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New Riverview Gardens board gets an earful in community meeting

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 22, 2010 - Teachers, administrators, nurses and residents of the Riverview Gardens School District packed a middle school auditorium Tuesday night to tell the new Special Administrative Board (SAB) how they think it should help turn the troubled district around.

But the most emotional lesson may have come from a senior at Riverview Gardens High School.

"I love my school district," said Clarissa Reel, her voice choking with emotion as she was one of the last of 29 speakers to address the three-member board -- which includes her mother, Veronica Morrow-Reel.

"I have faith in this school district. Before you do anything, you have to boost student morale. It kills me to walk the halls of the high school and see so much talent being wasted.

"No one thinks much of us anyway. Nobody really listens to students. We really don't have a voice."

Reel's voice was one of many expressing opinions in what started out as a session telling the SAB what positions need to be retained but ended up part pep rally, part sermon on how parents and members of the community need to become more deeply involved in a district that has seen more than its share of problems and negative publicity.

"I could be at home," said Dora Cole, a graduate of the district and president of the high school's parent-teacher organization for four years. "But I still care. I choose to come here and continue to be involved."

Added Patricia Clark, another graduate and an employee of the district:

"I want everyone here, from parents to teachers to administrators to security personnel to custodians to realize that the ultimate goal is our students."

The SAB does not formally take over operations of the district until July 1, but it has met several times to get ready. At the end of June, all contracts -- with teachers, administrators, vendors and more -- lapse, and the first thing the board must do is hire a staff and get ready for the new school year.

Teachers are scheduled to report Aug. 2, and students will begin class Aug. 18 under the schedule recommended by incoming Superintendent Clive Coleman.

He told the crowd at Westview Middle School that the district is holding 50 teacher interviews a day, trying to fill its 400 teaching slots, and 1,600 external applicants are seeking to be hired. He said current staff members should know by the middle of July whether they will have jobs for the fall.

"We're not rehiring," Coleman said. "We're hiring."

The process has not been handled very well so far in the opinion of Richard Thies, head of the district's teachers' union. As the leadoff speaker, he called the situation "total chaos" that has caused "an amazing amount of stress" among staff members unsure of their employment status.

He urged the SAB to treat teachers with more respect, adding:

"Our students cannot wait. They are depending on grownups to act like grownups. We need to lead by example."

One area where speakers said the district's hiring plan is misplaced is school nurses. A number of speakers told the SAB that Riverview students suffer from a variety of ailments from asthma to ADHD to food allergies to diabetes to sickle cell anemia. Plans to cut the staff to just one nurse for the district, with health-room aides staffing individual schools, are inadequate, they said.

Terry Krena, lead nurse for the district, said there were 42,360 student visits to nurses by the 6,500 students in Riverview Gardens last year, and nurses' aides are not enough to care for the children. "To have one nurse to run from school to school is just not adequate," she said.

Other speakers included parents who said the curriculum needs to change to improve student achievement and families need to become more involved in their children's education. Many sounded exasperated with the circumstances that led to the state's takeover of Riverview Gardens and the appointment of the SAB.

"This needs to change, and it needs to change fast," said Holly Richardson, the mother of four students. "I considered home schooling four kids, so I must be crazy."

As the evening wore on, more parents got up to speak of the good things going on in the Riverview Gardens schools -- caring teachers, effective principals and students who had never made the honor roll before whose learning has increased.

That led to Clarissa Reel's emotional statement, one that her mother echoed by saying that even though she was appointed to be a member of the SAB, "I am first and foremost a proud parent of the Riverview Gardens School District."

She said she considers herself a parent of the district as well of a student, adding: "We take this serious. This is not a joke for us."

Lynn Beckwith Jr., president of the SAB, said he plans to work on the district's goals for students, because "no one ever rose to low expectations. We are going to expect a lot of our student. I believe if we expect more of our students, they will give us more.

"In Riverview Gardens, we have a lot of student diamonds in the rough. All we have to do is polish them and they will honor us."

The third member of the SAB, Mark Tranel, noted he had lived in the district and worked to help it succeed for many years, and his new role emphasizes how committed he and his board colleagues are to turning it around.

"We will be here. We care a lot about this school district and believe in this school district. That is why we took on this responsibility."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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