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In-depth data review helped St. Louis Public Schools win provisional accreditation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 16, 2012 - Back in August, when Missouri schools received their annual report cards and St. Louis had earned seven points out of a possible 14, education commissioner Chris Nicastro said the progress was welcome but not enough for the city to move out of unaccredited status.

But on Tuesday, less than two months later, Nicastro’s staff recommended and the state board of education unanimously approved provisional accreditation for the city schools.

So what changed?

Nicastro told the Beacon that an in-depth review of data requested by the school district and the special administrative board that has been in charge since the schools lost accreditation in 2007 showed a pattern of progress that made the recommendation clear.

“On the whole,” she said, “there is no question. You can look back over the five-year period since the SAB was put in place and you can document they have made significant improvement. Is the district where it needs to be? Absolutely not, but it was enough that we made the change.”

The move does not affect the SAB’s control of the city schools, which has been extended until June 2014.

Nicastro said that while the city schools deserve to congratulate themselves on the upgrade in their accreditation status, the party shouldn’t go on for too long.

“We need to caution people that there is still lots of work to do,” she said. “While it’s hard to get to this status, it’s even harder to stay there. If the district takes more than a very brief moment to celebrate and loses focus on what it’s been doing, it won’t take much for them to slide back to where they were.”

As the state moves to a new method of evaluating schools, Nicastro said each district will be reviewed each year, so St. Louis’ status will get another look next fall and every year after that, with a goal of full accreditation.

In the discussion before the unanimous vote for provisional accreditation, board members echoed Nicastro’s remarks.

“This district – like every other struggling district – is going to get close attention paid by the board because that is our responsibility to the kids,” said board President Peter Herschend of Branson.

Added Mike Jones, who represents the St. Louis area on the state board:

“The district is setting up the systems it needs to help students achieve at higher levels, and we should recognize that.”

For Superintendent Kelvin Adams, the board’s vote meant a very public acknowledgement of the growth that has taken place in the city schools in recent years.

“I don’t think it means we have arrived by any stretch of the imagination,” he said, “but we have made progress. We’re moving forward. Nobody’s jumping up and down – at least I’m not. We’re proud of what has taken place, but we know we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

Adams said that since he arrived in 2008, he has not had any timetable on when he wanted to move out of unaccredited status, and he added that accreditation has never really been the district’s sole focus.

“I am not very patient,” he said. “I wanted it to happen yesterday. Accreditation has always been the short-term result. The long-term result is what happens for the children whose lives we touch every day.”

In-depth review

Nicastro said state education officials had not intended to take another look at the St. Louis schools’ classification, but once the SAB requested a review, the department agreed to analyze statistics in a variety of categories.

A presentation at the board meeting in Jefferson City Tuesday morning compared the district’s performance in 2012 to its evaluation in 2009 in nine specific areas, from finances to academic performance to coordination of all systems.

In all of those areas except two – academic rigor and maintaining a safe and orderly environment – the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found substantial improvement. In those two remaining areas, it was judged to have made some progress.

In MAP scores, for example, the city schools moved from fourth from the bottom among the more than 500 districts in Missouri based on a five-year average to eighth from the bottom this year.

Nicastro acknowledged that such progress may not seem like much, “but for a district with 25,000 kids, that’s significant improvement. The bigger the ship, the longer it takes to turn.”

In terms of finances, she said that at one time, the district was looking at big deficits, but “in the past two years, for the first time I can recall, St. Louis Public Schools have not been on the financially distressed list. Those are some major accomplishments that in our view deserve to be recognized.”

What should the change in the schools’ accreditation status mean to the general public? One lesson, Nicastro said, is that “improvement is possible. Wherever you start, and whatever systemic issues exist in a district and in a school, improvement is always possible.

“Another message is that all of our kids are capable of this. The issues we see in schools that struggle are not due to the student population. Nothing about the students in that district has changed. The changes have all come from the adults.”

And she made special mention of the impact the SAB has had in turning the city schools around.

“We have learned that though maintaining local governance by an elected board is always preferable,” Nicastro said, “in some cases extraordinary measures must be taken to stabilize a system and to provide the kind of drastic intervention necessary to create an environment where improvement can take place. 

“One of the lessons of the St. Louis Public School intervention is that an appointed board, working in conjunction with an effective administrative team, can make a difference. The importance of governance in supporting systemic change has been affirmed.”

Two boards, appointed and elected

Rick Sullivan, head of the three-member SAB, said he was gratified by the accreditation decision – and also by the community support the district received as it pushed for a review of its status.

