This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Members of the Missouri state board of education voted unanimously Tuesday to grant provisional accreditation to the St. Louis Public Schools, accepting a recommendation from Commissioner Chris Nicastro.
Reversing her earlier opinion that the city schools needed more years of progress before moving up from their unaccredited status, Nicastro and members of her staff told the board meeting in Jefferson City that since losing accreditation five years ago, the district has made solid gains in academic performance and fiscal responsibility, primarily because of strong leadership.
Though it had not arrived at the place where she hoped it would eventually reach, Nicastro said, the district has started on its way and deserves to be provisionally accredited.
In its latest report card from the state, the city schools scored seven points out of a possible 14 — one more than last year and one more than needed to be classified as provisionally accredited.
The report prompted Kelvin Adams, superintendent of the district, to call repeatedly for the state to reclassify the city schools. Members of the special administrative board that has governed the district since 2007 also pushed for the state board to put the issue on its agenda.
But when the state figures were announced, Nicastro said that the progress in the city schools was admirable but she would like to see three years of data before the district received provisional accreditation.
“St. Louis, at least at this point, appears to be a success story,” she said in August. “But I think they still have a way to go."
Figures presented Tuesday showed that the district ranks toward the bottom of those in the state.
Since 2009, the district has steadily improved in its annual report card, from three points to five to six to seven. This year is the last year that the state will be using the fourth version of the Missouri School Improvement Plan to rate schools; next year, the fifth version, or MSIP5, will take effect.
The SAB took over the city schools from the elected board when the district lost accreditation. But the change to provisional accreditation does not carry with it an automatic end to the schools’ status as a transitional district or the authority of the SAB, which will remain.
With the move of St. Louis to provisional accreditation status, the only districts in the state that are unaccredited are Riverview Gardens and Kansas City. Normandy schools are scheduled to lose accreditation as of Jan. 1.
In a statement issued by his office, Gov. Jay Nixon said:
“The decision today by the State Board of Education to reclassify the St. Louis Public School District as provisionally accredited recognizes the real progress the district has made over the past five years. I applaud this commitment to improvement and the strong support shown by St. Louis business leaders and the entire community, and I urge the district’s leadership, teachers, students and families to keep up their hard work. It is vital that this progress continues because the children of St. Louis need and deserve an outstanding education and a district that has earned full accreditation.”
Our earlier story:
Ever since the latest report card for the St. Louis Public Schools showed they have enough points to earn provisional accreditation, Superintendent Kelvin Adams has rarely passed up an opportunity to push for the upgrade.
“Seven points equals accreditation,” Adams said in August after the district’s annual progress report under the Missouri School Improvement Plan was released. “My understanding from reading the policy and the APR guidelines was that seven points equal provisional accreditation — period.”
Chris Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, countered that what the state is looking for is not a particular number but evidence that any growth in student achievement can be sustained over a period of time, at least three years.
In response to a letter sent by the special administrative board that has been running the district since 2007, its accreditation status will be reviewed by the state school board on Tuesday in Jefferson City. But even if the board votes to go along with Adams’ wishes – and that is a significant if – don’t look for any change in how the district is governed.
Those who have analyzed the law that put the SAB into place say that it allows the appointed board to remain in control of the city schools if and when they no longer are unaccredited. The circumstances under which the elected school board could once again run the system are unclear, and judging by the opinion of Peter Herschend, head of the state board, that day isn’t likely to be coming any time soon.
“For the elected board to take over would in my judgment lose all the progress that St. Louis has made to date,” Herschend told the Beacon. “That’s not a board position. That is my position.
“I think (SAB President) Rick Sullivan and his leadership is what brought Dr. Adams and his leadership to the table. St. Louis didn’t just progress all by itself because it wanted to. It takes absolute dedicated leadership, and you have that in Kelvin Adams and you have that in Rick Sullivan.”
Not surprisingly, that viewpoint doesn’t sit well with Katie Wessling, the president of the elected board.
