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Normandy-Francis Howell arrangement stirs memories of earlier transfer program

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: David Glaser wasn’t in St. Louis three decades ago during the height of public opposition to the region’s first interdistrict school desegregation program. He’s learning about some of the old outcry as emotions rise in St. Charles County where the Francis Howell District is preparing to take students wishing to transfer there from Normandy.

Francis Howell is acting in the context of a state law requiring districts to educate students wishing to transfer out of unaccredited school systems.

Normandy, which is unaccredited, has chosen Francis Howell as the receiving district of choice, agreeing to pick up the transportation costs for those students wishing to transfer there. Normandy won’t pay for transportation to other accredited districts in the county or an adjoining county if students choose to transfer there.

Although school desegregation is an old issue in the region, the coming influx of students from Normandy hasn’t pleased some in the Francis Howell district, notes Glaser, CEO of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., which oversees the voluntary desegregation program.

“Some of the staff that have been part of the organization for a long period of time tell me it’s a little bit like déjà vu,” he says of the reaction in Francis Howell. “When the program was initiated back in the early 1980s, there were similar concerns from districts and families.”

Glaser says the new opposition, voiced on Facebook and other means, stems from “fear of the unknown. People have concerns, fears, founded or  unfounded. It will take time to adjust to the reality and recognize that the reality is not as great as the unknown.” 

He and others say the region has learned lessons from that first school transfer experience even though the reason for the latest transfers is different.

“The program we started (in the 1980s) was an integration program. It was put in place in response to a federal court order to give black students access to better academic programs” either in county schools or in improved city schools.

The new program isn’t race-based, Glaser says. “It doesn’t matter if you are African American, Caucasian, Asian or whatever your ethnic background. If you live in an unaccredited district, you are entitled to attend a school in an accredited district.”

Those in the old program realize that every child can learn.

“No matter where you’re coming from, whether you are a resident or coming in from another district, (students) will perform to your expectations," said Glaser. "If you have high expectations of how students are going to do, it’s much more likely that their performance will go up to meet those expectations.”

In addition, he says professional development programs have helped “people understand each other a little bit better over a period of time and helped each other be successful. Education and information over time can help you overcome fears of the unknown and other concerns out there.”

Another lesson learned, he says, is the way school leadership can become a force for helping a community accept change.

“Now that the programs have been in place for 30 years, I think most folks see it as a win-win program, as a positive thing for kids from the city and a positive thing for families in the county for children to be educated in a diverse environment.”

Referring to the current opposition, he says, “You have to measure the noise and recognize that sometimes the folks that make comments are not necessarily a sample of the entire community.”

Among those offering broad praise for the new transfer model is Susan Uchitelle, the first director of the St. Louis voluntary school desegregation program. The program's goals included boosting the percentage of black students attending predominantly white schools in the county and upping the number of white county students enrolled in city schools, especially through the magnet schools program.

Normandy and some other county districts were excluded from that program because they already had high percentages of minority students.

“This is very interesting and totally different” from the original desegregation program, Uchitelle says. “It may be the next phase of desegregation, by including those districts that couldn’t participate. Allowing students in those districts to have opportunity to participate in school choice is a very good thing.”

She said that the one big lesson of the original program was the way it “led to more integration between African American and white students, not only in schools but long after graduation.”

Others praising the new model were more cautious, based on what they say are other lessons learned from the initial desegregation program.

“It’s a mixed bag,” says John Wright, an author who has been a superintendent in several area districts including Ferguson-Florissant and Normandy. "Normandy and Riverview have no choice because the law says in schools that do not meet accreditation, the kids can leave.”

Wright worries that this development might worsen the plight of unaccredited districts because “those students who are leaving tend to be among the best and have parents who tend to be more active in school activities.” Those left behind, he says, include low performing students who might have been motivated by those transferring from the district.

In spite of the law making transfers possible, Wright argues that not all students will be welcome.

“We have to look at the long range of what happens to kids, whether they will be successful if they transfer. And if they are problem kids, will they end up back where they ran from?”

Glaser raises a similar issue, but he says only a small percentage of students enrolled in the original desegregation program ended up returning to their old schools.  Still, he is concerned about how this transfer program will affect students left behind in unaccredited districts.

“Not all of the students are going to transfer. The unaccredited districts are going to have to pay out huge sums of tuition to the accredited districts. It will have a huge financial burden on those districts and ultimately on the kids who remain in those districts.”

Glaser says, “I think the intent of folks who passed the law was honorable and laudable. But there are going to be some unintended consequences. It’s probably not quite as simple as passing a law.”

He says the issue raises a question of whether “there is maybe a different and better solution, such as providing resources to those districts to get them accredited.”

The initial area school transfer case was triggered by a lawsuit by a parent, Minnie Liddell. Another plaintiff was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The lawyer now handling that case, William Douthit, praises the latest turn of events involving school transfer issues.

“This is beyond what Liddell plaintiffs talked about, but the districts aren’t overstepping any boundaries, because the state law provided for this. It appears that they are acting in the best interest of children. Certainly we support public school choice and African-American achievement. That’s the priority, to allow students to achieve to the level of their ability.”

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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