School Transfers: Lessons From St. Louis' Past
This fall more than 2,500 students climbed on board buses and into taxis leaving the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens Districts for accredited districts in St. Louis and St. Charles Counties.
The migration began after a ruling this June by the Missouri Supreme Court, which upheld a controversial state law.
It just so happens that the two unaccredited districts are predominantly African-American, and the districts chosen to receive them are largely white.
As St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports that’s drawn some comparisons to an earlier time.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s thousands of children were bused from the city to the county—and vice versa---as part of the court-ordered desegregation of the St. Louis Public Schools.
Susan Uchitelle headed up the what was known as the voluntary transfer program for nearly 20 years until the case came to an end in 1999.
“I think it’s a precursor for what’s going on now, making it for the most part much easier for schools, teachers, and children,” Uchitelle said during a recent interview.
Uchitelle said this autumn she’s been impressed with how well schools receiving students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens have done, especially considering they had less than two months to prepare.
But she says if desegregation has any lesson to offer, it’s that there needs to lots of outreach to parents and communities.
“We worked very hard with parents,” she said. “We had parent committees in all the schools and went into communities a lot to talk about it and express their concerns and we continued to work with them.”
An "Us And Them" Culture?
This summer time was in short supply after the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision.
In the Francis Howell School District in St. Charles County, for instance, there was one public meeting to discuss the coming influx of students from Normandy.
Neil Daniels attended that meeting.
He, his wife and two kids moved away from Normandy several years ago to take advantage of better schools in St. Charles.
Now he worries his kids—who’ve done well in the Francis Howell School District---could be exposed to an “us and them culture” that they’ve never before experienced.
“I don’t want my children to be viewed the way that some children going through deseg were viewed,” Daniels said. “That they see your skin color and assume or make an assumption that you’re a certain way, based on a faulty expectation or a faulty premise.”
Daniels was a deseg kid himself. He transferred from a St. Louis Public magnet gifted school to Kirkwood as a high school freshman.
He said overall it was a good experience, but sometimes teachers saw him as a city kid, not an individual.
Now Daniels is a sixth grade language arts teacher at Parkway Southwest.
Parkway is one of several districts that still take students from the city as part of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, which continued even after the courts bowed out in 1999.
Daniels said in his experience the kids who transfer tend to be stronger students, so the fears have been overblown.
“Will there be issues? Yeah, they're kids, kids are people but you’re going to get some pretty bright kids coming out there, but it’s scary for them too,” he said.
Memories: "I Never Really Felt Connected"
Many former desegregation students remember getting on and off the bus in the dark and sitting in classes where they were the only minority in the room.
Lisa Thompson transferred to the Parkway School District from a St. Louis parochial school as an eighth grader in the mid-1980s.
In high school she was in a leadership program, ran varsity track and took part in concert choir.
Still, Thompson says she felt like a visitor.
“I never really felt connected, like it was 100 percent my school,” Thompson said. “I felt like I was being allowed to be there. If you go to someone’s house as a guest you don’t act the same way as you do in your own home.”
Today Thompson is an assistant principal at Hanna Elementary in the same Parkway School District.
She says the district has come a long way; much of it due to its diversity training.
Thompson says she uses her own experience as a student here to help make sure others feel more welcome.
That includes parents, who she says have to be involved.
“If you make that decision for your students you have to know first-hand where you’re sending them,” Thompson said. “That means you have to go into the building, you have to meet the people, you have to be around the people who are going to be around your children. That’s a must.”
"You're In A Foreign Land"
But John Wright, a retired administrator, said some parents won’t be able to make the trip.
He served as interim superintendent at Normandy and the St. Louis Public Schools and has watched this play out before.
“You’re in a foreign land where parents don’t come up to school,” Wright said. “It’s too far, you have to get a ride to get up to school. So from community–based school to one far away from home, it’s just a different environment.”
Wright said for some students, coming into a bigger district away from their own community is not always a recipe for success.
He saw that as an assistant superintendent at Ferguson-Florissant as the courts ordered the district to merge with Berkeley and the all African-American Kinloch district in the 1970s.
But Wright said, no matter what administrators may think of the transfer law, they’ll have to make the best of it and train their staffs well.
“My feeling was if I’m going to be in charge of it, I don’t want any kid, black or white, to not be successful under my watch,” he said. “And I think you have to feel that way as an administrator.”
Most educators agree in the future, the state needs to provide more time and money to prepare schools and communities who are taking in students from unaccredited districts.
But they’re mostly optimistic about how today’s transfer students will fare, in part because others---like Neil Daniels and Lisa Thompson--- have gone before them.
Follow Maria Altman on Twitter: @radioaltman