The superintendent of the Normandy school district says younger students there are making impressive gains, particularly in reading, because of learning strategies that influence them from the time they start school.
But older students still struggle, and their lack of progress concerned members of the state board of education who heard an update on the unaccredited district at their meeting Tuesday in Jefferson City.
“They’re not just going to disappear into the ether when they leave Normandy,” board member Mike Jones of St. Louis said in response to a presentation by Superintendent Charles Pearson. “This is a bigger question than Normandy per se. It seems like we need a strategy for what happens to kids who one day come out of high school totally unprepared to function in an economy and maybe even in a social standpoint the way we need for them to do.
“Right now our approach is the world is flat, they got to the end of it and they fell off. I would say as a matter of public policy, which ultimately has some political implications, we need a larger strategic approach that recognizes that if we fail a child educationally starting at five years old, and we didn’t start to make corrections until they were a freshman or sophomore in high school, you’re going to produce an adult in three years that has none of the skills necessary to function.”
Normandy is completing its second academic year of operating under a board appointed by the state, after the old district was dissolved and replaced by the Normandy Schools Collaborative in 2014. It has received some assistance from the state and has benefited from partnerships with social service organizations and other area school districts.
In his presentation to the state board, Pearson credited those agencies for some of the improvements he noted. But he also said that a more stable teaching corps and a change in culture have helped nurture academic progress.
He noted that when he met recently with teachers at Normandy High School, he found a new sense of connection with students that he hadn’t noticed before – a subtle change, but one he said was very intentional.
“Most of the teachers who failed in our district could not establish relationships with children,” Pearson said. “The thing our teachers have to do is get to know our children better.
Data he presented to the state board demonstrated some of the progress Normandy has shown.
In English, for example, in September only two students scored in the advanced category, but by January that had risen to 88. At the same time, the number of students in the lowest category, below basic, dropped from 1,799 to 1,461.
Pearson reported a similar story in math: An increase in the advanced category from zero in September to 71 in January, with a corresponding drop in below basic from 1,842 to 1,407.
The progress was even more pronounced in tests given to students in the lowest grades, Pearson reported. That trend is important for the future, he added.
“We are laying the foundation for what will be an effective school system for the years to come,” he said.
But, he acknowledged, Normandy is still struggling in the upper grades, primarily because of reading levels that are often several grades below where students actually are enrolled. Finding the right approach to fixing the problem can be difficult, he said.
“There are tons programs out there for adult literacy,” Pearson said. “The challenge is, do they have the data to show they are working.”
In other areas, such as attendance and discipline, Pearson said Normandy is also showing progress, though again the high school is lagging. He said students who get into trouble now are more often sent to in-school suspension, where they can still learn but be separate from the general student population. Still, he said, school administrators have to make sure learning is happening.
“We can’t have it just be a holding tank,” he said, “or it’s like the child is still out of school.”
Pearson praised efforts to gain community support, saying that the public is beginning to get the sense that Normandy is improving and thinking beyond just regaining accreditation. He noted that the district’s next public forum is scheduled for April 28.
The key, Pearson told the state board, is to identify policies and programs that are working and make sure they are embedded into the district’s operations for the long term.
Jones, with a fondness for sports metaphors, put the challenge this way: “How do you lay a foundation to make Normandy like the Alabama football team, in the sense that it doesn’t matter when players come, spend four years, graduate and leave. Alabama is still number one or number two.
“What’s our theory of urban education, no matter who the players are, they know how the game is supposed to go and it becomes a question of how well they execute?”
The state board also heard an update on proposed new state learning standards, which were written by work groups and submitted last year. Officials said they have had so many comments that approval of the standards, originally set for this month, was pushed back to April so all of the input from the public could be considered.
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