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From small rural district to thriving suburban one, Fort Zumwalt reflects changes in O'Fallon, Mo.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2009 - Motorists pulling off Interstate 70 at the O'Fallon, Mo., exit can't help but notice Art's Produce, a fruit and vegetable stand, in an area filled with chain stores, ranging from Walgreens to Wal-Mart. With its handwritten placards advertising Arkansas tomatoes and "sweet juicy" Georgia peaches, Art's is a throwback to the small town past of this high-growth suburban city of more than 70,000.

Nowhere is the impact of the growth more visible than in the Fort Zumwalt School District, says Superintendent Bernard DuBray whose 24 years of service makes him one of the longest serving school chiefs in Missouri. He's been there long enough to remember when Mexico Road, a main thoroughfare, was gravel-covered, and he recalls the time when busy Highway K, which snakes past Art's, was a two-lane blacktop.

DuBray, whose own three children made their way through Fort Zumwalt schools, never expected to watch the district become one of the fastest growing school systems in Missouri. In 1982, when he arrived, the district had 8,200 students; it has peaked at about 19,000, making Fort Zumwalt one of the top five districts in Missouri. During this time, he helped to encourage voters to support $270 million in bond issues to build three high schools, including one that opened two years ago; two middle schools; and eight elementary schools.

He marvels at how taking care of the district's business has changed, too. If the district wanted to put up a building in the old days, "you'd sit down with maybe two or three people and talk about what you wanted to do, get the building permit and do it."

Now, he says, getting things built requires going through a "long planning process, with engineers reviewing your plans and kicking them back to you to make changes." He says this less as a criticism than as an example of how the region is "much more sophisticated and provides for much better public service."

Fort Zumwalt, which includes more than 95 percent of O'Fallon's students, has transformed itself from a heavily rural to a mostly suburban district. During that metamorphosis, DuBray noticed that parents moving to O'Fallon were not only more sophisticated but were looking beyond brick and mortar to the quality of the district's programs.

"We were spending our time on buildings and buying textbooks. But a lot of parents were coming from quality districts -- from Parkway, Rockwood and Hazelwood. When they moved out here, they expected the same thing they had there. We had to learn to catch up."

Thanks to voter approval of tax levies and a rise in tax revenue, Fort Zumwalt had the resources to go beyond basic educational needs to gifted programs, an orchestra program, college credit programs, among others, that many incoming parents expected.

"Day of Reckoning"

O'Fallon, which once "grew like ... crazy," is slowing down. These days, DuBray talks mostly about what comes now that the growth is abating. He says that enrollment has peaked because the housing boom has slowed considerably and "the economy is such that there are lots of foreclosures."

That means worry about "the revenue issue." For the first time, the district's tax base has shrunk -- from an assessed valuation of $2.181 billion last year to $2.060 billion this year. The property tax, the district's main source of revenue, generates about $90 million; DuBray expects that to fall by more than $3 million this year.

"We've dropped $120 million (in assessed valuation) because home values have decreased. During my entire time in the district, this hasn't happened. It has always gone up, so we could always count on additional local revenue."

Still another issue is the state's tax picture. The state met its obligation to schools this time by using federal stimulus money.

"We superintendents are all concerned because we know there's a day of reckoning here. When the stimulus money isn't here, what's going to happen? Where are they going to hold back to make ends meet?"

The district is cutting the budgets for spending such as travel by 5 percent in each building. It also has a cushion to tide it over in the short term, DuBray says.

The cushion grew out of a period of state withholdings during the previous recession. Because of the state holdbacks, Fort Zumwalt persuaded voters in 2004 to approve a tax increase. As a result, "we were able to have a much more stable budget, and we have some balances that will help carry us through a couple of tough years."

Financial concerns also made DuBray pay attention to the debate among state lawmakers to allow districts to shorten the school week to four days from five. He says this proposal, approved during the last legislative session, could generate some savings for Fort Zumwalt, which spends about $900,000 a year in transportation. He suggests that shutting down lights, heating and cooling systems could save about $8,000 annually, but DuBray doesn't see a shortened work week as an option for his district.

Closing the Gap

The No Child Left Behind law is a constant disappointment for DuBray and Assistant Superintendent Jackie Floyd, who is in charge of curriculum and instruction. Both say the law distorts academic success in the district. Based on MAP scores, the district has failed to make "adequate yearly progress" since 2003 in both communications arts and math, based on MAP scores.

Both officials note that the low ranking occurs because a subgroup -- such as students needing extra help due to speech or language problems or learning disabilities -- don't make the cut. Overall, white students and Asians in the district tend to meet or exceed the proficiency targets on the MAP, while blacks, Hispanics and American Indians do not.

Floyd says it's "very difficult, almost impossible" for some students to make the required "adequate yearly progress," "but that doesn't mean we don't keep trying."

She wished the federal government would give districts credit for improvements by these students even if they fall short of the proficiency target.

Dubray says No Child Left Behind rules hurt the credibility of schools when the only thing the public sees "is that you didn't make (adequate yearly progrss); therefore, you're not as good as you should be."

He hopes federal lawmakers tweak the law.

"You don't necessarily do away with a good idea, but make its goals more attainable," he says.

The MAP test and No Child Left Behind law are important less for what they say about the district's efforts and more of what parents read into the results, Floyd says.

"I guess in my heart of heart, I'm going to pay attention to those scores because everybody pays attention to them," she says.

On the other hand, she says she has begun to focus less on telling herself "I need to fix this, I need to fix that" and pay more attention to gains. Focusing on those gains does more to "build morale."

At the same time, she says the district is putting in place new programs she hopes will improve student achievement. One is a "balanced literacy" program that requires students to learn to use skills -- such as reading and writing -- in real-life situations as a way of improving understanding of various concepts.

A second program is called response to intervention, which holds that the best time to close achievement gaps is during the early grades, when the gaps are smaller.

"If we don't close them early, then the gap just gets wider and wider, and it becomes very difficulty to help them catch up later. A big focus right now is helping our staff understand how to identify those children and provide the interventions for them."

Grow Your Own Teachers

For several years, Fort Zumwalt has used a golf tournament and donations from district employees to fund a scholarship program called Grow Your Own Teachers for graduates from the district. Winners of the $6,000 scholarships can attend college at Lindenwood, University of Missouri at Columbia, University of Missouri-St. Louis, Central Missouri State in Warrensburg or Southeast Missouri State in Cape Girardeau. Upon graduation, the students must agree to teach a high-need subject, such as science or math, for three years. The district raises about $50,000 a year for the program.

"We have a good school district, and we encourage the best and the brightest to look into careers in high-need areas," DuBray says. "We encourage those students to give something back." The program is relatively new, with three scholarship winners already in the pipeline.

St. Charles County has five school districts: Francis Howell, Wentzville, Fort Zumwalt, O'Fallon, and St. Charles. On MAP tests, students at Francis Howell tend to score at the top, followed by those at Wentzville, Fort Zumwalt, O'Fallon and St. Charles. Since they are all in the same county, is there any competition between superintendents in the five districts.

Dubray doesn't have to think about it: "Oh, yeah, we do compete, kind of friendly, nothing aggressive. We all want to see how other people came out. It would be nice to be at the top, but you don't want to be at the bottom."