“While the law does not require them at any point to return to local governance,” she said in an email, “it is the right thing to do and should be done as soon as possible in a rational, planned way – not just a ‘flip of the switch’ as we experienced when the SAB was created in 2007. It was irresponsible to do it that way then and it would be no less irresponsible to do it that way now.”
Points and progress
The state’s system of evaluating school districts awards up to 14 points on a variety of measures, some strictly academic and others not. For full accreditation, districts need nine points; for provisional accreditation, they need six. Anything less than that rates them as unaccredited, a status that now includes St. Louis, Kansas City and Riverview Gardens.
As of Jan. 1, Normandy is scheduled to join that list, though it is contesting whether it should receive an extra point for its graduation rate. That dispute remains unsettled.
Under state law, the state can appoint special administrative boards to run unaccredited districts, though there is currently a two-year waiting period for that to happen. Lawmakers who wanted the state to be able to act more quickly for Kansas City tried to shorten or eliminate that time, but their efforts fell short in Jefferson City this year.
After their schools added a point to their previous total, reaching seven -- up one from the year before and two from the year before that -- St. Louis officials tried to get onto the state board’s agenda last month, when the accreditation decisions were made for Normandy and other districts, but it didn’t make the cut.
A letter from Sullivan and other members of the SAB to Nicastro and members of the state board noted that St. Louis students “students continue to make significant gains in their academic performance at a rate above the state average” and that other problems that resulted in the SAB takeover, including financial and governance, have also made significant progress.
The letter concluded that provisional accreditation would more accurately reflect the current state of the district and would give a boost to the city schools’ public image.
“Although there is still a great deal of work to do in order to restore the district to fully accredited status,” the SAB members said, “it is clear that the processes and plans implemented over the last four years have put the district on the right trajectory. Because of the concerted efforts of our students, teachers, principals, and the leadership team put in place by Dr. Adams; our kids have earned the right to say they attend a provisionally accredited school district for the first time since 2007. The students and their families deserve to know that their hard work is producing positive results.”
In response, DESE put the question of the St. Louis schools on this month’s agenda, though Nicastro has given no sense of what her recommendation will be – a recommendation that the board accepts in the vast majority of cases.
St. Louis Public Schools say they do not expect to have anyone at Tuesday’s meeting to make a presentation on behalf of the district.
Changing the grading system
Weighing both sides – the district’s point of view and the commissioner’s – is key to how state board member Mike Jones plans to vote. Jones, who represents the St. Louis area on the board, told the Beacon that the data will be the same as the board has had since report cards came out in August.
But, he added, he doesn’t necessarily think the decision will be as clear-cut as what Adams has said, that seven points should automatically mean provisional accreditation.
“I think everything is more complicated, particularly in St. Louis,” Jones said. “But that is one point of view.”
Noting that the decision will be made far from the city, in the middle of a weekday, Jones said he wants to make sure that all points of view are heard in an open forum.
“I think everybody would be served, but mostly the public, by a thorough airing of whatever the arguments are, in as transparent a way as possible,” he said.
Herschend, the long-serving board president from Branson, acknowledged that under Adams and the SAB, the city schools have made gains. But he added:
“If I said that St. Louis is making wonderful progress and everything is just swell, I would not be truthful. I know that, you know that, Dr. Adams knows that and Rick Sullivan knows that. St. Louis has miles to go.
“Here are the criteria: How is school working for the kids involved. We have to step back and look at the entire spectrum of how the district is doing.”
Herschend noted that after this year, districts will be judged based on a new version of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, known as MSIP5, which he said is more stringent than the version that St. Louis will be judged on at the October meeting.
“MSIP5 is intended to raise the bar,” Herschend said.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, Wessling, president of the elected board – which continues to meet, even though it has no direct authority over how the city schools are run – would like to see a more concrete set of goals that have to be met for the SAB to be dissolved and the elected board members to regain their power. No such guidelines have ever been established, she said.
