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Riverview Gardens schools will have clean slate, full plate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2010 - When Clive Coleman takes over July 1 as superintendent of the Riverview Gardens school district, he'll be working with a clean slate -- but he's already got a six-point plan to fill it with.

Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to move later this month to take over the troubled north St. Louis County district, where academic achievement and financial dealings have made the kind of headlines in recent years that no one wants to read.


The action by the state would be the fourth intervention in local school districts in recent years, and so far, the record is decidedly mixed.

The Wyaconda district, in the northeast corner of the state, was dissolved in 2008 after being unaccredited for two years. It had only a few dozen students, in grades kindergarten through eighth, and after voters defeated a proposal to annex it to an adjacent district, the state stepped in to shut it down and assign its students to neighboring schools.

In the St. Louis area, Wellston -- which had not been accredited since 2003 -- will be absorbed by the Normandy School District at the end of this school year, under a vote by the state Board of Education in December. The state had taken over the district in 2005, but it never made the kind of academic or organization progress that had been hoped.

The highest-profile state intervention has been in St. Louis. In 2007, the elected School Board in the city was stripped of its authority and replaced by a three-member special administrative board given the power to run the school system day by day.

The five-member committee whose recommendations led to the takeover, chaired by former Washington University Chancellor William Danforth, was reconvened by education commissioner Chris Nicastro to come up with a blueprint for the future of the district. It hopes to have plans ready for debate by the Missouri Legislature next year.

In the meantime, the city schools' effort to regain accreditation has been mixed, at best. Superintendent Kelvin Adams and the special administrative board have acted aggressively to close schools and cut positions to get a budget deficit under control, but academic success has been harder to come by.

In the most recent evaluation for possible reaccreditation, the city schools actually took a step backward, meeting only three standards, compared with four a year earlier; between six and eight are needed for provisional accreditation.


Against that backdrop -- one district dissolved, one absorbed and one still under state control -- what will state intervention in Riverview Gardens be able to achieve?

Robert Taylor, area supervisor for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that each district presents unique circumstances, so it isn't necessarily easy -- or fair -- to try to draw conclusions from what has happened elsewhere.

"Since the SAB and the new superintendent," he said of the city schools, "they are moving in the right direction with an accountability plan. That is the most important thing, that you have the governing system working with the administration on a plan. It needs to be something that is not just a quick fix but is ongoing and long-term, addressing the challenges facing the school district and moving toward accreditation."

Such movement didn't occur in Wellston, Taylor said, so the district had to be merged into Normandy. But in that case, the state had no choice.

"A lot of people don't realize we're dealing with state law here," he said. "There are no alternatives.

"With some of the issues being addressed with regard to Wellston -- progress plus the size of the school district and the finances -- you don't want to call it a perfect storm, but the situation was in the best interest of the children. They had to come first. I know it was tough on some people, but I think it was the right decision."

One of the weakest spots with Wellston -- finances -- is one of the strongest areas in Riverview Gardens, Taylor said. He said recent budget cuts have put the district in a strong position financially.

Now, he said, the same kind of progress needs to be made in the classroom, where the district's students have not performed well academically. (See the latest report on Riverview Gardens' academics.)

"It's not just one school," Taylor said. "We're talking about the entire district. This doesn't happen overnight. There have been years they have not met specific standards, and that automatically sets off a chain of other events. What the state will be looking at is what kind of assistance can we get them so they can move to the point of becoming accredited.

"Quick fixes are not necessarily the ones that are going to last. What you look for in accreditation is not just one year's performance but multiyear performance. And when you improve yourself, it takes a while to show up."

David Liechti, the St. Joseph CPA who is president of the state School Board, says the state isn't out looking to take over districts, but in the end it must do what is best for the students involved.

"You weigh all the options," he said, "and there will be a lot of questions that relate to each of those options. You look for strong leadership, someone who has a strong vision of what it would take to turn the district around.

"But I think we're left with few options with a district that has bad performance marks. I think this is the best alternative we have left to us. To say unequivocally that it will work or not, I can't answer that. Some of this is still a work in progress."

Coleman's Curriculum

Progress is what Coleman hopes to make in Riverview Gardens when he takes over as superintendent July 1. He has already been working to make sure not a minute or an opportunity is wasted as he prepares for the district's new life as a ward of the state.

He agrees that the schools and students needed help from the state, and he wants to make sure the district takes full advantage -- and that the families it serves are on board as well.

"We need the community to be engaged with strategic planning," he said, "so we can know how to measure success and see what needs to be tackled immediately."

On day one, Coleman says, the budget will be job one, but other tasks will fall in line right behind that. His six-point program:

  • Put together a tight, workable budget
  • Regain accreditation
  • Make sure the district has the instructional resources and support it needs
  • Get a facilities plan in place
  • Improve communication, both inside the district and with outsiders
  • Collaborate with the community

He hopes to take advantage of school improvement grants from the federal government that will be awarded by the state this summer, because 40 percent of the district's students are in two middle and one high school - all of which ended up on thelist of Missouri's worst-achieving schools that was released in March.

To get the money, the schools have to go through one of four mandated methods of improvement: Turnaround, which involves replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school's staff; restart, which transforms them into charter schools; transformation, which involves a new principal and reformed curriculum; or closure.

Between those drastic steps and the new state oversight, Riverview Gardens is likely to end up as a very different district -- or possibly no district at all, if the state decides to go the Wellston or Wyaconda route.

In any case, Coleman acknowledges that Riverview Gardens had already had extensions from the state in its quest for accreditation, and that it used up all its time without making the necessary progress.

"Our district needed this," Coleman said.

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.