The crowd was a lot smaller at Wednesday night’s second hearing called by Missouri state school officials into the future of the Normandy school district, but its passion remained strong.
And its message was a simple one: Their school district deserves more time to turn itself around, so the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) should come up with a plan that stops students transfers and helps Normandy survive.
Nearly two dozen speakers addressed education commissioner Chris Nicastro and members of her staff, who have been gathering information from Normandy, Riverview Gardens and others interested in helping underachieving school districts improve. Ron Lankford, a deputy commissioner, began the 90-minute session by stressing to the crowd that state law allows transfers of students from unaccredited districts, so DESE and the state school board have no power to change that situation.
In the face of what he called a “very troublesome law,” Lankford said state education officials can focus on every possible option to help struggling districts and the children who attend class there. He said if the state board could change the transfer law, it probably would.
“We believe that access to quality education must be made available in the neighborhoods where students live,” Lankford said, adding:
“The process must embrace conditions that foster great schools. Hope is not a strategy.”
But few of those making public comments were impressed by Lankford’s explanation. Last month's meeting filled Viking Hall to capacity; at this one, the crowd was maybe just one-third of the size. But the students, staff members and representatives of the community who spoke had a similar message.
Most of them concentrated on the financial hardship that the transfer program has brought to Normandy, which has laid off more than 100 employees and plans to close an elementary school next semester.
The state school board has asked for $6.8 million in emergency funds to help the district make it to the end of the school year, but Lankford, Nicastro and others have noted that the request has not met with a very favorable response from legislators.
Given that situation, many speakers said, stopping the transfers and the financial drain they bring is a better route to take to ensure Normandy can survive and ultimately thrive.
Monica Huddleston, the mayor of Greendale – one of 24 municipalities that make up the Normandy school district – said she and her colleagues had met with Nicastro and sent the message that it’s time Normandy had some stability, instead of the revolving door of administrators it has seen in recent years.
“We have got to stick with somebody and stick with a plna and let that plan work and hold us accountable,” Huddleston said. “I do believe DESE owes us a couple more years.”
While DESE can’t change the law, she said, it does have control over classifying Normandy as provisionally accredited so the transfers can stop and “the district can continue to exist and can tackle its problems.”
Take time to listen
One of the evening’s most eloquent pleas came from Raquan Smith, a senior at Normandy High School who started his school career in the Wellston schools before that district was merged into Normandy in 2010.
“To hear the same conversations I heard at Wellston is tearing me up inside,” Smith said. “To hear that and knowing you can’t do anything to stop it, it makes you feel you are inadequate. It makes you feel you don’t count.”
He said he has had friends who have given up on themselves because no one would take the time to listen to what they needed to succeed in school.
“I feel like I have not been heard,” Smith said. “I would like to be heard this evening.”
What is needed, he told Nicastro and her colleagues, is a plan.
“Go home this evening and start planning and come back as soon as possible and tell us what we need to do to keep these doors open and help these teachers keep their jobs and to keep these African-American males off the streets,” Smith said.
“I am asking you, DESE, help. I’m asking you to not do what you did to Wellston, my first home. I’m asking you not to come here and take away something I’ve held on to for so long.”
Other students also told of how conditions in their classrooms have hurt them. Twelve-year-old Sydney BoClair said that when one of her teachers was laid off, her education lost a spark. “She gave us the little push that we need,” BoClair said.
And Henry Watts, a member of the Normandy school board and the grandparent of a current student, said that the district needs to have the time and the resources to right itself.
“We know what our troubles are,” Watts said, “and we need to solve our own problems in our community, and that is what we will do. We know what we need to do. We have an administrative team in place today. Give that administrative team the three years they need to turn these schools around.”
Dryver Henderson, who has been an active critic of both DESE and the current school board, said he didn’t expect to get much help from the state.
“We didn’t hear anything from DESE in meeting one,” he said, “and I don’t think we’ll hear anything from DESE in meeting two.”
At the end of the meeting, Nicastro said the information gathered in Normandy and from two meetings in Riverview Gardens – the second is scheduled for Monday night – will be used to formulate a plan to help struggling districts. The blueprint will be presented to the state school board next month, she said.
Anyone who did not get the chance to speak may submit comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Despite recent controversy over her working with groups that some have alleged do not have the best interests of public education at heart, Nicastro said that throughout the push to help unaccredited district to do better, her goal has remained the same.
“Children have the right to go to a good school,” she told reporters after the session, “and our intention is to develop a plan to help them do that.”
In Ferguson-Florissant, McCoy saga continues
It’s been a little more than a month since the Ferguson-Florissant School Board abruptly placed Superintended Art McCoy on administrative leave with pay.
Since then there has been an outpouring of community support for McCoy, with a range of public officials, students and parents praising him for being especially gifted at ensuring low-income and African-American students succeed in the classroom.
It doesn’t look like that level of support will dwindle any time soon.
Despite the frigid weather, community members rallied before the district's board meeting on Wednesday night.
Senior minister for Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Willis Johnson, said there are too many unanswered questions.
“It affects my parishioners as employees, it affects my parents, it affects my student body, given the information that’s been shared thus far, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Johnson said.
McCoy has said that he was given no reason for being put on leave.
In contrast, School Board President Paul Morris said that it was made clear to McCoy why he was placed on leave. In a statement released two weeks ago, Morris also said that the school board continues to investigate numerous accusations, but because this is a personnel matter, no specifics can be given publicly.
“I want to emphasize that our decisions are ultimately being made with what is best for our students in mind” Morris said in the statement. “We share Dr. McCoy's passion in creating an educational environment with the success of all students as our goal.”
Morris has maintained that McCoy's handling of school transfer students had nothing to do with the board's decision.
Last month the school board reported “irregularities” to DESE in district attendance data. DESE ultimately found that attendance numbers submitted by the district, which are used to calculate how much state funding a district receives, had been altered.
McCoy said he gave no instruction to district staff to beef up attendance reports.
“My only involvement with data is an expectation that data are reviewed and data are accurate,” McCoy said in an interview on Nov. 26. “I didn’t make any changes to data. That’s not my role. I don’t have access to that, nor did I direct anyone to do that.”
Ferguson-Florissant has accepted 410 transfer students from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens School Districts, according to the district’s most recent attendance numbers.