“What was a very pleasant surprise,” he said, “was how many people and how many organizations weighed in, without being asked. I’m not surprised by the decision, but I’m really pleased by the support from the community members who certainly wanted to see it happen.”

He praised the hard work of students, teachers, principals and Adams' leadership team, and he said board members did what they were asked to do: provide good governance.

“We changed the financially distressed condition of the district and focused on academics,” he said. “I think Dr. Adams has provided four years of great leadership, strong stability and an intense focus on the kids.”

Katie Wessling, president of the elected city school board, praised the state’s decision and was glad it was made independently of whether the district’s new status would mean a change in who was in charge.

“Certainly they have earned provisional accreditation,” she said. “They should have that status. It should not be based on whether someone was worried about governance issues. It should be based on what they have earned. So I’m glad the state board did not let governance interfere with its decision.”

Asked if she thought it was fair that the district would remain under the control of the SAB, Wessling replied:

“I have never thought this situation was fair, so that doesn’t change at all.”

She said she was disappointed to see a comment by Herschend, president of the state board, who told the Beacon that in his personal view, “for the elected board to take over would in my judgment lose all the progress that St. Louis has made to date.”

Wessling said she had never talked with Herschend about the elected board and noted that things have changed considerably since the time when the SAB took over in 2007.

“I’m not aware that he has any current information on our opinions or how we function,” she added. "I’d like to talk to him about that if he is ever willing.”

She said her relationship with members of the SAB is positive, adding: “I feel like if I was concerned about something, they would listen to me as a board member and as a parent.”

Wessling repeated that the elected board has drawn up a plan to make the transition back from the SAB, and she hopes that people pay attention to it.

“I don’t think anyone else has even worked on a transition plan,” she said. “There was no real transition when they put the SAB in. It was just boom – they went from one to the other.”

Other reaction and other impact

One situation that might be affected by the accreditation decision is the so-called Turner case.

In that lawsuit, now being reviewed by the Missouri Supreme Court for the second time, parents living in the city asked for enforcement of a law that calls for students who live in unaccredited school districts to be able to transfer to nearby accredited schools. The home district would pay the cost, and the receiving districts would have no discretion over how many students they would accept.

Nicastro said the case was not a factor in her recommendation that the city schools be provisionally accredited. Sullivan said that while the disposition of the case is ultimately up to the courts and lawyers for the various parties, that because “the unaccredited status of St. Louis schools was the basis for those lawsuits, now, with provisional accreditation, there would seem to be no basis for those lawsuits.”

Schools in Riverview Gardens and Kansas City remain unaccredited, with Normandy schools scheduled to join them as of Jan. 1.

In a statement from his office, Gov. Jay Nixon said the state board’s decision “recognizes the real progress the district has made over the past five years. I applaud this commitment to improvement and the strong support shown by St. Louis business leaders and the entire community, and I urge the district’s leadership, teachers, students and families to keep up their hard work. It is vital that this progress continues because the children of St. Louis need and deserve an outstanding education and a district that has earned full accreditation.”

And Mary Armstrong, president of the St. Louis Teachers Union Local 420, said the reclassification vote “demonstrates that dedication, hard work and perseverance pay off."

In an email, Armstrong noted that "district-union collaboration, financial sacrifices, parental involvement, and student ownership in his/her education have brought us thus far on our journey toward full accreditation. This is one of the giant steps on the path. Although, we are pleased with our progress, we are not content. We won't be completely satisfied until full accreditation has been granted to SLPS….

“All of the stakeholders pulled together for the good of our students and our community we are committed to working with the district to keep making positive progress we all work better together."

Kate Casas, state policy director for the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, took a different view. She said that while the city schools undeniably have made progress, the decision to give them provisional accreditation does not help St. Louis families.

She noted that the vote came “in spite of the fact that 3 out of 5 high school students fail to graduate in four years, 7 out of 10 students are reading below grade level and the achievement gap is widening in all areas and subgroups. These outcomes should make it clear to the public that the expectations are far too low.”

The alliance also emailed reaction from Tiffany Lewis, a parent, who said the reclassification vote “really doesn’t change much for my kids or me.”

“It doesn’t change the fact that in my son’s third grade class, only 3 percent of students are on grade level. As a parent, I’m doing everything I know to ensure he and my other children receive the education they deserve, but I often feel like the decisions about my kids’ education are being made by adults for the self interest of adults.”

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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