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Normandy Falls, Riverview And St. Louis Rise In Newest School Report Cards

Even though the school transfer issue aroused passionate debate last year, the issue still isn't resolved.
File | Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio

Take a look at a statewide map showing how districts performance has changed between the past two school years, as well as five takeaways from the report cards.

While St. Louis Public Schools and Riverview Gardens have made solid gains in their push toward accreditation, Normandy finds itself in a deeper hole, earning just 7.1 percent of the possible points in Missouri’s latest list of school report cards released Friday.

Normandy’s score, down from 11.1 percent last year, was by far the lowest of the 519 school districts in Missouri. The district, now known as the Normandy Schools Collaborative, has been run by a state-appointed board since July 1 after the old district lapsed.

The only other Missouri school districts to score below the 50 percent cutoff point for provisional accreditation are Riverview Gardens, now unaccredited, and St. Louis, which has provisional accreditation status despite two years of scores below that level.

In the 2014 scores released Friday, Riverview Gardens increased to 45.4 percent of the 140 points available, up from 28.6 percent last year, while St. Louis rose to 43.2 percent, up from 24.6 last year.

Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols, who began his job on July 1 of last year, noted all of the tumult in the district over the school year and said that the new Normandy is going to have a “strong, laser-like focus on academics.”

“We were looking for growth throughout the organization,” he added, “and we didn’t get it. We’re focusing on leadership, academics, quality instruction as well as alignment to the state standards. We believe that if we do that this year, we’ll see some improvement a year from now.”

Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon, commenting on the progress made in his first year on the job, said he had tried to focus on what the state was looking for, then instill in students and staff what was needed to move ahead.

“I’m extremely pleased with the progress,” Spurgeon said. “We’re obviously not there yet, but we made tremendous progress, and I believe what you see on paper is evidence of great work of our kids, our professional staff and our supportive community.”

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said Thursday that “the picture is not a good one” in Normandy. “I think it underlines the necessity of us doing something different.”

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also released data showing comparative annual performance report (APR) scores for districts that received transfer students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens in the 2013-14 school year.

In almost every case, the scores calculated with the transfer students and with only resident students were virtually the same. The largest difference came in Ferguson-Florissant, where the district as a whole earned 92 points out of 140, or 65.7 percent, but had a score of 69.3 percent – just short of full accreditation – when the scores of transfer students were factored out.

Besides Ferguson-Florissant, University City schools also scored below the 70 percent mark needed for full accreditation. It earned 97.5 points, or 69.6 percent, both with and without the scores of transfer students included.

As previously reported , the Jennings school district, which has been provisionally accredited since 2008, earned a score of 78.2 percent – well into the full accreditation range and up from 65.7 percent last year.

“Noise and distractions”

Since the 2013-14 school year started, Normandy saw about 1,000 students transfer to nearby accredited districts and saw its financial picture approach bankruptcy because of the tuition and transportation bills it had to pay.

To save money, the district closed an elementary school and laid off more than 100 employees at midyear, but those moves weren’t enough to stave off state action. First, the state board took over Normandy’s finances; then it dissolved the district as of June 30, replacing it the next day with the Normandy Schools Collaborative.

All of those changes – what McNichols termed “noise and distractions” – tended to move attention away from the district’s drive to improve academically, he said.

“I don’t think any new superintendent has had to deal with the number of distractions that Normandy school district has had,” he said. “I’m not going to say that it’s an excuse. We need to improve on our academic quality and instruction and learning and leadership. But I would say that because of our situation, there were a lot of things that were required for a new superintendent to have to deal with.”

Now, McNichols added, “It’s a new district, a new collaborative. We have a new staff. I think everyone is focusing on what we have control over this year. Focusing on our students, focusing on the curriculum focusing on quality of instruction. So we’ve got to let the past go on. There are a lot of things from last year that don’t exist now.

Normandy superintendent Ty McNichols
Credit Dale Singer/St. Louis Public Radio
Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols

“We’re charting a new course. We’re focusing on the future. The vision of the past is where we were. I’m focusing on where we’re going.”

