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Education

Normandy forum features ideas, not criticism

The Normandy school district board listens to public comment at Thursday night's meeting
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

The last time the board that oversees the Normandy Schools Collaborative held an open forum, Charles Pearson asked the crowd whether this year was going better than last – and was met with an overwhelmingly negative response.

When a similar gathering was held Thursday night, Pearson – who has since moved from a member of the board to Normandy’s interim superintendent – was prepared with a more constructive approach.

With the crowd of about 100 people gathered in small groups at Lucas Crossing elementary school, he asked them to consider questions like what can the district do better, what are you most concerned about and what is Normandy doing well?

He liked the results a lot better.

“I did hear some good ideas,” he said in an interview after the groups had presented their conclusions to the meeting at large. “All of them were good.

“What I did hear was ideas about solutions, and that’s what I really wanted to get at, to help us begin to think about what could happen.”

Not that people had no complaints. In one group, which included one board member, two administrators and four parents, people were concerned about a lack of communication between staff, students and families. Middle school parent Bonnie Shurn said she didn’t feel like teachers treated parents with enough respect.

“They feel like they’re above you,” she said. “They feel like they don’t have to talk to you. They don’t owe you anything. You have to fight desperately to get them to respond back to you. It’s just unacceptable.”

Parent Fern Scott agreed, but she said anyone trying to get answers from Normandy staff has to be persistent.

“You’ve got to bring everybody to the table and discuss it,” she said. “Bring it. Bring it.”

As the discussion continued, Normandy Middle School Principal GeNita Williams – who has resigned as of the end of this school year after just two years on the job – said that administrators want to listen to parents, because student success is the way principals and others are judged.

But, she said, solutions to student problems have to come from both sides, the school and the home.

“For me,” she said, “relationships are key, especially in this work. What would help me most would be having trusting relationships with parents and constituents. We need everyone in this process helping us to educate the children….

“I’m not perfect. I’m just one person. I need everyone at the table from the beginning.”

Kimberly Coley, an area coordinator for the district, added:

“At some point, the finger pointing has to stop and everyone has to come together. The parents are the backbone that we need for our kids to be successful. A lot of times, the things we’re seeing in the classroom are starting at home. It’s a partnership.”

Other concerns raised by groups ranged from possible bankruptcy of the district, because of the costs of student transfers, to persistent discipline issues to a lack of food and textbooks and paper for students.

Petition support

In the brief board meeting that preceded the forum, middle school teacher Vivian Johnson read a petition that has been circulating at the school and online in support of Williams.

“The staff and parents of Normandy Middle School are both surprised and saddened,” it said. “Dr. Williams has been instrumental in building a positive school climate. She has labored tirelessly in the midst of many challenges and changes at the specified school site. Some of the challenges have been a lack of adequate staffing and support.

“We are now beginning to see a foundation laid for our newly formed staff that could build a strong community of educators to impact student achievement. Dr. Williams' vision emphasizes the vital educational and social needs of our students first. Considering the needs of our student population, we deem it necessary to retain Dr. Williams in her current position.”

Normandy Middle School student Raheem Larry holds up a sign during Thursday night's board meeting
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Asked after the meeting whether the petition changed his feelings about whether Williams should stay, Pearson simply said:

“She resigned. That’s the only answer I can offer you.”

He would not answer questions about reports that Williams’ resignation, and that of the principal of Washington elementary school, Emma Campbell-Cornelius, who is completing her first year there, were not voluntary.

During the meeting, Pearson noted that discipline incidents have been dropping in the past few months and he hopes the trend will continue. That is one fact Normandy plans to emphasize when it gives an update to the state board of education in Jefferson City on Tuesday.

Board president Andrea Terhune said that as transfer legislation moves through the General Assembly, Normandy is hoping for a cap on tuition, to help stem the drain on the district’s finances. She also wants the test scores of transfer students to count in the evaluations of their new districts sooner than the five-year delay that is in the legislation now.

“Whether a student is in our district or someone else’s district,” Terhune said, “our concerns is that they’re doing well and they are getting the education they need.”

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @Dalesinger

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