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Education

State education officials hear frustrations and ideas in St. Louis’ provisionally accredited districts

 Community members gather to participate in a forum regarding the Normandy Schools Collaborative
Kate Grumke
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St. Louis Public Radio
Community members gather to participate in a forum regarding the Normandy Schools Collaborative held by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday night at Beyond Housing in Pine Lawn.

Updated at 6:45 p.m., May 25, with comments from Riverview Gardens Special Administrative Board member Miranda Avant-Elliott

On Tuesday, officials from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spent the evening hearing from families and community members in two provisionally accredited districts in the St. Louis region.

Attendees from the Riverview Gardens School District and the Normandy Schools Collaborative brainstormed ideas to help the districts return to fully accredited status by improving attendance and teacher retention.

The forums are required by law for districts that are not fully accredited, but they were the first that were held in person since the pandemic began.

In both school districts, teachers, parents and community leaders sat at tables and filled out feedback forms from the department. At one table, Normandy High School English teacher LaTricia Clark and other employees discussed ways to improve student attendance, such as revamping community engagement and inviting parents to the schools more often. Clark’s son is a senior at Normandy High School.

“We need to be honest and understand our parent demographic,” Clark wrote on a feedback form. “We need to be more visionary and create opportunity to grow in and out.”

The Riverview Gardens School District administration building
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
The Riverview Gardens School District administration building on Tuesday in Bellefontaine Neighbors. The district is currently provisionally accredited by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

On the issue of teacher turnover, attendees from both districts said low pay continues to make it difficult to recruit and retain teachers, despite recent wage increases for all staff.

After discussion, community members and staff presented their ideas to a group of state education officials, including Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven and state board of education member Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge.

Frustrations with the state

The Normandy Schools Collaborative and the Riverview Gardens School District each lost accreditation more than a decade ago due to poor academic performance and financial issues.

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During Tuesday’s meeting, some community leaders in Riverview Gardens discussed their ongoing frustrations with the state’s control of their school district as they work to regain full accreditation. The group of Black politicians and faith leaders released a statement Tuesday afternoon condemning the state’s recent decision to replace two members of the district’s Special Administrative Board, which is similar to a school board but with state-appointed members.

“Community leaders contend that the two people replacing them are not qualified or showed previous interest in the school board, nor supported by the community,” the statement said.

The decision came as the state board expanded the total number of members and laid out a timeline for transitioning to a board that will be elected by the community, a step toward full accreditation. The group said it soon plans to send a letter to Gov. Mike Parson encouraging him to replace Commissioner Vandeven.

In an interview during the forum, Vandeven said the two members’ terms were set to expire and it was always the plan to replace them. She also said the new appointees are highly qualified.

“That's typical process,” Vandeven said. “We've been doing that for about a decade now.”

On Wednesday, Miranda Avant-Elliott told St. Louis Public Radio that she never heard anything about her term having an expiration date when she was appointed or during her time on the board. Avant-Elliot was appointed to the position in October 2021 and has a background in education, as a teacher, department head and interim principal in St. Louis Public Schools.

"I was kind of shocked," Avant-Elliott said of the decision to replace her.

Missouri state Rep. Marlene Terry, who represents the 66th District in St. Louis County and served on the Riverview Gardens School Board for nine years, told St. Louis Public Radio that she has even broader frustrations with the state’s handling of the re-accreditation process.

“I raised an eyebrow when I got elected, like, ‘You guys have been here for 15 years. What do you have to show for it? Why are you still here?’” she said.

Terry said Missouri leaders must make state funding for schools more equitable before talking about unaccredited schools.

She also pointed to the frequent turnover at the superintendent level that has happened in both Riverview Gardens and Normandy while the districts have been provisionally accredited. Riverview Gardens recently announced it is permanently hiring interim Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, while Normandy is still searching for a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Marcus Robinson.

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Kate Grumke
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Joylynn Puitt-Adams, acting superintendent of the Riverview Gardens School District, speaks to community members and state officials at a forum on Tuesday at Westview Middle School in Bellefontaine Neighbors. Pruitt-Adams will become superintendent of the district this summer.

Robinson is leaving the position after leading the Normandy Schools Collaborative for almost two years, despite not having the proper credentials to be a superintendent in Missouri, which can negatively impact a district’s accreditation status. When he was hired, the district said he would complete his doctorate in December 2020, but that has yet to happen, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Normandy is hoping to first hire an interim superintendent, said Christopher Petty, one of two new locally elected members of Normandy’s Joint Executive Governing Board and chair of the committee on the transition to a new superintendent.

“The thinking is, ‘Why rush into choosing a superintendent?’” Petty said. “It obviously is a very serious matter, and so we thought it was prudent to take our time and conduct the search that's well thought out, that includes input from the community and all of the district stakeholders.”

In Riverview Gardens, Vandeven said she thinks the state-appointed board has served an important purpose, but now it’s important to transition back to a locally elected board.

“There comes a time when you really need to evaluate the entire system,” Vandeven said. “We heard from more and more people that if you're really going to move the district forward once the finances are stabilized, once the systems are in place, you have got to have the community voice. You have to have the community buy in.”

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

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