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School situations in St. Louis, KC show mirror images

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: This time last year, the St. Louis Public Schools were pushing for an upgrade in their accreditation classification, making the argument that the latest state evaluation gave them enough points to climb out of unaccredited territory.

Chris Nicastro, who heads the department of elementary and secondary education, originally said the district had shown improvement, but not enough to win provisional accreditation.

The district, she said when the 2012 MAP scores were released, “appears to be a success story. But I think they still have a way to go."

Yet eventually, after making a presentation to the state board, St. Louis carried the day and left the unaccredited category it had been in for several years.

This year, Kansas City schools are in a similar situation. They have been unaccredited since Jan. 1, 2012, and were even the focus of a new law that would let the state step in more quickly to intervene in its operations.

But the scores that were released by state education officials last month – the first under the fifth cycle of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, or MSIP5 – showed Kansas City had scored high enough, 60 percent of the 140 points possible, to be provisionally accredited.

Nicastro’s reaction?

The Kansas City Star reported that she told a school rally in Kansas City that she wanted to see at least two years, if not three, of gains under the new evaluation system before her department recommends any change in its classification.

But, she added, “The entire Kansas City area should be proud of what’s been accomplished here.”

Kansas City school officials plan to meet with state education officials, then with the state board of education at its September meeting to make their case.

Meanwhile, while St. Louis schools were provisionally accredited under MSIP4, the latest scores put them back into unaccredited territory, with just 24.6 percent of the total points earned.

So what is likely to happen with the schools from Missouri’s two largest urban areas? Will Kansas City get provisional accreditation – and avoid having large numbers of its students transferring to neighboring accredited districts, as has happened in Riverview Gardens and Normandy?

And will the poor showing by St. Louis schools mean they will bounce back into unaccredited territory, with the potential of thousands of students heading for suburban districts, with the city schools footing the bill?

State education officials say that because the new evaluation system relies heavily not just on one year’s numbers but on measuring growth of individual students and progress made by grades, they want to use more than one year’s worth of data to make such decisions.

But they add that the state board can change any district’s classification at any time, even without a recommendation from the department of education, though officials acknowledge they don’t recall that ever happening.

Stability, not volatility

One big factor in the relative positions of the schools in St. Louis and Kansas City is the difference between MSIP4 and MSIP5, according to Margie Vandeven, Missouri’s deputy commissioner of education for learning services.

The older evaluation system was changed, she explained, to put more emphasis on how well school districts are doing in terms of improved student achievement.

“We wanted to recognize improvement a little more quickly if possible,” she said. “But we did not want to create a volatile system. That’s not good for anyone.”

Under the new system, she said, points are awarded based on a four-tier rubric: at the floor, approaching proficiency, on track and exceeding. For school districts whose scores fall in the top three categories in the subject areas tested – English, math, social studies and science – the system is relatively stable.

But those with scores in the bottom category need to show more progress and growth before they can gain any points. That is why for districts like St. Louis, the annual performance report may show a string of zeroes. They do not mean that no students got any questions right; they mean that the district did not show enough upward momentum to gain points for a particular subject.

Kansas City’s 60 percent score showed that they have experienced growth, Vandeven said.

“They are showing improvement in their academic areas,” she explained. “They are in the floor, but they are getting academic points primarily for what they showed in science and social studies. They really still have a long way to go in terms of student achievement.”

For St. Louis, when it was judged by the MSIP4 standards last year, the re-examination by DESE showed steady upward movement in a lot of areas where poor performance had plunged the district into the unaccredited classification in the first place.

“We saw at that time there was promise of sustainable trends of improvement,” Vandeven said. “I think we did the best at that time that we could with the information that we had in front of us.”

Under the MSIP5 standards, though, St. Louis fell short.

“They did not perform as we had hoped,” Vandeven said. “If a district is going to be accredited only on improvement, we want to make sure it is sustainable.”

Transfer case looms

With the ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court in June that upheld the student transfer law, the issue of accreditation takes on added importance.

The law allows students who live in an unaccredited district to transfer to an accredited one nearby, with their home district paying the tuition and in some cases the transportation costs as well.

When St. Louis regained provisional accreditation last fall, the possibility of thousands of students leaving the city – and costing the city schools millions of dollars – was averted. But the Supreme Court ruling has not resulted in transfers in Kansas City this fall.

A case from that area is still making its way through the courts, with oral arguments set before the state Supreme Court on Oct. 2.

The issues in the Kansas City case – primarily whether the transfer law imposes an unfunded mandate on school districts, violating the Hancock amendment to the Missouri Constitution – are similar to those decided in the St. Louis case. But no plaintiffs have stepped forward in Kansas City to force transfers this fall, so the issue is on hold there.

But that hiatus has not stopped pressure on state officials to restore accreditation to Kansas City schools. Sly James, mayor of Kansas City, wrote in a letter to Nicastro that the test scores “show considerable progress” and he hopes that district officials will be given every chance to make their case for accreditation.

He noted that unlike St. Louis, where the boundaries of the city match those of the school district, besides the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools there are 13 other separate school districts within the city's boundaries, so the situation presents unique challenges. He also said he has paid attention to the transfers in St. Louis and knows what disruptions they can present.

“I have watched recent education related events in St Louis with great interest, sadness and fear,” James wrote.  “The transfer situation in the eastern part of our state is a precarious one.”

Complicating the issue for Kansas City is the fact that there is no one on the state board of education from there; the closest member is Charlie Shields of St. Joseph. Stan Archie, the pastor of a Kansas City church who had been president of the board, resigned earlier this year after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him.

But despite the requirements of the transfer law, and the potential expense and pressures that students moving from one district to another can bring, DESE spokeswoman Sarah Potter said accreditation decisions have to be based solely on MSIP5 data.

“We can’t compromise the system that we spent four years creating because of the student transfer law,” she said.

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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