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Normandy school superintendent addresses safety issues

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2013: The new superintendent of Normandy schools had a lot of positive things he wanted to talk about Wednesday night, but much of the district’s board meeting was spent trying to counteract something negative – Normandy’s reputation for being unsafe.

As controversy continues to surround Normandy’s decision to designate Francis Howell as the district to which it would pay for transportation for transfer students, the big issue that came up time and again was security, for students who might transfer and for students who remain in their home district.

Ty McNichols, who took over as superintendent on July 1 -- just as the machinery began moving for students in unaccredited Normandy being able to transfer to accredited districts – made clear that he knows about the district’s reputation as being dangerous. And he’s going to do what he can to counter it.

“I get that,” he said. “I want every kid to feel safe.”

Part of the effort to get that done, McNichols added, is to make sure that everyone knows what will happen when the rules are broken.

“Word’s gong to get out,” he said. “You do it. You’re going to get caught, and there are going to be consequences. We are going to follow through with consequences.”

And he countered the perception of the district with the reality that elsewhere, actions may not be punished the way they are in Normandy, so other districts’ disciplinary records may be deceptive.

“I’m not saying we don’t have our issues,” McNichols said to applause from a crowd of more than 200 people at Lucas Crossing Elementary School. “But this is a public school. This is not a prison. We must start treating kids with respect and we must demand respect.”

When time came for comments from the audience, two parents from Francis Howell came to the microphone to say that not everyone who lives in the St. Charles County district is like some vocal residents who made clear at a meeting last week that Normandy students would not be welcome.

Christine Ownby put it this way:

“We’re not all like everything you see on the internet…. We’re all going to have to work together. End of story. It’s going to require work on everybody’s part. Nip things in the bud. I don’t care whose kid it is. Some behavior is not acceptable.”

And LaWanda Wallace, from Normandy, complained about the reputation that the district has of being thugs who are going to ruin the quality of education at Francis Howell.

“I have to wonder,” she said, “am I in 2013 or am I in 1954? It’s great you can choose to go to another school district, but not if you’re going to a school district that doesn’t want you to based on stereotypes….

“Everybody needs a chance.”

Why Francis Howell?

McNichols started his remarks by detailing to the crowd why Normandy chose Francis Howell as its designated transportation district.

He said the choice was made based on academics, how much room would be available for transfer students, the cost of tuition that Normandy would have to pay and travel time.

“People ask me, ‘Why don’t you pick Clayton?’” he said. “It’s close. But they charge $21,000. For every single kid I send to Clayton, three kids could use those resources in Normandy. I don’t think that’s fair to the kids who stay in Normandy.”

Francis Howell will charge tuition of $11,000 a student.

Why not Parkway? McNichols said that while the northern part of that district is relatively close to Normandy, the district extends all the way south to Interstate 44, and parents can’t designate what school they want their child to attend, only what district.

“I didn’t want our kids sitting in traffic trying to get to Parkway South,” he said.

So far, McNichols said, 540 students living in Normandy have applied to transfer. The district’s enrollment is about 4,000.

Detailing all of the changes he plans to make in Normandy, even before school starts Aug. 19 – new principals at the high school and middle school, new alliances with area universities, new emphasis on the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math, a literacy expert to help with communication arts – McNichols urged parents to consider keeping their students in Normandy.

And, he said, his administration will give parents more information and more consideration than they may have felt they were getting in the past.

“I know some of you are impatient,” he said. “You feel like nobody’s listening to you. Well, we’re here tonight. We’re going to do better….

“We can agree to disagree on the answers, but that’s not being responsive to people.”

The most important message he had was for parents who keep their kids in Normandy: It’s a new day. Things are going to change for the better.

“We have to ensure they have a quality education here,” McNichols said, “every day of the week, all day long.”

Nicastro responds

Meanwhile, Chris Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, responded to a request by St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann that the state name a special administrative board the Normandy schools as soon as possible.

A new law, signed last week by Gov. Jay Nixon, allows the state to step in and take over unaccredited school districts immediately, instead of having to wait two years. Ehlmann said that naming an SAB for Normandy could help its efforts to regain accreditation.

