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Education

Normandy asks: What should a new superintendent be able to do?

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

As Normandy schools begin searching for a new superintendent, residents say they want a strong, experienced leader who can steer the district through tough times and stand up to state education officials who are often seen as an enemy, not an ally.

To add to the district’s turmoil, the principals of Normandy Middle School and Washington elementary school have submitted their resignations, leaving two more key positions to be filled at a time when many qualified educators already have jobs lined up for the coming school year.

Even with the recent changes and controversies, a survey of residents in the north county district found a solid undercurrent of pride in Normandy and its schools.

“Despite the sense of resentment shared by many participants toward the situation with DESE, there was also a strong sense of commitment and dedication to the students and future success of the Normandy Schools Collaborative,” a summary of the survey results said.

“Without question, there is a belief that with the right person, Normandy students, schools, families and community can improve. As one participant stated, ‘there is a strong sense of urgency and we know we need to turn this around quickly.’”

As far as the relationship with state education officials, the summary reported:

“Participants shared their unhappiness with DESE in several conversations best explained as an ‘Us vs. Them’ feeling. This line of conversation would then lead to comments related to desired skills of the new superintendent that included, ‘we don't need a puppet to DESE, someone who will fight for us and someone with a strong personality to work with the board and DESE.’”

But one answer to the survey indicates how fractured the community might be over the district’s current appointed leadership.

Asked “Taking everything into account, do you trust the superintendent search process by the Normandy Schools Collaborative?” the respondents split almost evenly, with 77 saying yes and 70 saying no.

History of tumult

To conduct its nationwide search, the district hired a search firm, ProAct, for $25,000 to find a successor to Superintendent Ty McNichols, who resigned in January after Normandy’s appointed Joint Executive Governing Board had already begun the process to find his replacement. Charles Pearson, who had been head of the governing board, was named interim superintendent.

Also expected to be leaving the district at the end of the current school year – and, sources say, not necessarily because they wanted to leave -- will be GeNita Williams, principal of Normandy Middle School since 2013, and Emma Campbell-Cornelius, principal at Washington elementary school for just this current year.

Charles Pearson, seated, talks with Superintendent Ty McNichols.
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Pearson said it hasn’t been decided whether new principals for those schools would be chosen before a new superintendent is on board, which is targeted for July 1, or whether they would be hired before that time.

In addition to gathering 165 responses to a survey on the district’s website, the firm Unicom-Arc conducted 11 focus groups with Normandy residents and district employees, from administrators to support staff. A public forum to gather more information was held last weekend, and another is scheduled for tonight after the board’s 6 p.m. meeting at Lucas Crossing elementary school.

The outreach effort is designed to build community support in a district that has seen its share of tumult. Since the Missouri Supreme Court voted in 2013 to uphold a law that allowed students living in unaccredited school districts to transfer to nearby accredited schools, Normandy’s student body and its budget have both been adversely affected.

In response, the Missouri state board of education, at the recommendation of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, first took over the district’s finances, then dissolved it altogether, replacing it last July 1 with the Normandy Schools Collaborative. The district’s elected board was replaced with an appointed board.

The state board tried to classify the new Normandy as accredited as a state oversight district, but a judge ruled that the board had not acted properly and that Normandy should be unaccredited. At a meeting next week, the state board is expected to accept the judge's ruling but also has indicated it will appeal the case to a higher court.

The switch to the collaborative meant that contracts for all employees, from teachers on down, were no longer valid, and Normandy began the current school year with nearly half of its teaching staff new to the district. McNichols, who had been hired before the court ruling but took over as superintendent as the transfer process began, was working without a contract and lasted just 18 months in a job that has seen frequent turnover in recent years.

As districts throughout the area begin trying to hire teachers for the 2015-16 school year, the process to find a new superintendent is also moving ahead. ProAct is expected to look not only at experienced educators but also at so-called non-traditional candidates, from fields such as business or the military.

But according to the survey results, that avenue isn’t very popular. Having someone with that kind of experience outside of education ranked far down the list of qualities that Normandy residents want in a new leader, compared with someone with a track record of achieving strong student achievement and good student behavior – two areas where Normandy has been lacking in recent years.

Frank and insightful comments

In general, the survey's summary noted that while respondents “questioned if their comments would really have any impact, all groups provided frank and insightful responses.”

And it was clear that both residents and staff members feel beleaguered and somewhat let down by state education officials in how Normandy has been treated.

“Without question,” the summary said, “the overriding sentiment is one of 'circling the wagons to fight' for the continuation of the district and student achievement….

"Participants shared their unhappiness with DESE in several conversations best explained as an 'Us vs. Them' feeling." -- Summary of Normandy focus group findings

“In almost every discussion, individuals' comments suggesting a strong sense of team met strong agreement from other participants. Comments included, ‘we're working together to get our district back’ and "we believe in Normandy.’”

Also, the summary added, “respondents consistently used common phrases to describe the lack of trust they believe is found throughout the district and with DESE: ‘no trust at any level, things done to us, no transparency, under the table, they don't have our best interest at heart, educational arrogance and there are lots of trust issues.’”

Comments from people who work for the district showed a particularly low level of morale:

  • “Many shared high levels of frustration at not having received a salary increase for many years and the number of staff positions — even complete departments — eliminated. The high staff turnover and associated issues with new staff was a common challenge for not only teachers, but for principals, support staff, parents and students.
  • “Comments such as ‘we have not had a pay increase since 2007, but they keep hiring high dollar consultants to come and go, and constant change in leadership and staff is like a revolving door’ were common. The students voiced their high level of frustration at not having relationships with teachers and having the sense of ‘no one in our corner for us.’”

In general, the summary said, the survey and focus groups brought out sentiments that combined hope and resignation.
“Consistent from group to group was a high level of frustration,” it said, and “a plea for a strong person to navigate the district through its current situation with DESE, experience working with urban schools and someone who will commit to the district for several years. Some participants voiced their skepticism at even being able to find a qualified candidate who would want to join the district because of the oversight by DESE.”

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