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Spurgeon named superintendent in Riverview Gardens

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 17, 2013 - A divided board in Riverview Gardens has hired Scott Spurgeon, former superintendent of the Belleville Township High School District, to be the new superintendent in the north St. Louis County district that is unaccredited and under state control.

The vote to hire Spurgeon for three years at $170,000 a year was 2-1, with his hiring favored by members Mark Tranel and Veronica Morrow-Reel of the special administrative board that was appointed by the state in 2010. Lynn Beckwith Jr., head of the board, dissented.

Spurgeon, 47 was one of two finalists for the job; the other was Shelly Mills-Walker, an assistant superintendent in the Ritenour School District. He will succeed Clive Coleman, who told the district last year that he would be leaving when his contract expires at the end of the current school year.

Riverview Gardens is one of three districts in Missouri, including Normandy and  Kansas City, that is unaccredited. Coleman was hired by the SAB when it took over at Riverview Gardens in 2010; at that time, the old district lapsed and all positions had to be newly filled.

The district has 6,000 students. Under the SAB, it has not made much progress in its drive to regain accreditation. In its most recent evaluation under Missouri standards, it met only four of 14 possible standards, with a minimum of seven required for provisional accreditation.

“I am extremely honored to accept the position,” Spurgeon said in a statement released by the district. “My goal is to improve student performance and build capacity in the organization and workforce.”

In an interview, he said that he was looking forward to his July 1 start date, for the chance to work with the district's staff and teachers. He said his first task will be to begin building relationships and earn the respect he will need to help raise the level of student achievement.

Asked what skills he can bring from his job at Rockwood, in a different type of environment, Spurgeon said:

"I think with any organization, transferrable skills include the ability to have courageous conversations about learning. 

"The challenges in any school are very similar. Our job as educator is to provide the highest level of instruction for our students in the classroom. That's our daily mission, and one of the challenges is going to be providing appropriate resources, training and relationship-building to make sure teachers are equipped to do what they have to do in the classroom."

In the statement, Beckwith said of the appointment:

“We welcome Dr. Spurgeon to the Riverview Gardens School District. The position will require hard work and dedication and we believe Dr. Spurgeon has the skill set necessary to get the job done.”

He elaborated in an interview, saying that Spurgeon’s previous experience in Belleville gives him a good sense of what a district in an urban area needs to succeed.

“He has a very good knowledge of what has been done in successful school districts to reach a level of high academic achievement,” Beckwith said. “He knows what it takes, personnel wise and money wise.”

Beckwith said both of the finalists were well qualified. “We just chose one over the other.”

Mills-Walker, who is African-American, had commented during a public forum on the superintendent search last week that in Riverview Gardens, whose student enrollment is 98 percent black, it would help if students saw someone in charge who looks like them. 

Asked about that statement, Beckwith said, “It did not play a role in my decision, but there were people in the audience who were offended by her comment.”

Did it become part of the deliberations?

“It was mentioned,” he said. “It wasn’t a major factor, but it was mentioned.”

Morrow-Reel said in an interview that she respected Mills-Walker “for being bold enough to make the comment.” She added:

“I can understand how she may feel. I don’t think it was the best venue for that statement. It kind of surprised me to hear her say it. Even though we have a large African-American population in our schools, there are goals on a wider level that we as community leaders have to set for the community. One of the things we are looking at is making our community attractive to individuals from all different backgrounds.”

Asked how long it may take before Riverview Gardens regains accreditation, at least at the provisional level, Beckwith said he hopes it can be accomplished during the next three years.

“I know that MSIP5 is more challenging,” he said, referring to the new standards for judging Missouri school districts that take effect this year. “But I think we’re on the right track in the district. I never thought it could be done in three years. It took the St. Louis Public Schools five years and nine months.”

Besides the year and a half that Spurgeon spent as superintendent in Belleville, he has served in administrative roles in the Rockwood and Northwest R-1 school districts as well as working as an education consultant. He was an unsuccessful candidate last year for the superintendent's job in Jennings.

He told the forum last week that his short tenure in Belleville was due to a divorce, and he left the job because it kept him away from his children.

Morrow-Reel said she respected that situation.

“He had to step back and get his personal life in order,” she said. “Then he wanted to move forward with his life. All of us, no matter what the situation, now and then have to take a step back and identify the goals that we want to set for ourselves.”

She said Spurgeon’s work as a consultant gave him more experience in a lot of areas.

“I think he will do a great job,” Morrow-Reel said.

She characterized the deliberations over the superintendent selection as a detailed discussion that took a lot of pros and cons into consideration.

“We know that this is a really, really important decision on behalf of the school district,” Morrow-Reel said. “As a resident and a taxpayer in the district, I took all of that into consideration, and it kept me up late some nights.”

In addition to his education experience, Spurgeon spent two years in the minor leagues as a baseball player in the Houston Astros organization. His record, according to Baseball-reference.com: batting average of .189, playing primarily at first base. His career ended after 12 games in 1989.

He said that five years before he began playing in the minor leagues, he had surgery on both of his knees, so he was no longer able to squat and do some of the physical things that baseball required and what he was able to do as a first team All-American.

But, Spurgeon said, even his brief career was one that made his dreams of playing baseball come true and let him gain a feeling of success and confidence that has helped him as an educator.

"I can tell you without question," he said, "that I've been truly blessed by God, thathe gave me the skills and the opportunity to do what I had wanted to do since I was a young boy, and it will be an experience that always stays with me. I appreciate what it takes to do hard work and see your dreams realized."

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