In her reply, Nicastro noted that while the SAB in the St. Louis Public Schools has achieved that goal, and the city schools are provisionally accredited, the same type of governance did not save the Wellston school district from being abolished and its schools being absorbed by Normandy. In Riverview Gardens, where an SAB has been in place since 2010, she wrote that the three-member board “is not showing to be effective to date.”

A spokeswoman for Nicastro said the commissioner made that statement based on student achievement scores in Riverview Gardens.

In her letter to Ehlmann, Nicastro said the department of education is working to develop a plan to help struggling school districts, along the lines of similar efforts in Tennessee, Michigan, Louisiana and elsewhere. She hopes to have the plan in place by January.

“All this said,” Nicastro wrote, “we are two weeks from the start of school. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to do a thoughtful analysis and determine the appropriate intervention for Normandy in that length of time. As you well know, the problem of underperforming schools is decades old. We can only hope that the angst associated with implementing the Supreme Court decision creates an environment where collective responsibility and thoughtful study produce a statewide plan for support and intervention.

“All children deserve a quality education. We are dedicated to ensuring that they receive one. Your help in crafting a plan would be appreciated and welcome.”

In a request for proposals from companies that could help the state develop a plan to help struggling schools, DESE said any report should focus on Kansas City schools – the only other district in Missouri besides Normandy and Riverview Gardens that is unaccredited – but the resulting strategies could be used elsewhere as well.

According to the request for proposals, the plan should be designed to bring about “substantial, lasting improvement for the students currently attending failing schools, improvement that dramatically increases the odds that all students will graduate from high school ready for college and/or careers and proceed to successful postsecondary activities.”

The plan should address both how the schools would operate and how they would be governed, as well as the steps needed to get to the conditions the plan prescribes.

Bids on the proposal are expected to be returned no later than July 26.

Information from Mehlville

In Mehlville, Superintendent Eric Knost said that he plans to meet personally with every family and student transferring to the south St. Louis County district from Riverview Gardens, which has designed Mehlville as the district to which it will pay for transportation, or from Normandy. He said no students from Normandy have indicated an interest in coming to Mehlville.

“I’ve been in touch with many Riverview Gardens parents who are simply interested in a quality school to send their children,” Knost said in a statement posted Wednesday on Mehlville’s Facebook page. While we will not be able to accommodate all requests to transfer, those who do transfer will be received, nurtured and educated as our own students.”

Addressing issues of space available, Knost said:

“We are currently analyzing our available space throughout our 10 elementary schools, four middle and two high schools. We will only fill seats in specific classrooms with lower and more desirable numbers. No class with higher numbers will be receiving transfer students and no single class will receive more than a few students. 

“Any open spaces we determine will be spread throughout all of our buildings and grade levels and there will be little impact on the overall enrollment in any school. Due to capacity, some specific schools and some specific grade levels will receive no transfers.”

He also noted that no transfer student with any record of disciplinary problems would be allowed to register in Mehlville.

Knost said that because of the transfers from unaccredited districts, Mehlville would not accept any more new students under the voluntary desegregation plan. But David Glaser, chief executive officer of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., said that all of the slots Mehlville had said it would have for the program this fall, about three dozen, already had been filled, and those students would be allowed to enroll. He said Mehlville, which has taken part in the program for many years, is expected to have about 450 deseg students this fall.

In his statement, Knost said that a long history in the deseg program has prepared the district well to receive any transfers from Riverview Gardens.

“These students opt for a transfer out of troubling city schools to receive an education in our district,” he said of the VICC students. “While in the early years of desegregation there were notable issues, this hasn’t been the case for years. With our involvement in the VICC program, we do not experience the same issues depicted in some of the more troubled city schools.”

Knost noted that because Mehlville has a high population of students whose first language is not English, the district is used to dealing with students and families from a wide variety of backgrounds.

He also said he has devoted much of his time to be personally involved in the transfer situation.

“Throughout this process,” Knost wrote, “I want the world to see our school district and our community as a true district of character. Many comments and suggestions being made are either uninformed or misinformed.

“As the superintendent of the Mehlville School District I will make sure we are complying with the law while keeping the best interests of all students in mind. The quality of education in the Mehlville School District will never be compromised. Under my watch, I will see to it that we continue down the strong, successful path we have paved in recent years.”

Mehlville will hold its regular monthly board meeting next Thursday night.

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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