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Lawmaker wants special session on school transfers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Responding to angry comments from his constituents in the Francis Howell School District, a Republican state representative in St. Charles County has called on Gov. Jay Nixon to call a special legislative session to change the school transfer law.

If Nixon will not do so, Rep. Mark Parkinson said he will have legislation ready for the first day of next year’s session to address what he called a "wrong-headed decision" by the Missouri Supreme Court upholding a state law that allows students from unaccredited school districts transfer to accredited ones that are nearby.

"The solution is not to transfer our kids from failing school districts," Parkinson said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. "The solution is to transform those failing school districts into the model of success seen in the Francis Howell School District and in other districts around the state.

"Instead, the Supreme Court made a decision that will take money out of the pockets of taxpayers in one county to pay for the education of students who live in another county. Thanks to the Supreme Court, Francis Howell’s quality of education is at risk — and the taxpayers of St. Charles County will be on the hook to educate the students of St. Louis County."

Francis Howell became involved in the transfer situation when the Normandy School District — one of two unaccredited districts in the St. Louis area, along with Riverview Gardens — designated it as the one district to which it would be willing to pay transportation costs as well as tuition for students who transfer there. Riverview Gardens has yet to designate its transportation district.

In response, many Francis Howell residents have taken to Facebook and elsewhere to denounce the court’s ruling and Normandy’s decision. Parkinson’s statement added to that criticism:

"The decision to force the Francis Howell School District against its better judgment to accept the students of the Normandy School District was made behind closed doors and without any public input. There was absolutely no accountability in this decision, and the people who made the decision will not have to live with the consequences. It is an unacceptable breach of the public trust, and a slap in the face to the taxpayers of St. Charles County and the families living in the Francis Howell School District."

He asked his colleagues in the legislature to join in his call for a special session. But in response to a question from the Beacon about whether Nixon is likely to respond to the criticism out of Francis Howell by calling a special session, his spokesman, Scott Holste, wrote in an email:

"Not really — there has to be fairly broad consensus before the governor will call a special session on any topic."

Francis Howell announced on Wednesday that it will host a public town hall meeting on July 11, in the Francis Howell Central High School gymnasium, 5199 Highway N in St. Charles, from 6:00 p.m. - 7:30 p.m., to discuss the transfer situation.

Questions persist

Questions about the transfer process — and answers — continued to grow Tuesday. The Cooperating School Districts, which will act as a clearinghouse for applications for transfer students, developed a list that was designed to help families understand how the process will work between now and the beginning of the school year, next month.

In the case of either unaccredited district, parents should start with the district in which they live. Riverview Gardens, for example, began processing applications Tuesday; Normandy plans to begin the process next Tuesday.

Also next week, Scott Spurgeon, the new superintendent in Riverview Gardens, plans to make a recommendation to the special administrative board that governs the district about where it should pay transportation costs for transferring students.

"We are considering the needs of ALL students, those whose families have chosen Riverview Gardens and those who may wish to transfer," Spurgeon said in a statement released late Tuesday.

"We understand the importance of transportation to many families in our district and know that this information will help parents make decisions for the upcoming school year. We will consider what’s best for students, contact the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the superintendent of the receiving district, then make a recommendation to the board."

Once a student’s residency has been verified, the applications from Normandy and Riverview Gardens families will be forwarded to CSD. In early August, the organization plans to try to match students with their first three choices of whatever district they want to attend. Their home district must pay tuition to the receiving district, regardless of where they end up, but it has to pay transportation costs only to the one designated district.

Students who want to transfer do not have to have attended public schools in Normandy or Riverview Gardens; they just have to live within the district’s boundaries.

Those were the kinds of issues that parents had on their minds when they packed a room at the Normandy administrative headquarters Tuesday afternoon, only to learn that the meeting being held by the district’s board was not addressing the transfer situation.

Instead, said new superintendent Tyrone McNichols — who began his tenure on Monday — the board will hold a special meeting on July 17 to address parents’ questions and concerns.

