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State schools chief sees no changes soon in control of St. Louis schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2013 - Missouri’s commissioner of education said Monday that until three years of data are available from the St. Louis Public Schools under the state’s new evaluation system, she doesn’t see a move toward restoring control of the school district to an elected board.

Meeting with members of the elected board at Harris-Stowe State University, Chris Nicastro covered a wide range of topics, from accreditation to the transfer law that allows students in unaccredited districts transfer out, to the special administrative board that has run the St. Louis schools since 2007.

The special board's current authority runs out on June 30 of next year, subject to an extension by the state board of education. Though the city schools received provisional accreditation last year under the previous evaluation system, known as Missouri School Improvement Program 4, or MSIP4, it slipped back into unaccredited territory this year under the first year of MSIP5.

Nicastro has said all along that until the state has enough years of data to see how a district is trending in terms of academic achievement and the other factors judged under MSIP5, including attendance, graduation rate and preparing students for college or a career, she does not plan to recommend any changes in accreditation status.

So, when asked about whether the department would be talking to the board about moving St. Louis schools out from under control of the SAB and back to the control of the elected board, she responded: “At this point, we can see no reason to have that conversation.”

Kansas City

In Kansas City, which currently is unaccredited but showed marked improvement in its first MSIP5 evaluation, officials have pushed for Nicastro and the state board to bump the schools into provisional accreditation status. They have met with the commissioner and last week made a presentation to the state board.

Anyone who wants to play what Normandy’s school superintendent calls the “MSIP game” better make sure to know the rules. But the complicated nature of the evaluation system can mean that simply doing better in academic achievement may not be enough to score any points, let alone enough to raise your percentage score to an acceptable level.

After the meeting with the elected board, Nicastro told the Beacon she plans to meet with her staff, then respond this week to the Kansas City school superintendent about his request for a recommendation of the upgrade. She would not say what the recommendation would be.

The state board has the power to make such a change without a recommendation from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, but Nicastro said she does not know of a situation where that has been done.

Moving from unaccredited to provisional accreditation would remove from the Kansas City schools the looming threat of allowing students who live in the district to transfer to neighboring accredited districts, as students in St. Louis County's Normandy and Riverview Gardens have been able to do this school year.

Transfer law

Asked about the transfer law by members of the elected board, Nicastro acknowledged that moving students from one district to another probably isn’t the best way to improve their education. And, she added, it financially harms the sending districts, which need money to help the students who remain.

"The current transfer law is unsustainable in its present form,” she said.

Instead, she said, making students’ home district better would be preferable.

The transfers help students and their families distance themselves from the schools near where they live, Nicastro added. She said that accrediting school districts is probably not as effective as accrediting individual schools, as the elected school board has urged, and said that change could help boost school performance.

"What I’m talking about is communities,” she said. "I think one of the reasons why some of our students have failed is because the communities are not engaged sufficiently with their schools.

"I would hope that something like that (accreditation for individual schools) would help us regalvanize our communities to get more involved with their schools, so that communities not only expect quality education in their schools but they demand it.”

But, Nicastro added, as long as the transfer law that was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court in June remains on the books, transfers of students living in unaccredited districts are likely to continue.

"The law is what it is,” she said. "From the department’s perspective, we can’t do anything about that.

"Ultimate, the way we are going to provide access to high quality education for every child is within the neighborhood community where they live. What parents really care about is their child’s school. That’s what they want to know, how is my child’s school doing?”

Educationally, though, students who have enrolled in accredited schools are benefitting.

"They are getting a better education in Mehlville, Kirkwood or Francis Howell than in Normandy or Riverview Gardens,”  Nicastro said, "and that’s good. But we want to give them the option to find good schools in their own community."

Holding students back

When board members brought up the finding in the recent state audit of the city schools that the district is promoting students who aren’t reading as well as they should, Nicastro said that the problem is a difficult one to solve.

"One of the things we know is that remediation is not particularly effective,” she said. “We also know that holding children back, retention, is not particularly effective. We have to think differently about how we help children succeed."

