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n Riverview Gardens, hope for the school district is blooming again

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2009 - Rev. Ken Jones remembers when the end of the school term at Riverview High School was known mostly for student violence rather than as a time of celebration. But last year, he says, peace prevailed.

"I've seen a cultural change, a complete transformation, no fights, more peace. It's remarkable."

The Rev. Jones, pastor of Refuge and Restoration Church in Florissant, recalled that moment during a well-attended hearing Tuesday night on the accreditation status of the Riverview Gardens school district. Some of his church members attend schools in the district.

The hearing is one of the steps the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is taking before deciding whether the district has made substantial progress since losing its accreditation in June 2007. It was given two full years to improve or face a potential state takeover.

Despite the can-do, positive spirit that prevailed at last night's hearing, there is no denying that the district has an uphill battle ahead. It needs to meet nine state performance standards to become fully accredited or six to become provisionally accredited. So far, Riverview meets only one.

Speaker after speaker voiced overwhelming support for the district, saying it has made substantial progress since 2007. The positive vibes were in sharp contrast to the turbulent meetings when the district was led by Henry Williams, the superintendent ousted in 2007 after being accused of misappropriating the district's money. He later was sentenced to 30 days of shock time, placed on five years of probation and ordered to reimburse more than $100,000 to the district. Two highly regarded female educators, Rhonda M. Key and Natalie Thomas, now serve as the district's co-superintendents.

"Trust was lost prior to the new administration," Rev. Jones said. "Trust has come back. It's truly a blessing to see what has happened in a short period of time."

Brandy Nickelberry, a senior, told state education officials she felt compelled to speak as a voice for the district's students. An A-student, Nickelberry praised the district for beginning to offer additional honors classes and giving her a solid academic foundation for pursuing a career in pharmacology. She says she has scholarship offers from several colleges. Thomas, one of the co-superintendents, says the problems in the district had included a silver lining of bringing people together.

"That has given us the strength to keep moving forward. Quitters are not winners. You saw a community of winners tonight."

Chairing the meeting were two assistant state education commissioners – Charles Brown and Stan Johnson. Both said the meeting was positive, and Johnson added that that district had put together a good plan for improving.

Johnson said it would take the state several months to determine the outcome of the district's effort to regain accreditation.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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