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Under state control, Riverview Gardens makes progress but has a long way to go

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2011 - Officials of the reconstituted Riverview Gardens School District admit they have a long way to go after just one year under a new regime.

But to show they have made at least one kind of progress since a state takeover last summer, they point to an unusual fact: No one outside the district paid much attention to their high school graduation ceremonies at UMSL earlier this month.

The story was quite different last year, when students and non-students from the district were involved in gunplay outside the Chaifetz Arena. It was a sad finale to a school year that saw Missouri education officials take over operations, appointing a three-member board that took control of what in effect was a brand-new district as of July 1.

Between that date and the start of classes in mid-August, "we had to do what no other unaccredited district has had to do," noted Lynn Beckwith, head of the Riverview Gardens Special Administrative Board in a recent interview.

"We had to rehire all our staff, redo all of our policies and renew all of our contracts. When you have to do all of that on the first of July with school starting in the middle of August, it's remarkable."

It's far too early to tell whether the poor academic performance that cost the district its accreditation has improved in any significant way. What Superintendent Clive Coleman and his administration have been working hard on is a change in the district's culture, and in that area, he is pleased with its progress.

"It's like night and day," he said. "The focus is on instruction. We're not there yet, but it's an improvement."

Whatever movement is being made comes under the close scrutiny of the state. Robert Taylor, a coordinator for St. Louis area school districts with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, agrees that Riverview Gardens has been able to achieve a lot in a short time in terms of changing how it operates. Getting real results in the classroom will take a while longer, he said.

"Some things have changed a great deal," Taylor said, "but it's not over with. We still need to keep moving forward. I think the organization phase is over with, and we are looking forward to them showing some results. The microscope is on them."

A Crash Course

When education commissioner Chris Nicastro -- a former superintendent at Riverview Gardens -- announced last spring that the state was taking over the district, a chain reaction began. The three-member board was named, Coleman took over the position he had only recently been hired for and the district began preparing to go about its old business in a totally new way.

Technically, the only thing about Riverview Gardens that didn't change was the name, the buildings and the boundaries. Everything else had lapsed, and the new district had to hire staff, draft policies, adopt curriculum -- and prepare to show residents and others that the old ways of operating were really through.

When the state took over the St. Louis Public Schools back in 2007, the process was similar, but with big differences. First of all, the old district didn't go out of existence; only the leadership changed. Second, the elected school board remained in place, though its responsibilities were drastically curtailed.

Beckwith noted that in some ways, it was easier for the Riverview Gardens SAB to operate without the old elected board remaining as a kind of shadow governing body.

"I expected some kind of resistance from the community," he said. "But that didn't happen at all. We were really accepted by the community."

Using the typical blend of educational acronyms, like PLCs and PBIS -- professional learning communities and positive behavior interventions and supports -- the district began the school year with a longer instructional day, to make up for a 90-minute late start every Wednesday to give teachers time to get accustomed to their new regime, and to each other.

Schools had data walls, where each student's name and scores were posted so teachers could see how their tasks were progressing. Every other Saturday, teachers gathered for a curriculum boot camp to work on the best way to raise student achievement.

Not everything ran smoothly, particularly at the high school. Coleman noted that the new principal, Lawrence Rainey, wasn't even hired until a week before classes began. The high school schedule was in flux -- one year it was eight periods a day, then six, then seven -- and as first semester drew to a close, it was clear that big changes were needed.

So the start of second semester at the high school was delayed by a week, so yet another change in the school day could be put into place -- a block schedule, where classes meet for longer periods every other day, four classes a day. Coleman said longer periods could provide more intense instruction.

"It was a crisis situation last year," he said. "Coming in, we had to do a lot of cleanup. Then, it was really to the point that we couldn't leave it as it was. It was the perfect opportunity for us to jump in at the semester. We had to stop and catch up, so that's what we decided to do."

Also adopted for the second semester was a new policy designed to slash a disturbingly high discipline rate. A list of 10 infractions was drawn up -- fighting, bullying, disrespectful language and conduct, disruptive behavior, dress code violations, inappropriate use of electronic devices, failure to produce proper identification, insubordination, tardiness and truancy -- along with consequences for each time the offense occurred.

Coleman said the policy helped cut the number of infractions by more than half from the 4,000 logged first semester -- again, not the amount of progress he would like, but a start.

Still, the new schedule and the discipline chart were hardly the end of the changes at the high school. By the end of March, Rainey, who had been recruited from outside the St. Louis area, had resigned; district officials expect to have a new principal in place by June 1.

So the quiet commencement exercises this year were the end to an often chaotic year. But it was also a ceremony where Beckwith said he could see students walking across the stage with tears in their eyes.

"To people with college degrees," he said, "high school graduation may not mean much. But if you're the first person in your family to graduate from high school and go on to college, it means a lot."

