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Normandy's plan to move forward: reopen closed building, move sixth graders to elementary school

Normandy N
File Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio
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To improve student achievement, the interim superintendent of the Normandy school district wants to move sixth graders to the elementary school, concentrate on “career exploration” at the smaller middle school and possibly reopen a closed school as a kindergarten center.

Options prepared by Charles Pearson to present to the appointed board of the Normandy Schools Collaborative Thursday night are what a report calls an “ambitious, yet doable timeline” that is designed to create a “better learning environment,” particularly at the middle school.

Specifically, the report said Normandy Middle School “has serious issues related to student academic progress and school discipline” and “is a chronically low performing school in need of academic improvement.”

The report says that while research in the 1990s showed that grouping students in grades 6, 7 and 8 was an appropriate strategy, more recent studies show that “academic performance declines for sixth graders who transition to another school at this age when compared to sixth graders who do not transition.”

Pearson’s proposal adds:

“Our own analysis of academic performance for sixth graders in the Normandy Schools Collaborative supports this finding.”

Besides shuffling which grades would attend which school, Pearson also proposes new accountability systems to improve student achievement. In August, new teachers would have three days of orientation. Also, all teachers would have 10 days of professional development, addressing topics such as managing student behavior and data analysis.

New procedures would also be introduced to address attendance and discipline, the plan says. It concludes:

“These proposals address the question – In what ways can the Normandy Schools Collaborative be changed to meet the academic and social needs of its students at all grade levels?”

According to documents posted for the agenda for Thursday night’s meeting of Normandy’s Joint Executive Governing Board, Pearson is going to propose two options for the restructuring.

The first would reopen Bel-Nor elementary school and make it a kindergarten center. The building was closed last year as a cost-cutting measure. The move would free up space in the district’s four elementary schools for sixth graders to relocate from the middle school. Essentially, this year’s fifth graders would stay in their current school for another year.

In the second proposal, elementary schools would serve students from kindergarten through sixth grade. Each building currently is below capacity, although the Lucas Crossing complex would have to be restructured to create what the proposal calls “a school within a school model.”

Changes at the middle school, which will have a new principal, would include a partnership with the nearby University of Missouri-St. Louis “to develop more opportunities for middle school students to spend time on the university’s campus.” The career exploration focus would begin in the coming school year; for the 2016-17 school year, the middle school would change its name.

Charles Pearson
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
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Interim Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson

The proposed changes, according to the proposal, would help strengthen relationships among teachers and with students’ parents.

“Teachers will be able to have common plan times to meet collaboratively to discuss student progress,” the plan says. “Parents are valued as partners in their child’s education and we will keep the lines of communication open via email, postal mail, newsletters, flyers, parent-teacher conferences, and monthly [sic].

“Together as a team, we believe this plan will work when being implemented with fidelity and monitored closely to make sure all components are in place and evaluated regularly.”

The meeting is at 6 p.m. at Lucas Crossing elementary school.

Responding to critical story

Pearson had promised his restructuring plan as part of his response to a recent Post-Dispatch article that depicted students sleeping in class and dysfunctional classrooms at Normandy High School.

“This is unacceptable for the children served by our district,” he said of the conditions described in the story. “Regardless of how long it has taken for this situation to develop, regardless of the good intentions of some, it is inexcusable that any child should have to endure such a learning environment.”

His reaction, and that of others – from Gov. Jay Nixon to education Commissioner Margie Vandeven to members of the state board – accented yet another tumultuous school year in Normandy.

The Missouri legislature’s recent passage of an education bill did not impose a cap on the tuition that Normandy must pay for students who transfer to accredited schools. Depending on how many of the 639 students who have applied to transfer are approved, the cost of tuition and transportation could overwhelm the district’s budget.

State education officials say that once transfer numbers are final and Nixon has decided whether to sign or veto the bill, they will determine whether the district should even start the school year. Vandeven has said she does not want Normandy to begin classes if its ability to finish the year is in doubt.

But Vandeven has also made clear that Normandy is being run by its appointed board, not by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Since the state board of education gave the Joint Executive Governing Board additional authority late last year, decisions on personnel and on academics have been handled locally.

Peter Kachris, who has served as the liaison between DESE and Normandy, said in an interview that the relationship with the state, which set up the collaborative last spring, hasn’t always been clear.

“I think that this perception, that DESE came in and just ran everything, is a misunderstanding,” he said. “The state has got their responsibility. The department does. The legislature has got a responsibility in terms of funding. And the board has got a responsibility.

“I’m proud to say this board has taken this responsibility. They haven’t shirked a single thing that I have seen. They know what their responsibilities are, they’ve taken the bit, and whatever is put in front of them, they’ve been analytical. Come July 1, DESE’s gone, including me at this point.”

In addition to searching for a new principal for the middle school, Normandy also is looking for one new elementary school principal and a new superintendent. It also is recruiting teachers, at a more advantageous time than last year, when the new Normandy couldn’t begin hiring anyone until July.

Kachris estimated that around 20 percent of the district’s staff are “good, solid, outstanding teachers who work hard every day. One of the challenges for the district is how do I build that number from one in five to two in five. Over time, that’s really the objective. If you’re going to improve a district, any district, it starts with that.”

Yet even as it looks for teachers and administrators for the coming school year, Kachris said some of the people who initially expressed interest have dropped out because of the uncertainty over Normandy’s future.

Andrea Terhune, who took over as head of the JEGB when Pearson left the board to become interim superintendent, said that just because responsibility and authority for academic improvement in the district has changed, the mandate of the district’s accountability plan has not.

Andrea Terhune
Credit Normandy website
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Andrea Terhune

She acknowledged that not everything has gone smoothly in the collaborative’s first year, which she and Kachris said was always intended to be a transition year. But, she added, maintaining Normandy as a separate school district remains preferable to dissolving the district, as some have suggested, or sending students elsewhere.

“I don’t think the answer is to pick them up and move them somewhere else,” Terhune said. “I think the answer is to bring the resources to where they are, and to get them the opportunities that other areas and districts have.

“And if you do that, I think you’re going to see some brilliant children graduate from this district, go on to do great things and come back to their community and do great things.”

And, she added, “we are not against the transfer. I want to be really clear about that. It’s just that we need to do it in a way that we can respond appropriately to the parents and the students who want to transfer out of the district yet still be able to effectively educate the ones who stay.”

Kachris agreed, saying that the state board’s creation of the collaborative last year prompted a hurried process that didn’t always work to Normandy’s advantage.

“People are forgetting that they did that in good faith,” he said. “In the sense that they heard from the community, don’t take our school district away from us. The department didn’t take the school district away. They found a way to say you can have your school district.”

In the end, Kachris and Terhune said, Normandy has to develop a different culture, one where effective staff can instill in students a desire to learn and effective ways to make that learning happen.

Kachris said the ideal situation is where students feel about their teachers that “the last thing I want to do is disappoint you, whoever that adult is. I don’t to disappoint you. That’s part of building this kind of a culture. You don’t buy that with money, but you’ve got to have money to help build that.

“You’ve got to be able recruit people so that you an have a core. Once you have a core, then you can build upon that.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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