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As start of school approaches, Mehlville prepares for transfers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 24, 2013, Amid all the public forums and policy debates and concerns over bus routes and travel times and possible culture clashes, Mehlville High School senior Kaitlyn Krejci is sure of one thing:

Any children who enroll in the south St. Louis County school district from Riverview Gardens will be welcomed enthusiastically by their fellow students.

“I didn’t see it as any big deal,” she said when asked about her reaction that Riverview Gardens had chosen Mehlville as the district to which it would pay for transportation for transfer students. “I thought it was great for them. More power to them. I’d like to share our school….

“As soon as they walk into the door, they’re a Mehlville kid.”

No one yet knows how many Riverview Gardens students – or students from Normandy, for that matter – will transfer under the law that lets children living in unaccredited school districts enroll in accredited districts in the same or adjacent county.

Since the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law last month, events have moved quickly as districts that may have been expecting a quiet summer instead have had to cobble together plans for big changes when classes begin next month.

Under the law, the unaccredited districts have to pay tuition for any of the transfer students, but they also designate a district to which they will pay transportation costs as well. For Normandy, that district is Francis Howell, in St. Charles County. For Riverview, it’s Mehlville.

The two unaccredited districts are accepting transfer applications until Aug. 1. Once residency of students is verified, efforts will be made to match them with their stated preference of districts they would like to attend. The Cooperating School Districts is coordinating the effort; matches are expected to be announced the first week of August.

When Superintendent Scott Spurgeon announced that choice at a Riverview Gardens board meeting earlier this month, one of the factors that he said had influenced the decision was the fact that Mehlville has room to accommodate what could be hundreds of transfers.

But Eric Knost, superintendent in Mehlville, doesn’t entirely agree. He has reassured his patrons that “we will apply very reasonable parameters for receiving transfer students.”

“Moving forward,” he wrote in a message on the district’s website, “we are currently analyzing our available space throughout our ten 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.”

And in a message posted on Facebook on Tuesday, Knost noted that the district has become the focus of a lot of attention, from the New York Times on down, and he anticipates that at Thursday night’s school board meeting, “I'm quite confident there will be at least a few, maybe more, negative and somewhat questionable public comments to contend with.”

He added:

“No one has to like the process.... heck, I'm even beyond frustrated with the process and the law as it stands. But the law and the Supreme Court's decision remain and as caring educators, parents and community members, we can't let kids, any kids, get caught in the crossfire. Screaming and yelling and pointing fingers in public forums or meetings do nothing to resolve the underlying issues.

“At the end of the meeting, the ruling won't be any different but as adults, we'll have further served as the ultimate role models for the young people in our community and beyond.”

In an echo of what Krejci and others have said, Knost concluded that Mehlville “will continue to prepare to receive a limited number of students and when they come, we will welcome them as our own with open arms. They will learn and participate alongside our existing students and they will become, on day one, our students.”

No big deal

That attitude was already the dominant one in a conversation with Krejci and two of her classmates at Starbucks on Tesson Ferry Road last week. They talked about the differences between their generation and that of their parents, and how, in the words of Christopher King, senior class president at Mehlville High, Riverview Gardens’ decision was hardly earthshaking.

“I didn’t think of it as a big deal,” King said. “If the kids really want to get an education, then more power to them.”

King, Krejci and Mirza Jahic are members of the character committee at the high school and take part in a variety of other activities as well, from dance to student council to sports to speech and debate to National Honor Society – in short, the kinds of student leaders any administrator would want to help lead a welcoming committee.

Krejci said she knew about Riverview Gardens because her aunt teaches elementary school there. Jahic said, “I actually didn’t know what Riverview Gardens was until I looked it up.”

But regardless of their degree of familiarity before the announcement, they are clearly ready to make any newcomers feel as comfortable as they can.

They said a mentoring program for new arrivals, and after-school tutoring to help students with academics, are two ways the transition can move forward smoothly once classes begin in Mehlville on Aug. 15.

One reason for such hospitality, they said, is the fact that Mehlville has taken part in the areawide voluntary desegregation plan for many years, so the concept of transfer students is not new. Another is the fact that the Mehlville area includes a variety of nationalities, including a large Bosnian population; district officials have said 54 different languages are spoken in students’ homes.

That kind of variety, Krejci said, makes it easier for students to go from school into society at large.

“I think it’s so awesome,” she said. “If your grandparents talk about when they went to school, they weren’t exposed to a diverse population. Then they had to go into the real world.”

And while such openness may not always be present in an older generation, Jahic said this may be a good time for children to become teachers.

“I think if the parents don’t have that attitude,” he said, “the students can bring it to to them. It’s a two-way street.”

If the students are willing to take a long bus ride to a school way out of their neighborhood, Krejci said, “I think it’s kind of nice. A lot of people aren’t driven in their education. I’m excited for these people to have this opportunity.”

Changing times

For Cindy Martin, who graduated from Mehlville High School 40 years ago and had a son who graduated in 2008, the prospective transfers also are welcome, though she worries about how the district is going to fit them all in.

She recalls that when she was in high school, with a freshman class of 1,000 students, she had to spend half of her school day in another building because the high school didn’t have room for the exploding population.

Now, Martin said, the concern is holding the line on class size and making sure that teachers have enough time to pay the proper attention to each student.

“Their idea of how many they have room for and my idea and the idea of other parents might be very, very different,” she told the Beacon. “Especially in the lower grades, that could be a real problem.

“When a teacher doesn’t have the time to allot to kids individually, it can be really tough. That’s when the parents have to step in.”

She noted that the Mehlville-Oakville Foundation has raised money to pay teachers to stay after school and tutor students who need help. That sort of assistance, plus small classes, should help deal with any academic deficiencies that transfer students bring, she said.

“As long as we can manage the size,” Martin said, “three-fourths of the battle will be won. If you have more than 25 kids in a class, nobody is going to get extra help.”

When she was in school, she recalled only one African-American student, who lived in the district. Of the 11,000 students in the district now, Mehlville says the racial breakdown is 83 percent Caucasian, 8.5 African-American and 8.5 other, including Asian and Hispanic. About 1,000 of the district's students are Bosnian.

As a result, Martin said, “I don’t think kids today look at color barriers as much as generations in the past. I think there is a lot more diversity, and kids today see diversity.”

A larger concern than race, she said, is dislocation, having to travel to an area that may seem foreign.

“To ride a bus that long and get off and not know anybody, that might be a little threatening in the beginning,” Martin said. “The little ones will probably be a little more frightened when they get on the bus, and I hope that the classroom teacher will work with kids to make things a little warmer.”

On a topic that has been a frequent concern in Francis Howell and Normandy – possible misbehavior by transfer students – Martin expressed confidence that any problems can be handled swiftly and surely.

“I heard all the horror stories about how behavior is atrocious and kids get in trouble,” she said. “Kids get in trouble everywhere. But I hope that if it happens here, they will put their foot down and say we are trying to help you, and if you are not going to take advantage of it, you’re not going to come. I want someone to come who wants to learn and knows it’s an opportunity.”

In the end, she pretty much agrees with the student leaders: Once the initial difficulties are worked out, the school year will progress smoothly.

“Kids are kids,” Martin said. “I think they’ll be fine.”

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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