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Editor’s Weekly: School transfer news threatens to bring out the region's worst

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Dear Beaconites --

News that the Normandy school district will bus students to Francis Howell schools raised a storm of controversy this week. Unless cool heads prevail, it could evolve into a perfect storm -- an ugly convergence of our region's most emotional and intractable problems.

What problems?

  • Urban-exurban differences? Check. Longstanding antagonisms divide us, even within the metropolitan region. You can count on them to complicate the school transfer discussion.
  • Timid leadership? Check. Before courts ruled on the matter, state legislators had a chance to improve the confusing law that gives students the right to transfer from failing schools. It didn't happen. Now state and local educators must do their best to sort out the situation. Meanwhile, as Dale Singer reported in the Beacon, some legislators are scrambling to respond to complaints. But finding a reasonable compromise will be difficult in the current heated atmosphere.
  • Educational inequality? Check. Students in Normandy and Riverview Gardens can seek better options than their unaccredited districts. But other disparities among schools continue to play out in the life prospects of students -- and in community reputations and wealth. The region as a whole pays the price.
  • Race? Double check. Normandy's student population is mostly African American. Francis Howell's is mostly white. Some in the receiving district don't welcome the influx, and they made that clear in ugly comments on the district's Facebook page. Further complicating the discussion, Issues of race are sometimes being raised via code words. Of course, school safety is a legitimate concern. But crime and violence are also being used as stand-ins for race as this discussion unfolds.

Unfortunately, a recent Post-Dispatch story – headlined "Normandy High: The Most Dangerous School in the Area" – set the stage for a particularly difficult situation. Some readers criticized the story for reinforcing harmful stereotypes about violence and race. They have a good point. I saw little justification for the headline in the story. And I had to read to paragraph 49 before finding discussion of the fact that most Normandy students are not involved in trouble.
The Beacon has written extensively over the years about our region's difficulty in talking frankly and productively about race. We hope our coverage of school transfers will shed light on a sensitive, race-related topic now.

Dale has been covering the twists and turns of the school transfer controversy for years, and he will continue to do so. In addition, the Beacon's Robert Joiner reported this week on pertinent lessons from the cross-district desegregation program that has been in place for three decades between St. Louis city and county. Though the deseg program has different legal origins, it faced many of the challenges that might arise with student transfers.

In coming weeks, the Beacon will bring you more facts, debate, context and perspective. Deep understanding of the situation will enable all of us to weather its challenges -- and perhaps even to help ward off the perfect storm that threatens our region.

Sincerely,

Margie

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.

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