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Optimism prevails as transfer program opens at Francis Howell

Principal Sonny Arnel
Dale Singer | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: As bright yellow school buses pulled into the parking lot of Francis Howell Central High School on Thursday’s first day of class, the sentiment from students, parent and the principal was the same:

Principal Sonny Arnel said of the transfer students, “You're Spartans, but you're coming from a different situation. What can we do to help you?”

Students transferring to the district from Normandy will be welcome and will do fine, despite some earlier strong negative reaction.

“We’ll be walking a fine line,” said principal Sonny Arnel, surrounded by reporters long before the first students arrived at the St. Charles County campus. “You’re Spartans, but you’re coming from a different situation. What can we do to help you?”

Since Francis Howell was designated by Normandy as the district to which it would pay transportation costs as well as tuition, Francis Howell has scrambled to get ready for the first day of school as well as reassure its community that the transfers would operate smoothly.

At midday, Howell Superintendent Pam Sloan said in a statement to the district's community that for the most part, the first day went smoothly.

"At this time," she said, "transportation from the Normandy School District seems to be the only area where there were some minor issues. These kinds of complications often occur at the beginning of each year as new bus routines are established. We will continue to work with the Normandy School District and their transportation provider to make the needed adjustments to ensure that students arrive to schools on time....

"Thanks for all you have done to help us through this challenging time for our school district. It has taken the greater FHSD community to make the necessary preparations to launch this particular year. Our staff have worked diligently since May to prepare for a great new year of learning, and we are ready to take on the school year."

In all, about 475 Normandy students signed up to transfer to Howell, out of about 1,200 students overall leaving the unaccredited north St. Louis County district. Another 1,400 students applied to transfer from Riverview Gardens, the area’s other unaccredited district. Counting tuition and transportation, the transfers are expected to cost the two districts $35 million.

The transfer process was accelerated after the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously upheld on June 11 a law allowing students living in unaccredited districts to transfer to accredited districts in the same or an adjacent county.

The spotlight that fell on Francis Howell after its designation by Normandy grew harsh during a three-hour meeting held one month later, when many residents expressed in strong terms opposition to the law and fears about what the transfer students might bring.

But the meeting also prompted many parents to react more positively, including some who were recruited by the district to meet with reporters Thursday morning. Kimberly Thompson, mother of a sophomore at Howell Central and a Howell graduate herself, said that as an African American, the opinions expressed at the meeting “really broke my heart.”

“I was disappointed,” she added. “I think I was surprised at the severity of the negativity.”

She was particularly affected, she said, by the reaction of her own children, who said, “Oh boy, Mom. What if that was us?”

Recalling her days at the district, when the African-American population was much smaller than it is now, Thompson said:

“Times have definitely changed. But the reaction at that town meeting shows we still have a distance to go.”

The next day, Thompson said, she began working to see how she could be part of a more positive welcoming experience for the transfer students. Other parents got involved in similar ways, including Joe Falcomata, the parent of a third-grader and a seventh-grader in the district.

He said he has helped assemble gift bags and organize ambassadors to help connect with all families who are new to the district, not just those from Normandy.

The experience, Falcomata said, “was very encouraging. It was a blessing to see their commitment to their kiddos and how they were helping them get the education they need.”

He said he is sure that in a few weeks, the transfers will be acclimated “like any other kids, and things will be fine.”

Shari Wilson, who has two daughters at the high school and one at Saeger Middle School, said the negative vibes that dominated the parent meeting last month were “just a reaction to the news that was kind of dropped in the lap of the Francis Howell School District.”

Now, she said, “I certainly don’t hear that kind of chatter in the neighborhood.”

Arnel, the principal, was clearly glad that all of the extensive planning for the new school year was over and the first day had arrived. He said he was making a special effort to “take a step back and look at what we are supposed to do, educate students.”

He was realistic about the challenges ahead for the 54 Normandy students set to join the other 1,800 students at Howell Central, but he said that the district has planned well and he was certain that the experience will be a positive one for everybody involved.

“The key with us is establishing relationships with the students,” Arnel said. “The spotlight is on us. I hope we can prove that what we do works well.”

He said the school would be closely monitoring academic data and other developments to make whatever adjustments might be needed as the school year progresses.

“We’ve got a lot of things set,” Arnel said. “Now, we will have to see what will have to change.”

But, he said, he is confident that the transfer students will seize the chance they have been given to get a better education.

“They’re ready,” he said. “They’re ready for a change. It’s neat to see how ready they are for this opportunity.”

No Normandy students were available for interviews, as Howell officials wanted to make their first day as normal as possible. The Howell Central students who were brought out to talk with reporters expressed confidence similar to that of the adults that the school year would be a smooth one.

“For me,” said Nicole Sutton, a senior who is president of the student council, “it’s exciting. I get to meet a lot of new people and show them around.”

She said that the Normandy students she met during the recent Transition Day at the high school were excited and nervous.

“They obviously want to be here for the reason that they want to learn,” Sutton said. “They were passionate about it.”

Senior Sean Earl, who is African American, said he didn’t think the students would be entering a hostile environment, despite some of the harsh things said at the parent meeting last month.

“You can’t always control what your parents say,” he said. "We're not what our parents are saying."

Earl added:

“I know there are going to be some bumps in the road. It’s just something we’re going to have to deal with when it happens. This is a new experience for everyone.”

He said the school has zero tolerance for bullying and other disruptions, and he doesn’t worry about the reputation that Normandy has for poor discipline.

“They’re more scared of us than we are of them,” Earl said of the transfers.

Amanda Ottinger, a junior student who was on a panel to help welcome students during Transition Day, said she thought some of the concerns about Normandy students resulted from misunderstandings and the speed with which the transfer situation developed.

“A lot of people thought we were getting the whole district here,” she said.

Now that the transfers are better understood, Ottinger said, “I think it will go really smoothly.  I think they will really enjoy it here. I applaud them for wanting to get a better education.”

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