Overall, Nicastro said, the discussions about student transfers and other school issues since the court upheld the transfer law has been healthy.

"There has been more conversation about quality education than I have seen in my entire career," she said.

"That by itself is a good thing. We need to all recognize that these are all our children, and whether we live in that community, or those kids go to school with our kids, we are all responsible for the education of our kids."

Legislative hearings

Student transfers were among several issues addressed by a Missouri House committee on education that held hearings Monday afternoon in St. Charles County and Monday evening at St. Louis Community College at Meramec.

Statistics released by Cooperating School Districts on Monday said the latest total of students transferring from Normandy and Riverview Gardens is 2,267, including 450 to Francis Howell, 441 to Ferguson-Florissant, 253 to Hazelwood, 216 to Mehlville and 179 to Kirkwood.

Committee chairman Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, told both hearing sessions that the purpose of the meetings, which will continue across the state later this week, is to get testimony from the general public how problems with education in Missouri may be solved. He noted that a joint legislative committee on education will hold a three-hour hearing on the transfer law Oct. 1 in Jefferson City.

“We know there are issues out there,” Cookson told the Meramec session. “We’re looking for testimony that has good answers.”

Differences in city

Leading off the evening testimony was Kelvin Adams, superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, who noted that though the city schools are only provisionally accredited, if individual schools were judged, some would be accredited with distinction.

Adams was asked by Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, if he could specify why some city schools do better than others, and Adams listed three reasons: better leadership, more flexibility to operate and a stronger relationship between teachers and their students.

He also emphasized the big difference that expanded pre-school programs in the city have made, saying that the head start shows up when students are tested three years later.

Adolphus Pruitt, head of the NAACP in St. Louis, asked the committee who is taking responsibility for failing schools.

“At the end of the day,” he asked, “when a child is in a district and unable to get an education, who has the tools necessary to make sure they can reprogram either the district or the educational law that impacts those schools?”

He also wondered about the history of progress made unaccredited school districts in the past, to get an idea of what the chances are that currently struggling schools will be able to recover.

Staying in Normandy

Normandy superintendent Ty McNichols emphasized to the committee that it should pay close attention to the 3,000 students who chose to stay in his district and to the money that will not be available to educate them because of the tuition and transportation costs for transfers – a cost estimated at $15 million.

He said a new leadership team is in place in the district, administrators who have turned things around in other districts, and they have brought with them a new attitude. He also said a new emphasis is being placed on science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM subjects, as well as on literacy.

But, he said, those changes won’t necessarily be enough without two things.

“We need time,” McNichols said, “and we need resources.”

He said additional money, such as the $6.8 million the state board of education voted last week to seek to help Normandy survive financially through the entire school year, wouldn’t be a case of throwing more money at a bad situation.

Instead, he said, it would help pay for implementing a plan that has already shown promise after just five weeks in class.

“Things have changed,” McNichols said. “People are optimistic. The community is ready. We have brought in a whole new team. We’re not talking about the old guard.”

And, he said, he sees a new attitude among students as well.

“All the negativity that they heard out there,” McNichols said, “they are committed to erase that stigma.”

School choice

Bill Haas, a member of the elected city school board, urged that money for schools be available for use in public, charter, private or parochial schools, to give students and their families the widest possible range of options.

His views were echoed by former state Sen. Jane Cunningham, who worked in the legislature on education issues for many years. She noted that thousands of  empty seats are available in parochial schools that charge much less than the tuition of some public school districts in the transfer program.

Comparing school spending and choice to how money is used in other government programs, Cunningham said:

“We give money to Medicaid, but we don’t say you have to go to this doctor or this hospital. We give money for food stamps, but we don’t tell people that they can only go to a grocery story in their own neighborhood.”

Urging passage of legislation to give families a wider choice, she added: “Liberal Democrat Bill Haas and conservative Republican Jane Cunningham agree. That should tell the committee something.”

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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