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Education

Editor’s Weekly: A smooth start on student transfers

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

Last month, I worried that the school transfer issue could evolve into a perfect storm of our region's most emotional and intractable problems. Urban-exurban resentments, timid leadership, educational inequality and race -- all potentially feed the mix.

Since then, many people have stepped forward to avert that ugly convergence. In Normandy and Riverview Gardens -- the unaccredited districts where students have a right to transfer out -- school opened amidst expressions of renewed community commitment. "These are our kids, too," Joseph Anderson, president of 100 Black Men, told Beacon reporter Robert Joiner on Normandy's first day. "We want to make sure the men and women in high school understand that they have a future in front of them."

The receiving districts -- Francis Howell, Mehlville, Kirkwood and others -- gave a warm welcome to the new arrivals. That shifted the spotlight, at least for now, from the reservations and resentments expressed earlier by some parents and officials. A smooth start to the school year should be routine, but in these circumstances it's cause for celebration.

Of course, the storm threat is far from over. This week, as Beacon education reporter Dale Singer noted, the state board of education grappled with daunting questions about how to improve unaccredited districts. Eventually, state education officials must decide whether to maintain some form of accreditation for the struggling St. Louis and Kansas City schools. Those pivotal decisions could add tens of thousands of students to the transfer rolls -- or could leave those same students trapped in schools that don't fully meet state standards.

In coming months, the legislature will revisit the transfer law. It would be politically expedient to rescind the right of students to transfer at the expense of failing districts or to rescind the obligation of other districts to take them in. Either change would take the heat off politicians -- and ease the pressure to actually solve the problem. But if we put education at risk for some students, sooner or later we all pay a price in diminished prospects.

Ultimately, transfers alone can't solve the problem of inadequate schools. Yet despite its flaws and financial risks, the transfer law provides an immediate and significant option for families in failing districts.

Dale's reporting addressed a central question: Does transfering students help them? “There is a boatload of literature that shows where you go to school matters,” William Tate, chair of the department of education at Washington University, told Dale. “There is no credible study that doesn’t come up with that conclusion. Place matters a lot.”

Connecting too many dots among unrelated news developments can lead to nonsense. But this week, I couldn't help but see common threads that run through disparate matters.

One connection struck me after reading Jo Mannies' story about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. A new exhibition on that subject at the Missouri History Museum conveys some hard and pertinent truths about our historical legacy.

By law, we were a racially separate and unequal society. This injustice resonated forward through inferior schools, segregated housing and a litany of lost opportunities -- and it echoes still in the challenges we face today.

Yet we have always been a racially intertwined society as well. The death this week of the scholar and author Albert Murray brought renewed attention to his fight against black separatism. As The New York Times explained in his obituary, Murray insisted "that the black experience was essential to American culture and inextricably tied to it."

His point makes sense to me. However troubled the relationship may be among races and classes in America, however divided we may be by privilege and experience, our lives and prospects are entwined.

State education commissioner Chris Nicastro seemed to be getting at this truth when she spoke to the school board in Jefferson City. “This is not about St. Louis. This is not about Kansas City. It’s about all of our kids, and all of our kids belong to all of us," Nicastro said.

“I see this as an opportunity for us to really come together. This is not a geographic issue. This is not a political issue. It’s a moral issue about what are we going to do for our children.”

Sincerely,

Margie

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