St. Louis –
On Monday, the Wellston School District starts its last quarter of existence. In 2003, the tiny district in north St. Louis County was the first to come under state administration. It's the second, and the largest, to be dissolved for poor academic performance. Next year, its 550 students will attend classes with their long-time rivals in the Normandy School District - and that's a tough thing for many to embrace. Christine Bright perched herself on the backless wooden benches in the gym at Normandy High School to watch her son Timothy and the rest of the Wellston Trojans basketball team battle the home-team Vikings.
The college-bound Timothy will never share the court with former rivals, and Christine couldn't be happier.
"Their mentality is totally different from our school over there," she said, glancing around at the Normandy students. "We don't allow our kids to walk around with their pants hanging down below their butt and their drawers and all that hanging out, and that's all I'm seeing here today."
Normandy freshman Briona Works shared Bright's disdain. Works said her mother was ready to move her back to McCluer High School in the Ferguson-Florissant district after seeing how Wellston students behaved.
"A pregnant girl ran onto the floor and started jerking, and when the police came she ran from them and fell on her baby," Works said, adding that the Wellston students whispered about jumping Normandy students next year.
Works' classmate Jimeese Bernard, and some friends she was sitting with, were concerned about academics.
"Wellston's dirty, and they're dumb, and they're going to make our accreditation go down," she said. A friend chimed in, "That's not right."
But it didn't take long for Bernard to find something positive to say about the merger.
"We'll get to make new friends. New boyfriends," she said, as her friends whooped and high-fived in the background at the thought.
And Wellston eighth-grader Shonacie Merriman sounded something close to excited.
"We'll have more opportunities than we had at Wellston, more opportunities to do things like join different clubs, like a drama club," she said.
Rumors about a Wellston-Normandy merger have circulated these neighboring communities for years. Wellston lost accreditation in 1994, and never fully regained it. With superintendent Charles Brown retiring at the end of the year, state education commissioner Chris Nicastro decided that slight improvements in graduation rates and academic achievement weren't enough.
"As much as we all want to see Wellston succeed as a school district, the most recent annual performance report is not encouraging and shows little sign of positive progress," she said.
State education officials considered several surrounding districts before settling on Normandy. The two communities share a lot of history, and have very similar demographics. Normandy superintendent Stanton Lawrence said yes almost immediately when Nicastro approached him about the merger.
"I was very, very concerned about how other districts, if they had the opportunity to consider taking these young people would respond. And I certainly did not want the young people to feel like they were unwanted or unwelcome," he said.
Lawrence was an administrator in Houston when students displaced by Hurricane Katrina entered the city's schools. Neither group was prepared for the resulting upheaval, he said, so fights were constant. Outreach efforts designed to prevent a repeat between Wellston and Normandy are working, and he expects no residual tension from the once-fierce athletic rivalry.
"One thing I don't think the public takes into account is that when these young people are not at school they are playing on the same basketball court, they're going to the same parties," he said. "I sense more reluctance on the part of adults."
Wellston sixth grade teacher Lloyd White is among them. White can see why the merger makes sense. Normandy High School is, after all, located in the city of Wellston. And his district has no money to upgrade aging facilities, while Normandy just broke ground on a second new elementary school. But White doesn't see it making a difference.
"You may get into a couple of buildings that have bigger rooms, better rooms, air conditioning, but I don't think those kinds of things made me a better or worse student," he said.
White is the president of the Wellston teacher's union. The merger means his members are fired on June 30th.
"I think the statement was teachers who are good teachers can always come and apply. You can do that anywhere," he said.
The union is trying to negotiate a guarantee that Wellston teachers would get first crack at jobs in Normandy. But the 45 Normandy teachers laid off last year would be the top candidates for any opening.
Hanging over everything are concerns about academic performance.
Normandy students haven't met national benchmarks in six years, though percentages are increasing. Last week, the state identified its middle and high schools as "persistently low-achieving."
Education commissioner Chris Nicastro would not speculate on what happens if Normandy does not improve. Like much else with the merger, she said, students and parents just have to have confidence that it will work out.