New Riverview Gardens district starts year with rally for staff
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 2, 2010 - If brightly colored T-shirts, inspirational slogans and sheer enthusiasm can turn a school district around, Riverview Gardens - make that the NEW Riverview Gardens - could be on its way back.
But as speakers conceded Monday morning during the opening convocation for the reconstituted district, the turnaround is going to take a lot more than school spirit.
"Everything will be tied to what affects learning at the classroom level," new Superintendent Clive Coleman said in an interview before he took the stage to rally the troops.
He stressed that the Riverview Gardens' past distractions - academic problems, financial mismanagement and general discord - will be relegated to a not-too-proud past, so the district can focus on raising the level of student achievement.
"Everything will be analyzed like it's never been analyzed before."
Judging by the response from teachers, administrators and other personnel meeting at the Touhill Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus, they are ready to put an uncertain summer behind them and get back to work.
Since July 1, when a Special Administrative Board (SAB) took over operation of the district, at the direction of the state Board of Education, all employees lost their jobs and had to reapply if they wanted to continue working for Riverview Gardens.
Coleman said hiring of the teaching staff is 98 percent complete, with 60 percent of the teachers returning and 40 percent of them new.
But the hiring process didn't please everyone, particularly the 100 or so teachers who were told they would not be returning, some as late as Thursday of last week. Richard Thies, president of the district's teachers union, looked around at the crowd filing into the auditorium and said, "I'm not liking what I see, just because of how the whole hiring process went down."
Thies said his own position as an instructional technology teacher had been eliminated, though he expects to be assigned a job to match his certification in music. He said the teachers union has little choice but to accept the hiring situation, "but there's still a lot of negative emotions flying around because a lot of their fellow teachers are no longer on the job."
Negativity was hard to find on the slogans of the T-shirts sported by faculty of various Riverview Gardens schools, who hugged and huddled after the long, tough summer while they waited to enter the auditorium.
Staff members at Lewis and Clark boasted of the Race to Success, while Moline shirts talked of the district's new slogan: The Rebirth of Educational Excellence. Teachers from Glasgow broadcast that their mission was educational excellence. "Method - Whatever it takes!"
As they took their seats, the staff could read inspirational words from the likes of Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Albert Einstein flashed on a screen, while a combo on stage played tunes like "What a Wonderful World."
Lynn Beckwith Jr., retired superintendent of the University City schools and head of the Riverview Gardens, introduced his talk by recalling the turmoil of "Gone With the Wind," saying how such winds had blown through Riverview Gardens and what had long existed is there no more.
"Change can be stressful," he said, "because it creates a state of disequilibrium."
While the normal tendency to regain your balance is to try to return to where you were before, Beckwith added, what employees of the district have to do now is accept the changes and make them work to the best advantage of everyone involved.
"We have the opportunity to be like the phoenix," he said, "to be better than, to be greater than, and to surpass."
Other speakers echoed his call, stressing that the district they now work for is brand new and will be under a microscope, to see if the changes imposed by the state will lead to the ultimate prize - reaccreditation.
"No excuses," Coleman told the crowd. "No exceptions. Only excellence."
After the convocation, everyone left to return to their schools - some to familiar surroundings, others to jobs they have had for just a few days or weeks. All schools have different principals, some of them new to the district, others shifted from other Riverview Gardens positions.
Jeff Cook, who had been principal at Koch Elementary, will now serve as associate principal at two other schools. Asked whether he thought the wholesale changes could result in cohesive staffs and lead to better results for students, he shrugged.
"We hope so. This is unprecedented. All the books I've ever read, I have never heard of a district being reorganized in this manner.
"It's going to take a lot of work and effort to do all that, but one great thing about education is that we all are here for the same purpose, to educate kids, so as long as we build on that, we'll be fine."
Or, as one of the inspirational messages in the auditorium said:
"If you have no critics, you'll likely have no success."