Chris Nicastro

Margie Vandeven
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

(Updated at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 17, with news conference)

Margie Vandeven may be Missouri’s new commissioner for elementary and secondary education, but she’ll enter the job at the first of the year concentrating on some old problems.

One of them, she told reporters in a conference call Wednesday after her unanimous selection by the state board of education, is working for changes in Missouri’s student transfer law, to help protect the budgets of districts whose students are eligible to leave.

Mike Jones talks with education commissioner Chris Nicastro.
File photo: Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

When Chris Nicastro was chosen as Missouri’s education commissioner in 2009, her experience with school districts in north St. Louis County was cited as a big factor.

Now, as the Missouri state board of education prepares to interview five finalists to succeed Nicastro, they have a list of four white men who have been superintendents in Joplin, Branson, Springfield and Wentzville, plus a white woman who has been actively involved in north county as deputy commissioner but has never served as a superintendent.

St. Louis Public Schools

(Updated with interviews from all candidates.)

The Missouri state board of education has narrowed to five the field of candidates seeking to become the state’s next commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

After reviewing 12 applications in closed session Friday, the board announced Monday that it would interview:

Peter Herschend
DESE website

The Missouri state board of education has a field of 14 candidates from which to choose the state’s new commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

After the board’s open meeting in Branson Thursday, where it approved added responsibility for the appointed school board that is running the Normandy Schools Collaborative, board president Peter Herschend said in a telephone interview that the applications of the 14 people who want to succeed retiring Commissioner Chris Nicastro would be reviewed in a closed session on Friday.

Stephanie Zimmerman

As the appointed board that runs the new Normandy Schools Collaborative is about to take on new responsibilities for personnel decisions and improved academic achievement, it is working with outside agencies to find substitute teachers and help its littlest residents on the road to learning.

Following acceptance by the Joint Executive Governing Board of a proposal that it be in charge of evaluating, hiring and disciplining personnel, the state board of education is expected to approve the new plan at its meeting Thursday in Branson.

Bill Greenblatt, UPI

It’s an open question whether the Ferguson Commission will produce ground-breaking changes or a report that gathers dust on a shelf. 

But it’s indisputable that a lot of people wanted to be on the 16-person commission. According to a spreadsheet released by Gov. Jay Nixon’s office, more than 300 people from all corners of the state applied. 

St. Louis Public Radio File Photo

Missouri’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Chris Nicastro has tendered her resignation as of December 2014 and there will be an important search for a new commissioner to fill that position. The deadline for nominations and applications is Nov. 21, a date that is later than the board chair wanted.

File photo

After complaints from teachers and others about how the initial year of the Normandy Schools Collaborative has gone so far, the state board of education wants to give more authority to the local appointed board.

Peter Herschend
DESE website

JEFFERSON CITY -- The Missouri state board of education voted Tuesday to put the search for a new commissioner on a slower track, then had a lengthy discussion about one of the big issues the next commissioner will face – turning around Normandy schools.

Rather than the accelerated process that board president Peter Herschend had favored, in which a successor to Chris Nicastro would have been chosen this week, the board bowed to objections from a variety of education groups that said such a fast track would have left them out of the process.

Peter Herschend
DESE website

Updated 1:25 p.m. Wednesday with letter from MNEA president:

Amid indications that the Missouri state board of education may choose a new commissioner next week, school officials throughout the state have urged it to open up the process and consider a wider range of candidates.

The state board already has discussed in closed session the process to replace Chris Nicastro, who has announced her retirement as of the end of December. And the board has several more hours of closed session talks set for its meeting Monday and Tuesday in Jefferson City.

Vincent Flewellen leads a lesson on Ferguson during his eighth-grade multicultural studies course at Ladue Middle School.
Tim Lloyd | St. Louis Public Radio

This story is the first part of A Teachable Moment, a three-part series that profiles how issues raised by events in Ferguson are being discussed in schools and classrooms across the St. Louis region.

Students were enjoying the last few weeks of summer vacation when mass demonstrations erupted in Ferguson following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown on Aug 9.

Police line the sidewalk in front of the Justice Center in Clayton Wednesday morning. 82014
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo

We know that you listen to us on air and check our website for news and information about our region. We hope that you look at our website every day, but we know that's not always possible. So, once a week, on Friday, we will highlight some of the website's top stories of the week.

Ferguson and beyond

After Two Police Shootings, Questions Emerge About Use Of Force

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

For the last five years, Chris Nicastro has served as commissioner of Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She announced her retirement earlier this month and will step down at the end of the year.

Her tenure was marked by controversial decisions regarding school districts in north St. Louis County, including the Normandy School District, now known as the Normandy Schools Collaborative.  

St. Louis Public Radio education reporter Dale Singer spoke with Nicastro earlier this week and we aired a portion of that conversation on “St. Louis on the Air.” 

(via Flickr/evmaiden)

Depending on whose opinion you get, this week’s initial meetings to draw up new school standards for Missouri students were a “Common Core cheerleading session” or a strong-arm attempt that was “hijacked by political extremists” on the right.

Either way, the eight committees impaneled under a law passed earlier this year appear to have a long way to go to meet a deadline of having the new standards ready for approval a year from now.

DESE website

As she moves toward her retirement after more than five years as Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Chris Nicastro has definite thoughts about what she got done, what she would have liked to accomplish and what her successor needs to bring to the job.