Still, McNicols was willing to answer a few questions, such as why Francis Howell was the designated transportation district. He said the choice was made based on several factors, including academics, capacity to take more students, distance, tuition and more.

For example, McNichols noted that Francis Howell charges tuition of $11,000 a student, compared with $21,000 in Clayton, so Normandy would be better able to pay for more students to attend Francis Howell.

"I’m going to pay for the best possible quality education at the cheapest rate," he said.

He also noted that Normand will still be responsible for educating the children who remain in the district.

"I don’t believe that all 4,600 of our kids are going to get on buses and go," McNichols said.

One parent in the audience who was looking for answers — and took off work to attend the meeting — was Ceverlyn Jenkins, who has two teens, a son and a daughter, who have attended Francis Howell in the past. She said she was in the process of getting a divorce, and her husband lived in St. Charles County before moving to Hazelwood, where her children attended school the second semester of the most recent school year.

Now that they will be living with her in Normandy, Jenkins — who said she went to school in Normandy as well — is looking forward to being able to send the pair back to Francis Howell, where they had made friends and were involved in school activities.

Jenkins also said her children will benefit academically and noted that they had said the pace was slower in Hazelwood than what they had become used to in Francis Howell.

Having their say on Facebook

On the Francis Howell page on Facebook, comments on the situation involving Normandy approached 400 Wednesday morning, though the district cautioned that some would be taken down if they violated its guidelines.

Here is a sampling of what people had to say, along with the name under which the comments were posted:

Allison Laupp:

"I attended Parkway School District up until the time my parents moved our family to Francis Howell district in 1999. I started as a freshman at Francis Howell, where Pam Sloan was then principal. My parents made their decision to move into Francis Howell, partially because of the issues Parkway had, many caused by transfers from St. Louis city.

"I understand that this is a Supreme Court decision, but has anyone thought through the consequences of years down the road? Like many young professionals, my husband and I built a home in Francis Howell district in 2007, as we saw many improvements in the district underway. The district seemed much better than even when I attended years earlier…. Now I wonder….

"Also, many of the transferred children I went to school with at Parkway were a major distraction and sometimes danger to other students because of their propensity for violence and outbursts — these children were not treated the same way as the in-district children. They were simply expected to act out, and all the other students suffered tremendously. Will Francis Howell be able to determine that some of these children are too much of a distraction and require that they return to their own home district? Will there be a tight policy that dictates how many issues one student can create before the privilege is revoked?"

Amber Lilinoekawiola Peterson:

"My kids just enrolled at Howell this year... they were all a grade level behind from Springfield schools, which are ACCREDITED... it took them literally an entire semester to catch up and still aren't up to speed with the Howell kids... the teachers struggled with helping my kids alone... how does anyone expect them to take on an entire district???"

Dani Eschweiler:

"The number of racist comments on this is seriously overwhelming. Take a step back and look at what some of you are saying. If you don't feel bad, you need to do some personal re-evaluation. 

"Every child deserves the opportunity to receive a quality education. Normandy students aren't failing; the Normandy school district is. If your child was in a failing school and you were presented with the opportunity to send him/her to a better institution, would you not welcome it with open arms?

"And hey, if you are /that/ concerned with the influx of Normandy students, then take your own advice and spend some more money to send your children to a private school. Oh, you can't /afford/ it? Funny, because that's exactly what you're advising the parents in the Normandy school district to do — spend money that they do not have in order to get their children a better education. 

"Finally, I find it extremely funny that I'm 18 years old and I need to explain to you that your taxes are not going to go up because of this. Are you serious? The Normandy School District must pay for transportation and a cost per student (something like a tuition amount). This is an opportunity for the Francis Howell School District to show the quality of their educators and administrators."