He and Coleman rattle off the kinds of numbers that make any educator proud -- 70-75 percent of graduating seniors on their way to college, many of them with scholarships that total $2.6 million, including several with full rides to the University of Missouri at St. Louis, where Beckwith is a professor of urban education.

Teachers Working Together

One of the big challenges Riverview Gardens faced was building a cohesive faculty and administration. Coleman noted that every building had new leadership, though some principals may have been with the district before in another capacity. Out of 400 teachers, 65 percent were rehires and 35 percent were new, brought on board during an intensive recruitment and interviewing process last summer.

How well the new group jelled depends on who you talk to.

"I feel that everyone wants to see the district really improve and is willing to do what it takes to make it happen," said Kris White, a first-grade teacher at Moline elementary, where she was named teacher of the year.

A 13-year veteran in Riverview Gardens, she said the school's new principal "let us know we were all learning together. We all looked at each other and asked, 'What do you need to make this work?'"

She noted a big increase in community involvement, particularly in events like a fine arts fair and a good-health fair, plus at PTO talent show.

"We want to make sure that the community and the parents are involved," White said. "They feel much better when they feel they have a place here and there is something they can do to make a difference."

Her enthusiasm is echoed by Genis Barbee, a communications arts teacher in her eighth year at Westview middle school who also was the teacher of the year in her building this past year.

"I feel like I'm more involved in what's going on," she said. "There's a lot more transparency of what's happening, from the top to the bottom, from the administration in central office to the teachers. Teachers have more input in decisions. We're not just told what to do. I feel like I'm regarded as much more of a professional."

One of the many contracts that lapsed when the state took over last year was the bargaining agreement with the National Education Association. The union is in the process of seeking reauthorization, but White says she doesn't hear a lot of talk about the issue in her building.

Richard Thies, a music teacher in the district who was head of the bargaining unit, sees things in a far less rosy light. He says the district has been plagued by discipline problems, leading to a climate that does not nurture the higher achievement levels that Riverview Gardens is aiming for, and "the administration never wants to take responsibility for what happens. If anything fails, it's the teachers' fault."

He said the fact that so many teachers were let go last summer led to a lot of resentment at the start of the school year, particularly because some replacements came into the classroom with a lot less experience. "We lost a lot," Thies said.

He accepts the fact that the district had to start from scratch with many of the new policies and other administrative responsibilities, but particularly in the area of student behavior, he says changes have been ineffective.

"Students have learned over time that nothing really major is going to happen to them if they do something wrong," Thies said, "and they take advantage of that."

Will things improve after the first-year shakedown cruise?

"I want to have hope" he said, "but from the very beginning, we have offered to help, and they have pretty much locked us out. Communication has to happen, and at this point there is zero communication. Everything is so disjointed, and nothing is coming together right.

"I'm hopeful, but realistically, I see nothing to make me think anything is going to happen."

Firm Foundation

Not surprisingly, Coleman and Beckwith view prospects for improvement quite differently. After an admittedly ragged first year, they see a full summer where changes can be made more methodically, with less time pressure and more experience to guide the way.

"I think we've laid a firm foundation this first year," Beckwith said. "I believe we have a change of culture in the district, one that says our children can not only learn but learn at high levels.

"Everyone should know that there is stability and the focus is on education, and we have expectations not only of students but staff. We have everyone on probation, teacherwise. Everyone lost tenure. They have to prove they are good teachers. It was a new start, and that was good."

Work this summer will focus on literacy, Coleman said, and the second year of federal School Improvement Grant money for the district's secondary schools will help solidify plans. Projects from a bond issue approved by Riverview Gardens voters in 2009 will be finished by this fall, giving residents confidence that the district will follow through on what it promises.

Some problems will remain, including a mobility rate that Coleman puts at 60 to 65 percent, meaning that as many as two out of every three students in the district ends the school year at a different building from where they began.

But the district hopes to ease that problem, at least in part, with a different kind of evaluation model, one based on growth -- how well students perform at the end of the year compared with where they started -- compared to assessments, which can vary depending on how much students have moved around and what subjects were covered in their previous school compared with what they are being tested on now.

To Taylor, the state official who is monitoring the district's progress, the key will be making progress in areas such as professional development for teachers, precision in goals and follow-up and personalization of learning plans. He noted that while the initial term of the state takeover was three years, "the challenges they are facing take longer than three years.

"The expectation of everyone is that they will be showing ongoing and significant growth. The next year will be a year that a lot of things should and must be implemented if they are going to get the growth that they expect to get."

Beckwith thinks the district is up to the challenge.

"To be realistic," he said, "it took the district a long time to get into this fix, and I don't think we're going to get out of it in three years. But we have to show progress along the way.

"People have a mindset outside Riverview Gardens because we're unaccredited, that we're next to nothing, that we don't have any quality. We've got a lot of jewels in this district who just need some polishing to sparkle."

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.