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Education

Normandy School Superintendent Resigns

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Courtesy Normandy School District
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(Updated at 9:32 p.m. with Pearson quotes, resignation statement from McNichols)

Normandy school superintendent Ty McNichols resigned from his post Thursday night after the state-appointed board that runs the district made plans to begin a search for someone to serve in his job.

Charles Pearson, a retired educator who had been serving as chairman of the five-member Joint Executive Governing Board, will take over as interim superintendent. He resigned from the board and was replaced as board president by Andrea Terhune.

Pearson will be paid $150,000 a year, pro-rated over the number of months he serves. McNichols, who became superintendent on July 1, 2013 — less than a month after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a law that allowed students who lived in the unaccredited districts to transfer elsewhere — earned $180,000 a year. A search for a new superintendent is expected to begin immediately, directed by Peter Kachris, who has been the liaison between the district and state education officials.

The board went into executive session for more than an hour Thursday night, then came out to report McNichols' resignation and the fact that a nationwide search would begin to find his successor. McNichols was not present after the board resumed its meeting in open session.

When it returned, board vice president Richard Ryffel read a statement from McNichols about his resignation. It read in part:

"I realize that change is hard and that many people will have mixed reactions by this news. Let me reassure you that I truly loved working in the Normandy learning community. Although I am leaving my position as superintendent of schools, I am still committed to working in a learning community that makes collective decisions based on practices and strategies that support all staff and student achievement. I will also keep fighting for the civil rights of those who have been silenced or marginalized — students and staff.

"I also want you to know that making this decision was not easy. Sometimes you have to go to grow and sometime you must go so that the organization can grow. Only time will tell ...

"Thank you for the opportunity to make a difference in your lives."

In a statement, Missouri commissioner of education said of the action in Normandy:

“We thank Dr. McNichols for his work in Normandy schools, and we support the Normandy Joint Executive Governing Board exercising its responsibility in overseeing district leadership. We are confident in Dr. Pearson’s ability to successfully lead the district during this time of transition.”

The financial drain that resulted from the transfers led the state to first take over Normandy’s finances, then to dissolve the district altogether, replacing it with the Normandy Schools Collaborative last July 1.
 

McNichols, 50, had been working without a contract since the district became the Normandy Schools Collaborative last July 1. Under a plan being considered by the school board, he would have been eligible to apply to continue in the job, but he had no assurance he would be staying. 

Pearson, who holds a doctorate in education, began his career in Normandy schools and also worked in Clayton and Maplewood-Richmond Heights. Since 2008, he has been an instructional leadership consultant for struggling schools and has provided professional development in cultural responsiveness, effective communication strategies and parental engagement strategies for schools, according to information from the district.

In an interview after the meeting, he said one of his top priorities is to change what he called a negative narrative about Normandy.

“There's a narrative that just gets me right here," he said, striking his heart. "It always starts with lowest performing school district in the world. I mean that's what it feels like. All the children are poverty-stricken, their future is doomed, and they probably will most likely end in violence. That narrative is just out there.

"We're afraid our children are going to start to believe that narrative, and that's just unacceptable."

He said the board wants to see if there is someone out there who can help turn Normandy around, adding that he feels the state wants to see progress in just five more semesters before it takes more action concerning the district.

"One of the things we recognize," Pearson said, "is that by setting up a scenario where I can serve as a transition while a national search can take place, we can ultimately bring somebody in who has had more experience around transforming a district."

And, he added, the new board needs to have its own person in the job.

"“This district is in a challenging place right now," Pearson said, "and because we weren't the ones who hired the former superintendent, once we became the board who in turn was responsible for it all, we felt an obligation to at least begin to have conversations about if there were another leader out there.”
 

Charles Pearson
Credit Normandy Schools Collaborative
Charles Pearson

The unexpected shakeup at the top came as Normandy is preparing to take the next round of state exams that make up a large part of Missouri schools’ annual evaluation. In the last round of scores that came out in August, Normandy had actually gone down from its numbers the previous year, earning only 7.1 percent of a possible 140 points — the lowest grade in the state.