Seth Stopke:

"We have dealt with this reverse discrimination all of our lives. I for one am tired of it and will stand for it no longer. I have never been handed anything in my life. I have worked for everything that I have accomplished, and I am not going to let anyone make me feel ashamed of it. We have seen these communities time and time again get the help they needed to improve their communities at the taxpayers’ expense, and they have done nothing to improve their lives. This has been social experiment that has failed for years. We are tired of the state and federal governments telling us what we are going to do with our communities. Now is not the time to back down, this is where we need to stand together and tell our representatives and school board members that we will decide what is best for our community. If I want to help underprivileged children I will do it because I want to, not because I was forced to."

Kimberly May:

"As a parent in the Francis Howell School District, I believe EVERY child should have access to quality education and hope that we welcome the new students without any prejudice or misconception. It is not their fault that their school districts are failing them. My children transferred into the district from a private school over five years ago and they have never had an issue with other students because of race. I hope that the parents fears and insecurities aren't passed onto their children because then we'll have a problem."

Joan Pyatt Hoffmann:

"Aren't the members of the Missouri Supreme Court concerned for the safety of Francis Howell kids? If Francis Howell can't accommodate everyone why hold a lottery? If this happens at least just take the Normandy kids who follow the rules. Those with a history of acting out don't deserve a choice; that goes for EVERYONE, no matter their race or religion. I'm not a racist, I'm a parent who believes in accountability. Stop punishing those who do the right thing and start holding those who make bad decisions accountable."

Nakia V. King:

"They will not ALL transfer to Francis Howell. There are parents in the community who believe in their children's abilities and the Normandy staff. Also there are parents who don't see Francis Howell as a solution because as a parent, we all want to protect our children from the ugliness of this world. Some of the comments that are being made are the views of some of the staff as well. the problem with that is every student is different but they are faced with preconceived notIons of who they are before they have even made a decision. Whether you believe it is racism or not, some of you just grouped an entire group of students as failing; so far from the truth! Francis Howell alone does not have 100% proficient/advanced students so what are you saying? Ignorance breeds fear. Investigate and question before making decisions about people. The funny thing is Francis Howell has participated in diversity training; let us see how it has helped or will people show their true selves. Either way it's a win."

A former deseg student's view

Among the most frequent commenters on the Facebook thread was Etoya White, a guidance counselor at McCluer North High School in the Ferguson-Florissant district. As a student, he took part in the desegregation program, attending schools in Parkway, and earned two degrees from the University of Missouri-St. Louis

He told the Beacon in an interview that when he heard that Normandy had chosen a district in St. Charles County as the one to which it would pay transportation costs for transfer students, he knew it would be Francis Howell because of their strong academic reputation.

"I think it’s actually a credit to Francis Howell," he said. "And logistically, it’s reasonable, based on where Normandy is located and where those kids would be coming from."

White said that because of what he termed the "conservative nature of the residents of St. Charles County," plus some people he knows who live out there, he wasn’t surprised by negative comments about Normandy.

"I know that there are people not fond of the situation by any stretch," he said. "I’m in tune with the history of education here in St. Louis. Look at the majority of people in St. Charles County and why they are there."

Still, he said, he thinks that opposition to students coming from Normandy is a minority opinion, and it’s up to the families who choose to send their students to Francis Howell to make the transition as good as it can be.

“This is where black families have to step up and be accountable,” White said. “It might be the best situation for everybody. Everybody has to sit down and do a cost-benefit analysis and determine what the objectives are for their own students. Use facts. Don’t let emotions determine the situation. Make a choice that weighs the pros and cons.”

Most importantly, he said, families whose students transfer districts need to feel they have a strong support system.

"Don’t support the students less than you did in their home district," he said. "If that’s going to be the situation, keep them home. Don’t do it just because it’s on the table. Do it because it’s the best possible situation for students to achieve their academic and social goals."

Under those circumstances, he said, Francis Howell can end up in a win-win situation, where they welcome the transfers and help them succeed.

"At the end of the day," White said, "no matter who walks in the door, our job is teaching students. I think there are going to be stories about success.

"Are there going to be students who don’t make it? Without question. There are going to be students who drop out in every district. There are discipline problems in every district. But once the shock wears off and we get back to the business of educating students, Francis Howell can take the opportunity to show that they have a system that works."

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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