She noted that the elected board “has a transition plan, to my knowledge the only one created by any of the involved stakeholders, for the return to local governance. We are looking forward to starting the process.”
In a letter to Nicastro, Wessling wrote on behalf of the elected board, "the voice of the citizens of the City of St. Louis," urging her to support provisional accreditation, saying "the data supports such a decision, and the district should be given the status it has earned."
Members of the state board will have more than just the data from the St. Louis schools trying to sway their opinion on accreditation.
Respondents to a query by the Public Insight Network for the Beacon also weighed in, on both sides of the issue.
Renee Racette, who identified herself as an assistant principal at Gateway STEM High School in the city school system, said the district’s progress "absolutely" qualifies it as provisionally accredited.
"The district has worked extremely hard under the leadership of Dr. Adams and has proven to be on the right track with regards to ALL of the metrics the state has outlined," she wrote.
"The change in accreditation status will help restore the public image of SLPS and will demonstrate that the state does recognize all of the positive growth the district has made which in turn will help parents trust that indeed their children can receive a quality education."
Asked about changes made since the SAB took over, Racette said:
"There is an increased focus on knowing where students are both physically and academically. If they are not in school, why is that? Where are they? How can the school staff support the child and get them to school? Academically, if they are not performing, what can we do to address that? How can the school better intervene and make curricular decisions to support the child's growth?"
Katy Mike Smaistrla, who identified herself as a non-formal educator who has worked in St. Louis Public Schools in the past, added that "there are a number of individual champions at each school that really care about seeing each student succeed, and that hasn't changed. The successes in SLPS are based on the hardwork of individuals working together for their community."
But their views aren’t shared by all those who responded to the PIN query.
Susan Turk, who has been actively involved with the schools for many years, said that based on MAP scores this year, she believes s provisional accreditation is not a good idea at this time. Still, she suspects that the fact that the school system was given a spot on the board's agenda wasn't based solely on statistics.
"Earlier this year, Commissioner Nicastro said DESE wanted to see three more years of progress before granting an accreditation review," Turk wrote. "I suspect the reason she has changed her mind is political pressure from the business and political leaders in the city. The wishes of the city leaders always seem to prevail rather than data about district achievement."
And Lynn Nelson, a former teacher at the Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy, a charter school in St. Louis that closed abruptly in 2010, believess the city schools need to be stricter about who is allowed to get a diploma.
Noting that many of the students she taught came from St. Louis Public Schools — and basing her opinion on information from colleagues who have taught in the city district — she said too often, students who haven’t mastered basic skills are allowed to move through the system anyway.
"One of my students called me in a panic," Nelson said, "because she was going to work at Rally’s and didn’t know how to make change. This is someone we gave a high school diploma to."
Part of the problem, she said, is the kind of scorecard that at least in part is how school districts are judged.
“Principals do not want their kids to fail,” she said. “That makes their numbers look bad. If the failure rate is too high in your classroom, you get called in by the principal and it’s the same old routine: Why are your numbers so bad? It’s super frustrating for teachers.”
City firefighter Andrew Hesse, who is part of a lawsuit seeking to allow his children attend class in a neighboring accredited district, wrote an open letter to the state board urging it to stand firm in its previous decision against provisional accreditation.
“As a parent with three children living in St. Louis, I am urging that you shouldn’t buckle to pressure, and I feel you are wise to continue to exercise caution and stand firm by demanding significant, sustained improvement before any such moves are made,” he wrote in the letter posted last month on the website of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri.
The letter concluded:
“Because Missouri doesn’t rate individual schools, parents must rely on the district’s accreditation status to make a determination about the quality of an individual school. If the state board were to give SLPS its accreditation back, parents and the public will be misled about the quality of the district, thereby making the complicated process of identifying the educational option for their child even more difficult.
“A gain of one point on Missouri’s accreditation scale over the course of one school year is not the type of real, sustained progress that warrants an upgrade to the district’s accreditation status.