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Normandy schools lose accreditation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2012 - Out of patience with prolonged subpar academic performance and concerned about administrative turnover, the Missouri state Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to accept the recommendation of the commissioner of education and strip the Normandy School District of its accreditation.

Normandy becomes the fourth district in Missouri to be unaccredited, joining St. Louis, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City.

In her recommendation to the board, meeting in Jefferson City, Commissioner Chris Nicastro backed up her view with a raft of statistics showing that since 2007, Normandy has met five or fewer accreditation standards out of the 14 possible.

In the discussion that followed, board members said that such performance shows that a new direction is needed in Normandy.

"This decision is 20 years in the making," said Mike Jones, who represents the St. Louis area on the board. "How long do you stay in a model with a district where the children are not getting what they need? It's got to get better, or you've got to do something else."

Added the Rev. Stan Archie of Kansas City, vice president of the board:

"We're not providing these kids what they need in order to succeed in life. ... This decision gives us the opportunity to walk closely beside the district to provide what is best for the kids. If we are graduating kids who aren't quite there, that is not what we want for Missouri's children."

And Peter Herschend of Branson, president of the board, said:

"Although the state board cannot immediately intervene due to current state statute, the department will aid the Normandy School District in earning, not just provisional, but full accreditation status. But it needs to be earned."

Late Tuesday afternoon, the district released a statement that said:

"In spite of this decision, some issues related to the reliability of the data used by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to make this classification determination remain unresolved.

"Although we are disappointed in the decision, we will keep a laser-like focus on improving the performance in our schools.  We look forward to continuing our work with DESE.  As always, we have an obligation to keep what is best for our students first and foremost in our planning and decision-making."

It called a news conference for Wednesday morning to provide more comment.

For her part, Nicastro told the Beacon that what is important is not so much the district's new classification but the fact that the change will bring a sharper spotlight on improvements that will boost student achievement.

"We don't take this kind of thing lightly," she said. "This is a classification that has been earned over a number of years. If you review the data, you can see that it has been a very, very long time since Normandy met state standards for performance. You can't be provisional forever. At some point, you have to either make it or not."

Now, she said, it becomes "a question of focus and the attention that everybody needs to bring to the work at hand. The purpose of classifications is not just to label districts but to hold adults accountable that all things are in place for each and every child to be successful.

"Sometimes it's easy for us as adults to let things slide and not pay attention to the things we need to do. Our resources have declined like everybody else's, and we have to be more strategic about where we put our time and attention and we have to bring resources to those areas where they are needed the most."

The first thing that state education officials have to do in Normandy now, Nicastro said, is "convene a team and sit down with the district staff and look very closely at their plans and see what areas they will focus their efforts on and what areas they will not focus on. Frequently, what we find when a district is not performing well is not that they are not doing well but that they are doing too much."

She said the district needs to improve its instructional strategies in the classroom and its use of data to drive decisions.

Asked whether the lack of accreditation will be a stigma on Normandy, Nicastro answered:

"If that's the case, then we're focusing on the wrong thing. This is not about districts and not about labels. It's about children. Irrespective of what label we put on a district, those are organizational tools that adults use to define groups of kids and groups of schools and boundaries."

Since Nicastro became commissioner in 2009, Wellston schools have been disbanded, Riverview Gardens has been put under control of a special administrative board and more attention in general has been paid to schools in Missouri's urban areas. She said that emphasis is no accident.

"I think I was hired to improve education for a million children in the state of Missouri," she said, "and a lot of those children are located in our urban areas.

"It's partly a question of timing. Several urban districts were up for classification, and decisions had to be made. There is no question that one of the things I was hired for was my focus on instructional improvement, particularly for urban kids. I've devoted my life to ensuring that urban kids get high-quality educational opportunities, and I am not going to lose my focus on that."

In its most recent report card, issued last month, the district met only five of the standards, even when the scores were figured two separate ways – with or without the students who started their career in the Wellston School District. Normandy absorbed Wellston at the end of the 2009-2010 school year.

Also of concern is the departure of four top administrators from the district over the past year.

Current state law would not let the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education name a special administrative board to govern Normandy for at least two academic years after it loses accreditation. The new classification becomes effective Jan. 1.

Law does call for students who live in an unaccredited district to be able to transfer to a nearby district that is accredited, with their home district paying the cost, but that law has not been enforced pending court rulings on its validity. The law has been upheld once by the Missouri Supreme Court, which is expected to rule again after the case went through the St. Louis County Circuit Court earlier this year.

Our earlier story:

When members of the Missouri Board of Education consider the future accreditation status of Normandy schools at their meeting on Tuesday, two factors will weigh heavily in their decision: What Normandy has not done and what the state board can do.

What Normandy has not been able to do is make much progress on its annual evaluation to move out of its provisional accreditation status. Out of 14 possible points, over the past five years, it has met only four or five standards. State guidelines call for six standards to be met for provisional accreditation and nine for full accreditation.

Even without reaching six, Normandy has been one of nine districts in Missouri to be provisionally accredited. Three – St. Louis, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City – are unaccredited.

It might seem that the board’s decision is clearcut – without meeting six standards, Normandy should lose accreditation altogether. But a district can remain provisionally accredited indefinitely; and under current law, the board’s options are limited.