William Humphrey, who was head of the elected Normandy board that hired McNichols as superintendent, said in an interview Thursday before McNichols’ resignation was announced that what he called the “chaos” of the transition to the new collaborative undermined the superintendent’s effectiveness. And, he added, “the transfer program was a distraction for the schools’ program” to improve academic achievement.

As one district ended and the new one was created, Humphrey said, too many people were making decisions. “When you do that,” he added, “it makes the work of a superintendent that more challenging.”

Terry Artis, who also served on the elected Normandy board, pointed out that McNichols had been hired before the transfer law was upheld, then began work in the midst of a very unsettled situation.

“The circumstances that he came into would have been devastating to anybody there,” Artis said.

Chris Nicastro greets Normandy students at the start of the school year.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Chris Nicastro greets Normandy students at the start of the school year.

Chris Nicastro, who retired as education commissioner at the end of December, had previously served as superintendent in two other north St. Louis County school districts, Hazelwood and Riverview Gardens. She is familiar with what it takes to turn around a struggling academic situation.

“There are some people,” she said in an interview, “who believe that if you have a positive culture, and everybody loves everybody, things are going to get better as a result. My belief is that that is not enough. It is not going to overcome all the learning deficits. It’s going to take structured action to meet their needs and keep the district afloat.”

She added that raising low test scores and public confidence can be an almost impossible task.

“It’s something you have to think about 22 hours a day,” Nicastro said. “The drive for improvement has to be all-consuming.”

McNichols has been a frequent visitor to Normandy classrooms, where he is known as Dr. Ty. But state education officials and the newly appointed board have had concerns that his skills as an administrator may not be what the district needs as it tries to improve under the close scrutiny of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

DESE has sent top officials into the district to monitor academics and other areas, and it has a liaison, Kachris, who reports back to Jefferson City. Still, sources say, officials have been frustrated at an inability to get the complete, timely data that they need to make sure Normandy is moving in the right direction.

When the district’s score on the state evaluation actually dropped from last year’s 11.1 percent, state officials expressed concern. After a joint meeting between the state board and the district’s elected board in the fall, the state board granted the local board more authority over personnel and other areas traditionally handled on the local level.

The state also accepted an ambitious district accountability plan that includes a series of achievement benchmarks as well as strict oversight of teachers and their performance.

That came in the wake of complaints by teachers and parents that despite the replacement of the old Normandy district with the new collaborative, conditions had not improved and the state had not provided Normandy with the assistance it needed to succeed.

McNichols became superintendent in Normandy on July 1, 2013 — his first job as a superintendent. Normandy and Riverview Gardens were the only unaccredited districts in the St. Louis area at that time, and about 1,000 students, or 25 percent of Normandy’s enrollment, chose to attend classes elsewhere, as the state transfer law allowed. That number is down to about 420 this year.

The financial drain on the district prompted Normandy to close an elementary school at mid-year and lay off about 100 employees. Mick Willis, the district's assistant superintendent for operations, told the board Thursday night that the district's finances are still in precarious shape. 

"It's a survival budget," he said, "but we're surviving."

But those actions weren’t enough to prevent the state board of education from voting to first take over control of the district’s finances, then to dissolve the district altogether, turning it into the collaborative last July 1. All contracts were declared void, teachers and others had to reapply for their jobs and McNichols and other top administrators were serving at the pleasure of the five-member Joint Executive Governing Board, which was appointed by the state.

Before the current school year began, two of McNichols assistant superintendents left to work in other Missouri districts, and a third left a few months after classes started in August. About half of the district’s teaching staff is new, and all teachers went through an intensive two-week training program before classes began.

The state board declared that the new Normandy was now accredited as a special state oversight district and tried to limit the exodus of students under the transfer law. But a St. Louis County judge forced the state to loosen the restrictions it had tried to place on the transfers.

Before becoming Normandy superintendent, McNichols served in a variety of administrative roles in Hazelwood, Kirkwood and Clayton schools.

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