Nicastro noted that state education officials have been working in Normandy through the summer to make changes that will result in higher levels of achievement.

“Something significantly different must happen in order to provide a system where children can be successful,” she said.

“Giving them the resources and the capacity to make those changes occur is really what the collaborative is all about. We have got to be successful. It’s not acceptable to have children in a system that is not serving their needs.”

Carole Basile, the dean of the college of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, headed up a panel charged with helping to plot Normandy’s future. She said that all of the tumult surrounding the district didn’t help its chances to improve its score on the annual state report card.

“You’re always hopeful,” Basile said, “but you also know that you’ve got a district that’s in turmoil. In some ways, I guess it’s not surprising that it dipped.

“When people are taking their eye off the ball, not necessarily because it’s their own fault but because that’s what the circumstances are, you take it off student learning, that’s what happens. I think that’s really unfortunate.”

With legal action still pending, the threat of more changes in Normandy remains. But state education officials have been active in the district over the summer, making changes to curriculum and other areas designed to turn the schools around. Basile said having a year of experience could help improve things.

“I think it depends on the leadership and how the leadership reacts to it,” she said. “I would hope the leadership learned a lot from last year. I think there’s still going to be distractions….

“I think at some point we’re also waiting to see what the plan is. I think DESE has been in there and a lot of their people have been in there this summer to build a solid foundation.”

Progress in Riverview Gardens, St. Louis

In Riverview Gardens, Spurgeon attributed the turnaround in the district’s scores to a deeper understanding of what the state is looking for, then a sharper focus on doing what is needed to get there.

Rattling off a series of statistics that show precisely how much the data shapes what the district does, Spurgeon painted a picture of how the Riverview Gardens has moved from one year to the next, and where it is going in the future.

“Any time you do things in any organization or business,” he said, “you want to take measures. Are we doing the right things, and if so, how do you know? What are the tangible results that we can actually put forth and say, this strategy is working?

Credit Tim Lloyd/St. Louis Public Radio
Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon

“Now that we’ve seen some success we are now beginning to take a look at what did we do different last year, with specific groups of kids at specific grade levels, to figure out what did we do differently last year that we didn’t do before, that we can pinpoint and say, this had a tremendous effect on the positive growth of our kids.”

He also knows what happened to Normandy because of the financial pressure of the transfers and hopes Riverview Gardens can escape that fate.

“You can’t keep writing checks when your funds are limited,” Spurgeon said. “At some point in time, if the transfer process continues, we will run out of money. We will go bankrupt unless something happens.”

While he thinks Riverview’s budget can survive another year, he wants the district to gain at least provisional accreditation so the concern over transfers is gone for good.

That worry, he said, is “always something that’s looming over us. We can choose to worry about it, and create a distraction from the focus of taking the best care of our children, or we can continue to be informed about where we are going and make the appropriate decisions that are financially solvent for our district to maintain accountability to our stakeholders and continue on a focused effort on making this the very best high quality academic program we can provide for our kids. I choose the latter.”

In St. Louis Public Schools, Superintendent Kelvin Adams credits the APR improvement to a new perspective on what the state is looking for, then a process of targeting resources to reach the right goals.

The district divided schools into tiers, based on their performance, with Adams overseeing a number of them himself in what was called the superintendent zone. Out of the 18 schools in that category, 12 showed progress, while the rest did not. Still other schools that weren’t under his supervision before have been moved there after poor performance.

Credit Tim Lloyd/St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams

But overall, Adams said, he was pleased that the focus on the standards that are included in the state report card resulted in progress.

“The kind of growth we had in the past year shows we are moving in the right direction,” he said. “We think that with the additional dollars that we have and support we’re going to have in the superintendent zone schools and really across the district that we’ll make the kind of gains that we made this year.

“We can’t guarantee anything. That’s not the nature of this conversation. But we believe we have put some things in place that work, and we want to continue to enhance those things.”

The transfer factor

One big question that accompanied the first year of student transfers from Normandy and Riverview Gardens to nearby accredited districts was how much difference the change of schools would make, both to the students who moved and to the districts they enrolled in.

