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Education

Restrictions Eased For Normandy School Transfers

The students will participate in after-school, mentor and summer programs to help them learn skills that could help them in and outside of school, such as conflict management.
Stephanie Zimmerman
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As legal efforts continue to open the Francis Howell school district to students who want to transfer from Normandy, a new policy shift has increased the pool of students able to transfer to any local accredited district.

The move raises new concerns about the financial survival of Normandy, which was taken over by the state after transfer costs drove it to the brink of bankruptcy last school year.

When the state of Missouri took over the lapsed Normandy district and created the Normandy Schools Collaborative as of July 1, the state board of education restricted transfers for the current school year to students who had transferred out of Normandy last year.

But in the wake of a court ruling that said the state board had acted improperly in changing Normandy’s accreditation, that policy has been loosened. Now, all students who had signed up by a deadline in February are eligible to transfer to an accredited school district, whether they had transferred last year or not.

Letters were sent last week from EducationPlus, the cooperative of local school districts which coordinated transfers last year, to parents who had signed up before the February deadline. Noting that “recent events” had prompted the change, the letters ask parents to notify the Normandy Schools Collaborative by this coming Friday, Sept. 19, if they want to take advantage of the opportunity to transfer to an accredited district under state law.

The letters say that for students who did not transfer last year, a lottery will be held the week of Sept. 22 to randomly place students in their first, second or third choice of district, depending on availability at various grade levels. Families would be notified of the results of the lottery no later than Sept. 26, the letters said.

“There is no guarantee your child would be placed in your district/s of choice,” the letter to families of students who did not transfer last year said. “No changes to your Application for Student Transfer Process filed by the February 3 deadline may be made. Please note that student transportation is not provided to the districts of choice included on your application.”

So far this school year, about 230 students have transferred out of Normandy, according to Sarah Potter, spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Asked about statements by education Commissioner Chris Nicastro that costs for transfers could meant Normandy would become insolvent as early as next month, Potter said that situation is not likely to occur unless the number of transfers tops 500. She said 83 more students will be eligible to transfer under the new policy.

“There’s a limit to the number of transfers Normandy can support,” Potter said. There’s only so much tuition you can send out of the district.

“So far, the numbers have been manageable as far as Normandy’s finances. There is a point where there will be more money going out and that will affect the kids who remain in the district.”

She noted that the state board had tried to safeguard Normandy’s financial position by lowering the amount of tuition the district would pay to receiving districts for transfer students and limiting the number of students eligible to transfer.

Now, she noted, both of those restrictions are gone.

Calling the current situation a “balancing act,” Potter added:

"If Normandy is insolvent, there is no more Normandy, and once there is no more Normandy, there are no more transfers." -- Sarah Potter, DESE spokeswoman

“We want kids to be able to go where they want to go to school in this process. It’s not possible right now because of the lack of specifics outlined in the law.”

Would students be hurt if they have to wait until the court allows them to transfer to Francis Howell later in the school year, rather than be able to move now? Potter said DESE has no power to compel Howell to change its policy, adding:

“The timing is unfortunate, but lot of things are coming together that are making it difficult on the kids and on the district.”

She stressed that if Normandy’s budget was hurt too much by transfer payments, the district would be dissolved, students who live in the district would be assigned elsewhere and the transfer program would stop altogether.

“If Normandy is insolvent,” Potter said, “there is no more Normandy, and once there is no more Normandy, there are no more transfers."

Court ruling struck down barriers

The change in eligibility for transfers is the second significant shift in state policy prompted by the ruling last month by St. Louis County Circuit Judge Michael Burton. Earlier, the state backtracked on its determination to pay only about $7,200 in tuition for each transfer student; now, it says it will pay whatever tuition the receiving districts charge.

In that ruling, Burton allowed students who wanted to transfer from Normandy to a variety of districts to do so, ruling that the state board did not follow proper procedure when it classified the new Normandy district accredited as a state oversight district.

Since then, some defendant school districts – Ferguson-Florissant, Ritenour and Pattonville – have said they will accept all qualified Normandy transfers. But Francis Howell has stuck to its policy of accepting only those students who win court orders.

