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No silver bullets to solve Missouri schools' problems, says new education commissioner

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 16, 2009 - If Chris Nicastro has her way, the MAP test won't be the only yardstick for measuring student achievement in Missouri. She'll be in a position to help shape statewide school policies when she becomes Missouri's fifth commissioner of education on Aug. 1. She'll be the first woman to hold the job after running the Hazelwood district since 2002.

In Hazelwood, Missouri's fifth largest school district with about 19,000 students, Nicastro made strides toward closing academic gaps among students. She hopes she will be remembered in the Hazelwood district as "making a difference, creating a culture that focused on the needs of all kids." (Hazelwood parents and students may remember her better as Chris Wright.)

Even so, the district still fell short, unable to make adequately yearly progress on the MAP, or Missouri assessment program. It's a common experience among urban superintendents because MAP scores in urban districts frequently fall short because some students don't make enough progress in math and communication arts.

Given rules set by the federal No Child Left Behind law, Nicastro says every district will fall short in making adequate progress. That's true partly because the federal law requires that a school be given a failing grade if any subgroup of students -- special-needs children, for example -- isn't making adequate progress.

"It's a mistake to make judgments about a school, just as it's a mistake to make judgments about an adult or child, based on one measure in any given day," she says. "I would hope over time that we can have multiple measures in making those decisions."

Additional assessments, she suggests, might include those developed locally or something similar to the National Assessment of Educational Progress "report card" that measures how well students are performing in relation to others nationwide.

"Looking at multiple measures and multiple assessments is another change I'd like to see," she says.

On the other hand, she stressed that she isn't the commissioner yet and that it would be "premature" for her to comment about what needs to be done before she has "an opportunity to get inside the department and have a careful review of what's in place."

State control of school districts

"I would hope my effort and my work will reflect the needs of every child, district and community," she says. "Having said that, I think that I do bring a unique perspective to the position in that I've had extensive experience in an urban environment and I understand the challenges that districts like Hazelwood, Riverview and St. Louis face."

She warns there is no silver bullet to solve problems in urban schools.

"We're going to have to get caring, thoughtful people together to really decide what things we can agree on and enable us to move forward for all kids in the state and specifically in those urban schools that people seem to be so concerned about."

But she was careful not to say much about controversial DESE decisions, such as the one that stripped the St. Louis School District of its elected board. While some people argue that the state has treated the St. Louis district unfairly by appointing a special board to run the system, Nicastro says the state board also has taken strong measures against some rural and outstate districts. She said those state board decisions haven't been as well publicized and didn't affect as many children.

She adds that the board "has a responsibility to make sure every child in every district gets an education. While it's desirable for decisions to be left in the hands" of local boards, "if that doesn't produce results, then the state board has a legal responsibility to take action."

School Funding

When asked if Missouri spends enough on education, Nicastro said, "The answer is no. We've never been one of the top spending states, and we've never spent as much on public education as our wealth might indicate we could."

On the other hand, she says, "The times are such that it's unrealistic to hope that there's going to be a lot more money going into public education -- or indeed anything."

That means the state and local school officials are "going to have to be very careful and wise fiscal stewards of the money that we have and figure out how, if new initiatives are called for, we are going to fund those by reallocating existing resources."

Nicastro is not exactly a stranger to DESE. Her husband, Charlie, has been the department's area supervisor, a post he is resigning.

"With us living out of the (St. Louis) area, it would be difficult for him to serve as supervisor," she says, adding that she and her husband will live in a home they own in the Lake of the Ozarks, and that she'll drive to her new job in Jefferson City from there.

"I don't know that he'll find another job in DESE even if it's allowable," she says.

The Nicastros each have two grown children, all in their 30s, from previous marriages. All the children live in the St. Louis area, and that means Nicastro will keep strong bonds to St. Louis.

"This is my home," she says, "so I'm not going to forget St. Louis."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.