to earn more than 70 percent of the available points to be fully accredited. A score between 50 and 70 percent earns provisional accreditation, while districts scoring less than 50 percent are in unaccredited territory.
For K-12 districts, 140 points are possible, with half of them coming from student achievement and the other half coming from factors such as attendance, graduation rate and how well students are prepared for college or a job after graduation.
Statewide, 98.6 percent of Missouri school districts scored in the fully accredited range. The St. Louis area saw two perfect scores, in the Brentwood school district and by the North Side Community charter school.
State education officials have insisted that before they will recommend that any district’s classification improve, it needs to show sustained progress, defined as at least two years of growth.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education expects to make recommendations for upgrades, if it has any, at the state school board next month. Last year, Riverview Gardens asked for a boost into provisional accreditation, but officials said they wanted to wait to make sure its progress continues.
But after touring Moline elementary school in Riverview Gardens on Monday, Gov. Jay Nixon said thinks the state board should reclassify the district as provisionally accredited.
“This will be an accurate reflection of how this district has moved forward," he said, "and it will be a demonstration of confidence that the people of this district – the parents, the students, the teachers, the administrators – are making great strides to build a solid foundation for the community through stronger schools. That progress merits recognition and reward.”
This year’s Annual Performance Report (APR) numbers, released Monday, showed no districts below 50 percent for the first time since the current evaluation system, known as MSIP5, took effect in 2013. Normandy’s score, which was 7 percent just two years ago, was 54.6 percent, while Riverview Gardens, which was at 79.3 percent last year, slipped to 74.6 percent.
Both Normandy and Riverview Gardens, along with St. Louis Public Schools, are run by appointed boards.
Margie Vandeven, Missouri’s commissioner for elementary and secondary education, praised both unaccredited districts’ increase in their scores in recent years.
“We are very pleased with the improvements that we do see on their annual performance reports,” she said.
But, she added, any upward momentum has to keep going for the state to consider a change in status.
“One APR does not constitute a sustainable trend of either improvement or decline,” Vandeven said.
Prospects uncertain for Riverview upgrade
The lower score for Riverview Gardens creates questions around its accreditation status and for the students there who have been able to transfer elsewhere because the district is unaccredited.
Vandeven said last week that if the district is raised to provisional accreditation status, student transfers would be governed by state law, which allows transfers only from unaccredited districts.
In the past, Vandeven has urged superintendents of districts that have received transfers from Riverview Gardens to allow them to stay at least until they reach an appropriate point, such as moving from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school. But she acknowledged that no district would be forced to agree to that request.
And one more factor comes into play with Riverview Gardens. State law says that if any district moves from unaccredited to provisionally accredited, then slides back into unaccredited status, it is automatically dissolved.
Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon said the district’s dip in scores came primarily from science, which has seen a drop in scores throughout the state.
Asked whether the drop will hurt chances for an accreditation upgrade, Spurgeon said, “It’s not really a concern for us. Our goal when I first started was to get at least 70 points. ... We are concerned about achieving the points, because that’s what gives you the accredited status. However, we can’t be satisfied with just working for points, We have to be satisfied with working for continuous improvement. And that’s the model that we’ve put in place, because we want to be better every single year.”
He praised what he called a basic shift in the culture of Riverview Gardens that he said was a big part of its turnaround.
“The culture has changed to one of not really sure about the future that may be in the cards for many of our high school graduating seniors,” Spurgeon said, “to really knowing and understanding where they want to be and where they want to go, and knowing and understanding the processes and the steps that are in place to really achieve what they want to achieve.”
A visit from the governor
Nixon visited two fourth-grade classrooms at Moline elementary school Monday, telling students he had a threefold message:
Congratulations on the good work. Respect your teachers – “They have to put up with you every day.” And continue to work hard and do your best.
The students had worked out questions for Nixon in advance, with many of them clutching notecards and waving their hands to be called on. They asked about what he enjoys doing when he’s not at work, who his favorite presidents are and whether being governor is fun.
He said he enjoys the job, because “when you get the chance to speak for 6 million people every day, it’s a lot of fun in a lot of ways.”
On his request for an accreditation upgrade for Riverview Gardens by the state school board next month, Nixon said there is a “very good likelihood that’s going to happen.”
At a news conference after the classroom visits, said the improvements in the district are a good example of what can happen when schools and communities work together to make each other stronger.
Asked what he would like to see for the students who had been transferring out of Riverview Gardens but would no longer have that legal right if the district is upgraded, Nixon stressed that he wants to see as little disruption as possible in their school careers. But he didn’t want to give any details on how he thinks the situation should be worked out.
“I don’t want to prejudge exactly what would happen,” Nixon said, “other than to say that continuity is important, and getting into a long-term process, and with solid agreements among the districts, with these leaders here, is eminently doable.”
Normandy moves up
In the Normandy Schools Collaborative, which began in 2014 after the state dissolved the old Normandy school district for poor performance, the move up to provisional accreditation territory was fueled in part by gaining points in non-academic areas.