On Friday, attorney Joshua Schindler headed back to court, this time representing 12 parents and 23 children who wanted to transfer from Normandy to Francis Howell. So far, he has limited his court motions to similar groups of students, but he said he plans to seek request that future action encompass a class of all families who want their children to attend Francis Howell and filed to transfer by the deadline.

It was unclear how quickly the court might rule on such a move. Once it does, Schindler has said, any defendants who want to appeal the case to a higher court could do so.

Asked whether Francis Howell plans to continue restricting transfer students to those who win the right to enroll in court, rather than following the lead of other districts and opening the district up to any qualified Normandy student, Howell spokeswoman Jennifer Henry said the district would not make anyone available for an interview but did send this email response:

“I can tell you that we are not blocking students who want to return; we are continuing to comply with all court orders and laws regarding student transfers. FHSD’s actions are not an attempt to prevent children from transferring as you suggest, but based on our belief that transferring students is not the solution to unaccredited schools and that students are best educated in neighborhood schools.

“FHSD is also trying to protect the interests of the Normandy Schools Collaborative by allowing them to keep their resources in their school district. The state has put together a plan to improve the learning and teaching in Normandy, but they have to have the resources for the plan to work. While allowing approximately 350 students to transfer out would help those students, the approximately 3,000 plus students left behind would soon see their financial resources depleted to the extent that district would not have the means to improve.”

"We are not blocking students who want to return; we are continuing to comply with all court orders and laws regarding student transfers." -- Jennifer Henry, Francis Howell spokeswoman

In an interview, Schindler criticized Francis Howell for wasting time and money to restrict the transfers rather than using those resources to help Normandy students get a better education.

“It’s an absolute stall,” he said. “They want to wait until parents think it’s too late for their students to transfer….”

“It’s absolutely unfair to these students.”

Children who stayed

While the legal maneuvering continued over students who want to transfer, parents of those who have stayed visited Normandy schools during open house Wednesday night. At Lucas Crossing elementary school, their reactions to the school year so far was mixed.

Christina Carter said her kindergarten son is learning a lot.

“I believe it’s a very good school,” she said. “I love this school.”

She said she had given no thought about transferring him to another district.

But Gina Pike said that while she was giving Normandy a chance, she had doubts about the district’s curriculum for her daughter and was weighing whether she ought to transfer to Pattonville.

“I think it’s way behind other school districts,” she said. “I know that firsthand. I need that to change.”
Lachona Thames thought about sending her first-grade son elsewhere, but she liked the location of Lucas Crossing and didn’t have the money to pay for private school.

Is she satisfied with his classroom experience so far?

“Honestly, no,” she said. “I feel as if he’s doing kindergarten work and he’s now in first grade. I feel as if there’s not enough homework. I feel as if the things that he’s learning now in first grade that he is more advanced than he’s being taught.”

For Mark London’s four children at Lucas Crossing, the school year has started off on a better note.

“From what I’m seeing right now,” he said, “my children are excited about the school. That’s a positive right now. We’ll wait and see what’s going to happen.”

And Pierre Mason said that while he decided to keep his second-grade son in Normandy for reasons of convenience, he also realizes that the school district needs help to do its job well.

“My expectation is that he learn and he continue to learn and continue to progress,” he said. “I don’t rely solely on the school. I expect that I have to do my part and make sure I follow up with his reading, follow up with his math and with all the rest of his learning activities that they have and make sure he does the work that they’re asking him to do.

“So it’s good to have a school to help do part of it, but it’s a family that makes the whole thing complete. That’s how I feel about it right now.”

Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols noted that some students who had transferred in the past have returned to Normandy, and other families are waiting to see how the legal fight is resolved before deciding where their students should attend class.

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

While that battle is being fought in the courts, he said, state officials can watch over that side of things. His staff is going to focus on teaching kids as best it can.

“Last year from my perspective was about surviving and not closing the schools,” McNicholsa said. “We have schools now in the Normandy footprint. This year is about building more effective quality schools within that footprint.

“I think we’re at the point right now where we can focus on the instruction and curriculum side and we’ll have to wait for the courts to decide what’s going to happen this time with the number of kids who get to transfer out. Once that gets settled, I think we can really focus on what can we do and what we can’t do.”

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