To help answer that question, for districts that had a meaningful number of transfer students, DESE issued statistics that broke out district’s APR scores in two ways, with the MAP results of transfer students and without them.

For most districts, the scores were close if not exactly the same. In Francis Howell, for example, which had a lot of transfers from Normandy because Normandy designated it as the district to which it would pay transportation for transfer students, the numbers were identical – 135.5 points earned out of 140, or 96.8 percent.

Margie Vandeven, a deputy commissioner at DESE, said that one of the big reasons for the mostly negligible effect of transfers is the small number of transfer students compared to a district’s entire student body.

Credit File photo

In Francis Howell, she pointed out, there were about 400 transfer students in a district with 17,000 students, or a little more than 2 percent.

Plus, she said, “the student transfer law is only one of many circumstances that result in students voluntarily moving from district to district. In a lot of these districts, you’ll see a pretty good mobility rate.”

Nicastro noted that it will be up to the individual districts to analyze which students are doing well in which areas and adjust their teaching accordingly.

The University City school board originally voted to stop taking transfers from Normandy, though that vote was later reversed. One reason cited in the first vote was the concern that in its push for full accreditation, the district’s APR might be diminished by the scores of transfer students.

But in the numbers released by DESE, U. City’s APR with and without transfers was the same – 97.5 points out of 140, or 69.6 percent, just shy of the 70 percent needed for full accreditation.

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, who also sits on that district’s school board, said that because the state wants three years of statistics from the new school evaluation plan before making decisions on new accreditation status, “we’re not out of the red.”

She also said that she welcomed the state’s breaking out the scores with and without the transfer students’ scores, despite concerns by some that they could fuel racial tensions.

“We should have those numbers,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “It is accountability to the maximum degree. Taxpayers deserve to know performance based on poverty and on policies the state board has enacted.

“The same people who don’t want numbers broken out for transfers are most like the same people who don’t want to say there’s a racial problem that exists in North County.”

Attorney Joshua Schindler, who has represented families in Normandy who oppose restrictions on transfers that were put in place by the state board of education, said the relatively small effect of transfer student scores on receiving districts’ scores bolsters his case.

“It just reinforces what I’ve been saying all along,” he said. “If you put these kids in the right environment, they will perform. Until Normandy can earn full accreditation, any child who is eligible to transfer elsewhere for a good education should have that chance.”

Second year of MSIP5

The scores are the second annual reports under the fifth version of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, or MSIP5 . Points are awarded in five categories – academic achievement based on MAP scores of the district as a whole; subgroup achievement by specific groups of students based on factors such as poverty, race and disability; college and career readiness; attendance; and graduation rate.

For districts with grades kindergarten through 12th, which includes most districts in the St. Louis area, half of the 140 points possible come from academic and subgroup achievement.

State education officials have said they do not plan to change the accreditation status of districts until three years of MSIP5 data are available, though they have made exceptions.

"Our districts are in a major transition." -- Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro

This year, for example, Kansas City’s status was upgraded to provisionally accredited from unaccredited when its score was calculated at 66.1 percent, up from 60.0 percent last year. And when the state assumed control the Normandy schools as of July 1, the state board gave them a newly created status of accredited as a state oversight district – a move that a St. Louis County circuit judge has said was done improperly.

Even though the St. Louis schools have a score in the unaccredited range, they were granted provisionally accredited status in 2012, under MSIP4. After that decision by the state board, on the recommendation of Commissioner Chris Nicastro, their score fell to 24.6 percent last year, the first year of MSIP5, before rebounding this year.

At a meeting earlier this month, state education officials reported that across the state, proficiency rates in English, math and science fall on the 2014 Missouri Assessment Program exams. But despite the overall drop in average scores, more than 300 districts and charter schools reported gains in either math or English.

Officials cited a number of possible reasons for the decrease, including tougher curriculum, a new pool of test questions and a high number of days that schools were closed because of harsh weather.

Nicastro noted that districts are moving toward implementing new standards, so some drop in scores can be expected.

“Our districts are in a major transition,” she said. “This kind of transition has happened every single time we’ve gone to higher standards or new assessments.”

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.
Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.

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