Missouri education officials say their plan that was the subject of public comment at a meeting Tuesday night is designed to prevent school districts from losing accreditation in the future.
But for most of the night, the speakers and the audience were more concerned with what is going to happen to a district that already is unaccredited and is in danger of going out of business altogether: Normandy.
One after another, adults and students and other interested parties complained that Normandy has not gotten a fair shake from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state board of education.
“I feel like I’m on a plantation,” said Charles Coburn, who said he had two children who had gone through the district. “I don’t have any say.”
“We need to get motivated. We need to be more reactive instead of letting someone sit down and tell us what they are going to do to our children…. We should be on buses heading to Jefferson City. We should be mobilizing ourselves. It’s time to step forward.”
Because of the financial drain of tuition and transportation costs for students who transferred from Normandy to nearby accredited districts, it needs $5 million to make it to the end of the school year, and even if it reaches that milestone, its future beyond that is uncertain.
Last week, the state school board voted to give DESE immediate authority over Normandy’s finances, a move that education commissioner Chris Nicastro said will guarantee that students now attending class in the district will be able to remain there for the rest of the semester.
But Dryver Henderson, the first speaker of the evening session at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, called that assurance “a first step, but an insufficient step.”
Henderson, a persistent critic of the district who is running for the school board in April, generated applause from the crowd of about 200 when he said that closing the district or disparaging it with a partial state takeover does nothing to help students.
“We are being railroaded to a place we’re not going to go to quietly,” Henderson said.
The race factor
Many of the speakers said race was an issue in the state’s handling of Normandy, where 98 percent of the students are black. Jacqueline Rogers quoted Martin Luther King Jr., saying that stakeholders in the district did not want to feel they have been exiled.
“I have a dream,” she said, “that one day soon educators in Normandy can put in place our reformation plan without sacrificing our most precious commodity for political expediency.”
Bill Monroe, a member of the elected board of the St. Louis Public Schools, noted that when the state board voted last week for the financial takeover, Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols was sitting in the back of the room and had not been notified in advance that the action might be taken.
“They blindsided this man,” Monroe said. “How disrespectful to black people.”
Arthelda Busch, who has worked with a citizens task force to help solve problems brought about by the transfers, noted that rather than reallocate some money to pay for improvements, districts like Normandy need more money altogether. “So much has been taken away already,” she said, “there is only bare bones left.”
She also called for sensitivity and diversity training in districts that are receiving transfer students, adding:
“I have heard some horror stories about actions taken by well-meaning individuals.”
Pam Sloan, superintendent of the Francis Howell school district, where many of the Normandy students are now attending class, told the session that many of the receiving districts are not receiving the attention that the sending districts are, but their efforts should not go unnoticed.
“We are meeting the needs of the whole child, not just the academic ones,” Sloan said. “The work is very complex.”
Noting that many of the students transferring to Francis Howell are at a disadvantage because of the difficulty of taking part in extracurricular activities and the trouble parents have in getting involved, Sloan added a sentiment that matched that of many of the other speakers: Keep kids in schools in their own community.
“Why wouldn’t we as adults fix the broken schools immediately and swiftly,” she said, “so that parents can participate in their child’s education?”
The last speaker of the evening sounded a different note. Melda Collins said she had lived in Normandy since 1982 and had worked in the district, but she is sending her child to Parkway because Normandy had not lived up to its responsibility to its students.
“We have failed our children,” she said. “We cannot blame others.”
As many members of the crowd grumbled, Collins said she felt bad criticizing the district, but it had to be done.
“To stand here and say this, it just makes me feel sick,” she said. “We have to make a change in our community. We’re the stakeholders. We’re the ones who pay taxes….
“Those children who left, they didn’t have to leave. They made their choice. They decided they don’t want their child in Normandy.”
The solution, she said, is making the community care.
“We have to come together,” Collins said. “We can’t sit back and wait for another organization to come in here and do what it is that we should have been doing for ourselves. We have to stop the victim mentality. We have to stop trying to use our children. This opportunity that DESE has given us, we have to take it and run with it.”
Asked after the meeting whether she was surprised at the emphasis on race by many of the speakers, Nicastro – who formerly served as superintendent in Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood – said the issue is one that districts everywhere continue to deal with.
“In 1954,” she said, “we said that black children had a right to attend school with white kids. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that we ever decided that they should get the same education, and that’s really what we’re dealing with tonight.”
She said that between now and March 21, when the state board is expected to take up the accreditation plan again, DESE has to do more financial and legal review and spell out more details of its five-tier scheme.
“As you saw tonight,” she said, “the plan is primarily one focused on future districts, to keep districts from becoming unaccredited. I think all of us could agree that that is certainly the best thing that we could possibly do, set up a system where we don’t have this issue again, and that’s certainly our hope.”
Nicastro noted that when the state put an appointed board in place for the St. Louis Public Schools in 2007, the move was controversial, much as the actions being discussed Tuesday night are.
But, she added, in the city schools, “by most people’s accounts, things have gotten better since then. Clearly, they still have a long way to go, and certainly we’re not pleased with their performance. But in terms of financial stability, and some of the other infrastructure issues in the district, most people I believe would say they have improved....
“Any time you have a significant issue like that, that first of all involves our children, people get very emotional. And there is no one good answer. Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to do what we think is best and to proceed accordingly.”