After four hearings in Normandy and Riverview Gardens, plus suggestions and plans and proposals from education groups and lawmakers from throughout Missouri, it’s time for state education officials to try to come up with a plan to help struggling school districts.
And Chris Nicastro, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, wants to make sure that whatever plan her department comes up with, that is the focus: helping underachieving students and schools succeed.
Most of the discussion in the past six months, since the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law allowing students who live in unaccredited districts to transfer, has been about the transfer law itself. But Nicastro said after Monday night’s hearing in Riverview Gardens that such an emphasis is really misplaced.
“I’m concerned,” she said, “that the focus on the transfer issue is going to overwhelm the big question: What do we do to support and help and make sure that every child in every district can get a quality education.”
With about 2,000 students leaving Normandy and Riverview Gardens this fall, and those districts having to pay tuition and in some cases transportation costs as well, the transfer law that was enacted 20 years ago has received most of the attention -- and most of the criticism -- in recent months.
Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law in a case from the Kansas City area, raising the possibility that many more transfers may come from the Kansas City schools.
That district has filed suit trying to avert the transfers by forcing state officials to upgrade its status to provisionally accredited from unaccredited. Nicastro and her staff have recommended against that move, saying that the improvement the district showed in this year’s annual performance report needs to be sustained over another year or two.
Since the transfers began, several education groups in the state have come up with plans that they say are fairer ways to help students get a good education without having to travel far away from their homes. And several bills on the issue have been pre-filed for the upcoming session of the General Assembly, including one that was introduced Monday by several members of the Senate.
The bill, whose primary sponsor is state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, addresses several of the issues that have been the subject of discussion in recent months and echoes many of the suggestions aired by others It would:
- Require that individual schools be accredited rather than entire districts.
- Let local school boards establish criteria for admitting nonresident students from unaccredited districts, considering a variety of factors and establishing class sizes to determine capacity.
- Allow more entities to sponsor charter schools in unaccredited districts, including the board of such a district.
- Mandate that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education establish a clearinghouse to assist in the transfer process.
- Allow an unaccredited district to require a longer school day or longer school year.
At Monday night’s hearing, as at last week’s second hearing in Normandy, the crowd was considerably smaller than at the initial session in each district, about 100 people. But the dozen or so people who spoke were emotional about the Riverview Gardens schools and urged DESE to give the district time to right itself.
As one sign held posted on a wall put it: Collaborate, don’t dictate.
The district has been under the direction of a special administrative board since 2010, but the leadoff speaker, Bradley Busby a counselor at Glasgow Elementary School, said the state takeover has not succeeded in making Riverview Gardens improve.
“There has been no consistent plan that has been put in place,” he said.
Busby praised Superintendent Scott Spurgeon, who took office July 1, in the middle of the rush to start the transfer program, calling him “someone who has a plan. I would like to contend that he be given the opportunity to make changes.”
Addressing the three members of the SAB sitting in the audience, he added:
“Step up to the plate and make sure we are given the opportunity to make a real systemic change in this district.”
The applause that greeted Busby’s plea was repeated several times during the evening.
Peg Warnusz, who said she was a veteran teacher who lives in the district, noted that not one child who lives on her street chose to stay in the Riverview Gardens schools. She urged district officials to make sure that teachers build relationships with their students, to help their achievement improve.
“Every single decision you make needs to be child-centered,” she said.
Richard Thies, president of the district’s chapter of the National Education Association, said that a plan that the union advanced to help Riverview Gardens regain accreditation got little attention from DESE and the SAB. He said Spurgeon has started to work with the union, and he asked that the state give the district more time to improve, “without an in-your-face kind of control.”
And Niketia Coleman, a teacher at Highland Elementary, asked state officials what their plan is.
“What will you do differently?” she asked. “What supports will you provide? What is your plan to ensure success?”
Noting a succession of superintendents in the district in recent years – she counted six in the past 14 years – Coleman added:
“With each new shift, the district is tossed to and fro.”
At least one speaker came out in favor of the transfer plan. DeAnne Toussaint, whose son and daughter are now attending schools in Ferguson-Florissant, said they no longer had to worry about physical harm in their neighborhood school. They are learning more than they did before, making friends and having no disciplinary problems.
“The transfer program is the best thing to have ever happened,” Toussaint said, adding:
“This district failed my children twice. How many chances do I have to give the district?”
Sorting things out
After the session, Nicastro said it is now her department’s job to study transcripts of all of the sessions, find common denominators in the testimony and put together a blueprint to present to the state board of education at its meeting next month. The plan would then be put out for public comment and join the other proposals introduced by lawmakers and formulated by education groups.
She declined to be more specific, saying it was premature to say what the proposal would include thing before her staff gets the chance to go through all of the testimony and comments that have been submitted by the public.
But Nicastro did acknowledge that the transfer situation, and the poor educational progress made by some students and some districts in the state, “are going to be hot topics in the legislature this year.”
She herself has been at the center of some heated discussions recently. Stories about her discussions with a group pushing an initiative petition to change teacher tenure and other aspects of education in Missouri, plus the process of granting a contract to consultants studying the Kansas City schools, have led to calls for her resignation.
On Monday, the NAACP of St. Louis County announced a drive to get 1,000 signatures on a petition seeking her ouster. As of Monday night, the online petition had 12 signatures.
Despite the efforts to have her removed from her job, Nicastro said she wanted to focus more on the emotion and support that speakers like those at the session Monday night brought to the issue of quality schools for all children.
“I’m just so heartened by the passion which people bring to their schools and to public education,” she said. “I think urban areas sometimes get a bad rap about not having caring parents. That’s simply not true. We somehow have to unleash that power.”