In attendance, for example, Normandy had scored no points for two years but got 7.5 out of a possible 10 this year. In graduation rate, the story was similar, from 0 to 22.5 to the maximum 30 points over the three-year period.
Vandeven said that while it’s difficult to use test scores to compare one year to the next, because the tests keep changing, using the non-academic measures is useful to detect progress by a district.
Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson said members of the community had told district officials last year that attendance should be a focus as it worked to improve its APR score. Strong follow-up helped increase the point total, he said.
“They got more of our students coming on time, every day, all day,” he said. “We really give credit for those seven and a half points to the community working alongside us.”
On the academic side, Pearson said, a strong emphasis on reading has paid off, as well as moving to small group instruction and a reorganization that opened a kindergarten center, moved sixth graders back to the elementary school and put seventh- and eighth-graders into a center by themselves.
All those factors helped both students and staff feel more confident and less like they were constantly under a microscope, Pearson said.
“There was a time,” he added, “and I think it was true for children as well as the adults, that it felt like we were coming under siege – not just since the state took over, but there have been years of under performance and struggle….
“We have shown that the trajectory has changed. We have shown that this is the type of organization that can really help our transition.”
Pearson recalled what one student told him, as an example of the transformation. “She said there was a time that the adults were feeling hopeless, and the students were feeling hopeless,” he said. “We don’t feel that way anymore.”
In St. Louis, marathon continues
Science also proved to be a trouble spot for St. Louis Public Schools, which saw an overall drop to 74.6 percent from 76.1 percent. Last year, a big jump from 43.2 percent had prompted the district to seek an upgrade to full accreditation, but the state did not agree that it was time for such a move.
Superintendent Kelvin Adams said the district would work on bringing science scores up.
“We always believe that we can improve,” Adams said. “While we are two points off from what we had last school year, we believe we have a lot of room for improvement, and we’ll be working to accomplish that moving forward.”
He noted that the district is giving students more options for advanced placement and other accelerated classes in the high school, and administrators are paying more attention to data to track where growth is needed.
In the past, Adams has called academic improvement a marathon, not a sprint. Where is the district now as the marathon continues?
“With this being a different assessment,” he said, “I feel like we’re almost starting all over again. But I don’t think this is a race that will ever end for us. We are a district with a number of incredible challenges that we have to overcome, and we are working hard to overcome those challenges.
“So I would say halfway mark, 13 miles if you will. But I don’t think it’s a race that’s just 26 miles. For some of our kids, it’s going to be 50 miles and a hundred miles because they start so far behind.”
Is accreditation at the finish line?
“I’m always hopeful, always cautiously optimistic,” Adams said. “But the state will have to make that decision.”
Charters and traditional districts
A new national report shows that 30 percent of the students in St. Louis attend charters schools; in Kansas City, that share is 40 percent.
Though the state doesn’t accredit charter schools as it does traditional school districts, Vandeven said that reporting the charters’ APR scores gives the public valuable information, particularly if they want to compare how a particular charter is doing with the APR of where they live, whether it’s St. Louis or Kansas City.
“I think that’s a fair comparison,” Vandeven said. “That’s really why we present annual performance reports for the charters and for the districts. We do believe in transparent reporting.
“They’re all public schools, and we are very consistent in how those reports are generated for the traditional and the charter schools.”
But Doug Thaman, who heads the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association, has a different take. He called the APR “an ineffective method of analyzing the performance of charter schools, because they create inequitable comparisons. You can’t compare a single school to an entire district.”
One particular problem, he added, is that the APR rewards districts where students who were at the bottom show definite progress. Because charter students are starting from a strong position, he said, they do not get the points that some districts do.
A better measure, he added, is looking at how a school is doing compared to what is required in its performance agreement with its sponsor.
“That’s how you truly know if a school is doing well,” Thaman said.
Overall, he added, “We’re seeing more and more students every year moving to grade level and beyond grade level,” Thaman said, “which is a really positive trend.”
On the negative side, besides the persistent problems at Preclarus, the St. Louis Language Immersion School showed a sharp drop in this year’s APR, from 92 percent last year to 66.4 percent this year. New leadership took over at the school this past year, Thaman noted, and the change should help restore the APR to its previous level.
“It takes quality governance and quality leadership to really help a school do well,” he said, “and when there is a change, you see that kind of a dip. We expect to see that quickly resolve itself this next year.”
As far as the future of Preclarus, Thaman said:
“That’s a good question for the sponsors, because that is their responsibility. It is incumbent on them to make sure they are paying attention to all the indicators of a school’s success.”
That kind of relationship and oversight led to the closures of Jamaa and Better Learning Communities, he said.
“Their APRs were very low,” Thaman said, “and their sponsors were doing their job in holding those schools accountable over a period of time.”
Bill Mendelsohn of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which is the sponsor of Preclarus, said in a statement:
"We are in the midst of reviewing Preclarus' overall performance and will be making a determination about it future shortly."
Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger
Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille