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Tough Grader: Nicastro Gives Her Tenure As Education Commissioner A C+

DESE website

As she moves toward her retirement after more than five years as Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Chris Nicastro has definite thoughts about what she got done, what she would have liked to accomplish and what her successor needs to bring to the job.

She also – after just a slight hesitation – has a pretty good idea of how, as a teacher, she would grade her tenure in Jefferson City.

“Oh …. probably a C-plus,” she said during a wide-ranging interview this week at the Wainwright state office building downtown.

So you’re a tough grader?

“Yeah, I’m a very tough grader,” Nicastro responded with a laugh. “I am a tough grader, and that’s OK. I think again, by nature, if you’re never satisfied, and you’re always looking for something better and always looking to improve, you’re never going to be satisfied with where you are. I would hope that the next commissioner shares that same desire for excellence and high expectations.”

Chosen by the state board of education as commissioner after serving as superintendent in the Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood school districts, the former civics teacher said that her tenure in a very public position changed her textbook notions about how government really works.

“I’ve commented to friends in recent years that I’m very glad I didn’t have to go back and teach civics again,” Nicastro said, “because clearly my perspective on government has changed a lot by my experience working at the state level. Probably with some distance, I would be a little more objective, but I’m not sure what I taught my students is exactly the way things work today.”

When she announced her retirement last week, effective at the end of the year, Nicastro said she looked forward to spending more time with her patient husband, children and grandchildren in St. Louis. After some relaxation time, she says she expects she will become involved with education again at some point, but she has nothing definite in mind.

“My passion and my mission for the work have not abated,” she said, “and I suspect I’ll be connected in some way. But I don’t know what that looks like just yet.”

Here are excerpts from the interview, which touched on Common Core, student transfers, unrest in Ferguson and more. The excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.

On her hiring:

"I was the first and only commissioner ever who brought that urban perspective to the department. But I think what the state board of education was mostly interested in was change. The mandate that I had from them was, and I’ll quote one of the board members, to ‘shake  it up.’  The state board of education at that time had seen so many changes occur in public education, both in Missouri as around the country. They saw a number of things coming down the pike, including some concerns with urban education, but also concerns in general with children in poverty, not just in urban areas but in some of our small rural districts and certainly in some of our communities in southeast Missouri and other places around the state. I think they were looking for change.”

On governing in an era of scarcity:

“One of my mentors, 30 some years ago, when we went through another very serious downturn in the economy, I can remember this gentleman had been in public education for 40-some years, and his comment was: When the feed gets low in the trough, the horses start nipping at each other. I think that’s very apt. I tend to understand that vernacular a little more now than I did at that time, but the point is that when resources are scarce, competing interests really come to the fore. It’s always difficult to balance what I need compared to the greater good, when there has to be a choice.”

On efforts to bring change to Wellston, Normandy and Riverview Gardens:

“If you haven’t made a significant difference, you need to do something different. But just because you change something doesn’t mean it’s going to be that way forever. Because then it becomes part of what may need to be changed again. It’s important to be what I call nimble and flexible so that you can evolve and change as the environment requires. That was true in Wellston….

Chris Nicastro greets Normandy students at the start of the school year.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Nicastro greets students at Normandy High School on their first day of classes last month.

“In crafting this state oversight district (in Normandy), we were trying to craft that space in a legal way that provided an opportunity for students to transfer from Normandy or Riverview or any other unaccredited district and still maintain the fiscal integrity of the sending school while adequately and fairly compensating the receiving school for their educational costs. We think we did that. The court disagreed….

“In the meantime, it’s important that we do everything we can to get children settled in school. The adults in this situation need to think about the timing of how to handle these legal questions and do it in a way that does not impact negatively on the education of children. The last thing Normandy or Riverview needs right now is a two- or three- or four-month delay in their education or another transition. Our kids have too many transitions as it is."

Putting an appointed board in charge in Riverview Gardens was "one of the most difficult times and meetings in my career. Any time you invest yourself in a community, particularly in a community that is in such desperate need of help in providing quality education and equitable opportunity, part of yourself stays there. So going back into that community, meeting with those folks, local elected leaders and the parents and the teachers – I just saw a lot of friends. That was for many, many years my home. And I continue to think of north county as my home. I spent the majority of my life there. I continue to think of that as a place where my heart is still, and certainly as I think about what I’m going to do going forward, I hope I can be of service in some way to that community.”

On success in Jennings:

“It absolutely is replicable, and my hat’s off to Tiffany Anderson, her staff, her board, her community. They’re doing a great job, and what they’re doing is focusing on teaching and learning. Every single day, progress in a school district is based on what happens between a teacher and a group of students. We can talk about all these other extraneous issues. We can talk about so-called wraparound services. But when it gets right down to it, children are best served by a good teacher in front of the room who has high expectations for them and helps prepare them for success. That’s what’s happening in Jennings.”

On teaching students after the death of Michael Brown and when to discuss the unrest:

“I empathize to some degree with the decision not to address that issue immediately. Leaders and teachers  understood that the trauma was still ongoing -- that as long as you have active police forces on the streets and nightly demonstrations going on, perhaps that was not the time to be talking about what was happening objectively. That was, in fact, the time to reach out, enfold the kids and make sure the children, their parents and others knew that their kids were safe in school, and that the school in fact was a place where they could go for refuge and for some peace. It was a place where they could find comfort. So dealing with that level of trauma immediately was the most important thing, and the schools did an excellent job of doing that.

“There’s no question that going forward, in recent weeks, teachers and schools have been talking about what’s going on, talking about the issues, allowing kids to interact about that from a scholarly and intellectual point of view. But it’s also very difficult to separate that intellectual discussion from the emotional one and from the experience that kids have had. There have been some sample lesson plans that have been circulated and other things, some of which are very good tools. Some of which are terrible. Frankly, people who are outside that situation don’t have a good understanding of the emotions and the cultural impact that those events have; they’re just not well prepared to help teachers teach about what happened.”

On upcoming changes in learning standards:

“The one really good thing that came out of the common core debate is that we have for the first time in my career the active involvement of a lot of people in crafting Missouri standards. We’ve had standards in place in this state for decades, and that’s one of those things that’s appropriate at the state level, that we should have a common statewide set of expectations for what all kids should know and be able to do.  Prior to this debate, that was always established by educators and teachers and leaders and curriculum specialists. We would debate amongst ourselves what kids should know and be able to do. We might have a public meeting or two. We might even have a town hall meeting in a district. But generally those were done by, for and with educators. Parents generally were not part of that conversation for the most part.

"I do not believe for one minute that what comes out of this is going to be a set of standards for Missouri's kids that are going to be less rigorous than the Common Core." -- On new learning standards

“This time it’s going to be very different. We do have parents engaged. We do have communities engaged. We have other public officials engaged. I have to believe that’s going to be helpful. I do not believe for one minute that what comes out of this is going to be a set of standards for Missouri’s kids that are going to be less rigorous than the Common Core. What they will be is clearly Missouri standards, and that’s a good thing.”

On what she would say in a note left in her successor’s desk drawer:
“It would say take stock of where you are. I would also advise them to be strategic in their use of time. My first year, for example, I made an attempt to meet personally with every legislator. I was not successful, but what I also discovered was that I had a list that was made up of over half people who were leaving that term. So all the work and all the meetings I did, I’m not going to say they were not meaningful, but clearly my time could have been more wisely expended.”

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