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Normandy school chief vows to keep focus on student performance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 19, 2012 - Even as the clock is ticking toward the district’s loss of accreditation on Jan. 1, the superintendent of schools in Normandy said Wednesday that he hopes to keep provisional accreditation while maintaining a “laser-like” focus on improving student performance.

Stanton Lawrence told a news conference at the district’s headquarters that one point in the district’s evaluation by the state, concerning its graduation rate, remains in dispute and under discussion with officials at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Lawrence said he hopes resolution of that question would reverse what he called an “immensely unfair decision” by the state Board of Education Tuesday to make Normandy the fourth unaccredited school district in Missouri.

He acknowledged that if the board’s vote stands, the district will have two and a half years in which “we must make absolutely unparalleled progress” before the district is subject to further actions, including the possibility of a state-appointed special administrative board such as the ones that are now running schools in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens.

In the meantime, Lawrence and Normandy school board President Sheila Williams said the state board action cannot cause students, teachers and parents in the district to ease up on their ultimate goal: higher levels of achievement.

“We cannot afford to let this development become a distraction from our work,” Lawrence said.

“The first thing for our school district is preparing all of our students so they can graduate prepared for college or a career.”

Williams that Normandy is “determined to address this collaboratively” with the community and with the state”

“We view DESE as our partner …, ” she said. “We pursue a common goal.”

Situation in Normandy

Both Lawrence and Williams said the state board’s decision on Tuesday was a disappointment but not a complete surprise; and while it will subject the district to additional scrutiny, it should also bring added support from the state.

Lawrence once again said he thought the fact that Normandy had absorbed the disbanded Wellston schools at the end of the 2009-10 school year should have caused the state to give the district extra consideration when it came to the accreditation decision. He called such a move – where one struggling district was called on to take students from another – unparalleled, noting that usually when such combinations occur, the receiving district is on firmer financial and academic footing.

Asked what he meant when he initially called the accreditation decision “politically obscene,” Lawrence said, “If that doesn’t seem to be what you would describe as political, maybe it’s me.”

Citing the district’s high percentages of minority students and those who live in low-income households, Lawrence said that despite those disadvantages, Normandy students still managed to show more progress in several academic areas than Missouri students as a whole.

Discussing what the district would be doing to make the improvements necessary to regain accreditation, Lawrence pointed to the transformation plan adopted last year.

It calls for the district to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, then act to make sure that problems and weaknesses are addressed.

Specifically, Candice Carter-Oliver, the district’s chief academic officer, said Normandy’s curriculum is being aligned with common core standards adopted by the state; literacy is being stressed across all course areas; double blocks of time are being used for some courses in the high school; and eighth graders are taking beginning algebra to be able to score more strongly on state tests.

More generally, she said the district is using data more intensively to help identify and solve problems in student achievement – an area in which Chris Nicastro, the state’s commissioner of education, said the district has been particularly weak.

Lawrence also said the district intends to develop more partnerships with outside groups and emphasize the importance of school in homes with students in kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade, which he called key transition points.

He said he did not want to suggest that Nicastro and the state board had a hidden agenda in the Normandy vote, and he wants to stay focused on improving the district’s performance so it can move up not only to provisional accreditation but full accreditation status.

Lawrence said the district had established a telephone hotline – 314-493-0468 – and an email address – accreditationinfo@normandysd.org -- so anyone can ask questions about the accreditation situation.

Asked what effect the lack of accreditation would have on home values in the many communities that make up the Normandy district, Chris Krehmeyer, who heads the group Beyond Housing and is active in the Normandy 24:1 initiative, acknowledged that “it’s not helpful. I understand that the state has a job to do, but pulling accreditation does nothing but bad things for kids.”

He said that in the poorer areas that make up the school district, housing prices have been depressed for some time, so he does not expect the accreditation decision to make much difference. And in the more affluent areas of the district, “a lot of those parents don’t send their kids to Normandy schools anyway,” so he doesn’t expect any negative impact.

One of the parents attending the news conference, Kim Morris, expressed her continued support for the district, despite the vote to pull its accreditation. Morris, the mother of a son at Normandy High School, said she has the opportunity to send him elsewhere, but she intends to keep him where he is.

“I would never turn my back on Normandy,” Morris said.

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.