Even if it chooses to pull accreditation from Normandy altogether, the board cannot put the district under the control of an appointed special administrative board, such as the ones that are running St. Louis and Riverview Gardens, because the law requires a district to be unaccredited for two years before such a board can be put into place. Efforts to change the law, so Kansas City could get an SAB, fell short in this year’s legislative session.

So whether it is provisionally accredited or unaccredited, the assistance that Normandy could get from the state would be about the same: special attention and assistance, closer scrutiny, perhaps some extra funding.

The recommendation by education Commissioner Chris Nicastro for what the board should do will not be made public until Tuesday, and Normandy officials declined to discuss the issue in advance of the board’s meeting. They plan to be in Jefferson City to answer any questions board members may have, but they are not expected to make a presentation.

So what is likely to happen? Mike Jones, the St. Louis area’s representative on the board, says the state is hesitant to strip accreditation from a school district, but at some point such an action may be unavoidable.

“The board is trying to discuss and figure out what the best solution is to optimize things for the kids,” Jones told the Beacon. “Generally speaking, unaccrediting a school district is not the first thing you think about to help a district make progress. There are limited tools we have once we do that. That was a large part of our reasoning a year ago when Normandy maintained provisional accreditation. We gave them that opportunity. Both the board and the commissioner did not think taking accreditation away would help them make progress.

“The way the statute is written and the way our authority is, it’s not like there would be an act that put the board into the position to do something more aggressive in terms of intervention.”

The Wellston factor

When district report cards for Missouri schools came out last month, Normandy Superintendent Stanton Lawrence made clear that he thought state education officials should give the district the benefit of the doubt.

One big reason, he said, was the fact that Normandy absorbed the Wellston schools when they were shut down at the end of the 2009-10 school year. Lawrence called such a move unprecedented in American education, when “a marginal school district was forced to take a failing school district.”

Statistics for Normandy that were released by the state were figured in two ways – with Wellston students and without. Either way, the district only met five standards out of the 14 possible. Lawrence said that he would have preferred to have made more progress by now, but he added that a detailed analysis would show that Normandy is still moving forward.

The district, he said, needs more time and deserves more time, and he is optimistic that the state board will provide it.

"Normandy took DESE off the hook two years ago,” he told the Beacon last month. “Some folks in our community thought it was going to be done so Normandy would become unaccredited. I did not share that sentiment. I thought DESE was going to get in there with us as a partner to see that we succeed. I’m extremely optimistic."

Normandy may be able to take heart from the experience of one of the other districts up for review by the board this week – Winfield, in Lincoln County.

In 2011, the district met only one of the seven academic standards that make up half of the annual performance report. A year later, it met six out of seven, and 13 out of 14 overall. Despite its earlier poor performance, the state board gave Winfield more time to build on what it perceived to be progress, and it appears to have paid off.

That kind of patience is one factor that board members have to take into consideration when trying to figure out Normandy’s fate, Jones said.

“It’s like you’re the loan officer at a bank," he said. "You stay with it as long as you think the guy can pay you back. But when they can’t, then you have to do something. As long as we think they have the chance to make progress, I think the best position may be to keep things the way they are.”

Status quo for St. Louis

Meanwhile, despite the contention by Superintendent Kelvin Adams that the steady progress made by St. Louis Public Schools– to seven accreditation points this year – should gain provisional accreditation, that move isn’t going to happen, at least not at this month’s meeting.

The three-member special administrative board that has been in charge of the city schools since 2007 wrote Nicastro a letter earlier this month making the case for provisional accreditation and asking that the issue be put onto the state board’s agenda this week.

“Dr. Adams and his administration continue to implement the DESE approved Accountability Plan that provides for improved collection and use of data that is also proving effective in assisting the District to improve its instructional and operational functions,” the letter said. “In general, our students continue to make significant gains in their academic performance at a rate above the state average.

"The members of the SAB are confident that programs such as the Early Childhood Education Program that provides free early childhood education to the children of St. Louis residents will pay dividends to our students and the District’s overall academic performance for years to come.”

Emphasizing voters’ approval of a $155 million bond issue in 2010 and innovative programs designed to improve teaching and learning in the district, the board member added:

“Although there is still a great deal of work to do in order to restore the District to fully accredited status, it is clear that the processes and plans implemented over the last four years have put the District on the right trajectory.

“Because of the concerted efforts of our students, teachers, principals, and the leadership team put in place by Dr. Adams; our kids have earned the right to say they attend a provisionally accredited school district for the first time since 2007. The students and their families deserve to know that their hard work is producing positive results.”

Nicastro has acknowledged the progress made by the city schools since they lost accreditation and the SAB took over, but she has consistently maintained that before the board considers granting provisional accreditation to the district, it needs to show better results on a more sustained basis.

After the SAB letter was received by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, it told the city schools that there was no room on the board’s agenda this month for its request to be considered. Instead, Nicastro announced late Friday that the St. Louis schools' request for review of its accreditation status would be heard by the board at its meeting Oct. 16.

"We will be taking time to consider the district's request in the next few weeks before making a recommendation to the board," she said in a statement. "The board has the final authority on accreditation classification determinations."

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.