She also – after just a slight hesitation – has a pretty good idea of how, as a teacher, she would grade her tenure in Jefferson City.

“Oh …. probably a C-plus,” she said during a wide-ranging interview this week at the Wainwright state office building downtown.

So you’re a tough grader?

DESE website

Now that she has announced her retirement at the end of the year, how should Chris Nicastro’s tenure as Missouri’s commissioner of education be graded?

Using the guarded tone of academia, Alex Cuenca, an assistant professor of education at Saint Louis University, gave this assessment Tuesday:

“I think she did the best she could with the circumstances she was given and the cards she was dealt.”

The response from state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, who himself is about to leave public service after a long career in the General Assembly, was pithier.

DESE website

Updated 5:01 p.m. with reaction, more details.

Chris Nicastro, whose sometimes controversial tenure as Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education has been marked by efforts to improve urban schools and the transfer program out of Normandy and Riverview Gardens, announced Monday she will retire at the end of the year.

Entrance to Normandy High School campus
Google Maps screen capture

Missouri education officials now say they will pay whatever tuition a receiving district charges for transfer students from Normandy, rather than a lower amount imposed earlier, raising new concerns about the state-run district's ability to survive financially.

Even though the school transfer issue aroused passionate debate last year, the issue still isn't resolved.
Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo

Take a look at a statewide map showing how districts performance has changed between the past two school years, as well as five takeaways from the report cards.

While St. Louis Public Schools and Riverview Gardens have made solid gains in their push toward accreditation, Normandy finds itself in a deeper hole, earning just 7.1 percent of the possible points in Missouri’s latest list of school report cards released Friday.

Peter Herschend
DESE website

(Updated at 3:46 p.m. with revised transfer policy)

JEFFERSON CITY – With its president acknowledging that an earlier vote was an overreaction, the Missouri state board of education reversed itself Tuesday and broadened the terms under which students living in Normandy may transfer to nearby accredited districts in the upcoming school year.

Normandy superintendent Ty McNichols
Dale Singer/St. Louis Public Radio

Now that the dramas of the state takeover and the uncertainty of student transfers have mostly passed, the board of the new Normandy Schools Collaborative started working Monday night on their main goal: Raising student achievement.

Missouri's education commissioner Chris Nicastro sat at the board table while some of her assistants presented detailed plans on how to evaluate teaching and learning. The five board members heard the state’s plans for turning the district around.

In their presentation, the process was described this way:

DESE website

Before he gave the oath of office to the five appointed members of the new board of the Normandy Schools Collaborative Tuesday, state school board vice president Mike Jones also gave them some advice.

First, he told them that what they are doing is not community service, it is public service.

The difference?

“The community is always grateful for your service,” Jones said. “The public always is not.”

Then, he noted that while the Missouri state school board may have confirmed their appointments, the big job ahead is theirs.

Stephanie Zimmerman

Updated at 9:24 a.m. Monday with more district decisions about Normandy transfers.

As the Normandy school district is about to give way to the Normandy Schools Collaborative, Missouri’s education commissioner is addressing criticism about how the transition has been handled.

Chris Nicastro’s response: The decisions that have been made represent the best available from a list of bad options.

Even though the school transfer issue aroused passionate debate last year, the issue still isn't resolved.
Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo

With some anger, some defiance and some celebration, the elected board of the Normandy school district held its final meeting Thursday night.

On Tuesday, the district will be replaced by the Normandy Schools Collaborative, to be run by a board whose members have not yet all been appointed. Ty McNichols is set to remain as superintendent, but he and other administrators will be working without contracts.

Courtesy Normandy School District

While policy debates and legal battles swirl around the new Normandy school district, Savonna Stacey has a more personal question:

Where can her son attend first grade when the new school year starts?

The Stacey family lives in the Normandy school district, and last summer, Stacey took advantage of the state law that lets students living in unaccredited districts enroll in nearby accredited ones. She enrolled Jonathan in kindergarten in Ritenour.

Entrance to Normandy High School campus
Google Maps screen capture

JEFFERSON CITY — More than 130 students whose families moved into the Normandy School District last summer to be able take advantage of the school transfer program will be shut out of the program this coming school year under a policy adopted by the state board of education Monday.

Chris Nicastro
DESE website

Updated 2:03 p.m.

Here are three names of new board members, confirmed by St. Louis Public Radio: 

  • Reginald Dickson, Normandy resident/serves on board of Beyond Housing

  • Charles Pearson, retired administrator/resident/Task Force

  • Richard Ryffel, past-president Beyond Housing//Executive Director J.P. Morgan Bank

Chris Nicastro
DESE website

Missouri education officials are going to recommend that under the new Normandy school entity, which takes effect July 1, students who have transferred from that district to nearby accredited districts would still be able to do so, but tuition rates would be capped at about $7,200. No new transfers would be allowed.

Under the state plan, the transportation situation for transfer students would stay the same.

Entrance to Normandy High School campus
Google Maps screen capture

(Updated at 4:54 p.m., Tues., May 20)

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The Missouri Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to replace the Normandy School District with a new entity with the same boundaries but run by an appointed board, effective July 1.

Entrance to Normandy High School campus
Google Maps screen capture

A task force set up to make recommendations for the future of the unaccredited Normandy School District says a new structure with a new name, within the current boundaries of the district, should be set up. It would report directly to the state board of education.

The Normandy School District was classified as unaccredited as of Jan. 1, 2013.

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