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No fireworks, lots of logistics at Riverview Gardens parent forum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2013: For nearly an hour, Kate Casas and others from the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri had answered nuts-and-bolts questions from residents of the Riverview Gardens school district about how students can transfer to accredited schools:

What happens to students who are homeless, or in transition? Is this by lottery, or will our requests for certain district be filled first-come, first-served? How will students who can’t keep up academically get the help they need?

Unlike other recent meetings involving the school transfer process, this crowd packed into a basement meeting room at the Lewis and Clark branch of the St. Louis County Library Monday night – across the street from Riverview Gardens’ headquarters – was quiet, almost subdued.

Then came a question that stirred murmurs from the crowd and a relatively forceful answer from Casas, the state policy director of the education group, concerning Riverview Gardens’ choice of the Mehlville school district in south St. Louis County, 20 miles away, as the one to which it would pay for transportation for transfers students:

Is this more about money than it is about education?

Casas said she felt that the decision to designate Mehlville as the district where Riverview Gardens would pay for buses “is clearly an effort to keep your children here. I do not think this has been a student-centered process.”

When it announced Mehlville as the district for transportation, Riverview Gardens officials said it had chosen Mehlville for several reasons, including its capacity to take new students, its tuition and its academic reputation.

And another answer brought the only applause of the night. After talk of how applications need to be in by Aug. 1, and students will be matched with schools the first week of August, with class starting in most districts not too long after that, Casas said:

“If you’re hearing the excuse that this is being rushed, that we don’t have time, don’t buy it. Superintendents have had 20 years to prepare for this.”

At issue is the 1993 Missouri law that allows students from unaccredited school districts – Riverview Gardens and Normandy in north St. Louis County plus Kansas City on the western edge of the state – to transfer to an accredited district in the same county or any adjacent county.

When the law was upheld for the second time by the Missouri Supreme Court last month, logistics for how the transfers would be handled began moving swiftly, but not necessarily smoothly.

After Normandy designated Francis Howell schools in St. Charles County as its transportation district of choice, and Riverview Gardens chose Mehlville, the question arose: Why would they choose districts so far away when there were good ones much closer?

Those suspicions were fanned last week by a three-hour meeting in Francis Howell where many parents vented their frustration at the prospect of Normandy students enrolling there. Casas, who attended that meeting as well, told the crowd Monday night that the choice of Francis Howell, which did not even take part in the areawide voluntary desegregation plan, was “shocking to me,” but she added about last week’s session:

“I was impressed with the superintendent there and all the teachers and the students who spoke. They were welcoming. They wanted the students from Normandy to come there. I hope that trickles down throughout the school system.”

Questions and answers

Besides those exchanges, most of the questions and answers had to do with procedure and policy. The Alliance has been involved in school choice and the transfer case for a long time and organized the parent forum independent of the school district to answer questions and provide a packet of information to help parents maneuver through the process.

Does Mehlville have early childhood classes? Yes, but the transfer law applies only to children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

If Mehlville says it can’t accept any more students, will Riverview Gardens designate other districts for transportation? Yes, but you may not know that when you fill out your transfer application, so make sure you note that you will need transportation.

Will the unaccredited districts pay tuition to private schools or just to accredited public schools? Only to public schools.

Can my child go to magnet school in the city? Yes, but the process is different, so call the city’s magnet school office.

Is it possible that this law will change? The courts have spoken, but legislators who passed the law in the first place can enact changes to it.

Doesn’t the law say students can choose not just an accredited school district but an accredited school? Why can’t we specify a school to attend?

“We feel like we’re walking a tightrope here between telling you what your rights are and tell you what the path of least resistance is to get your child into a quality school,” Casas said, noting that insisting on a particular school to transfer to could lead to another long legal battle.

“If you want your child enrolled in a school by the middle of August, these are the rules that everyone is playing by.”

How will the transfers affect efforts by Riverview Gardens to regain accreditation?

“I believe all of the students in the state of Missouri are capable of learning at a level that we want them to,” Casas said. “What I would love to see is that the administration in this district and in Normandy say, ‘If you want to leave this district, let us help you get your children where you want them to be.’ I think there are the resources and the knowledge to do that.”

As of Friday, 357 Riverview Gardens students had filed transfer applications, district officials said.

Parents’ response

After the hour-long session, some parents still seemed not quite sure about where they wanted their children to attend class when the school year begins next month.

Danielle Tyus, whose 15-year-old daughter, also named Danielle, will be in the 10th grade, wants her to go to Mehlville.

“My cousin went there,” the elder Danielle said, “and it was excellent.”

She said she was not worried about the long bus ride or the reception that Danielle might get when she arrived in Mehlville. “They seem pretty diverse,” she said. “I don’t see any problems.”

Her daughter wasn’t sure; she said she would like to attend North County Tech, which her mother said is still a possibility.

But, the mother added, one thing that is not going to happen is for Danielle to remain in Riverview Gardens. She isn’t impressed with how the district has been run since it lost accreditation.

“They’ve had five years to get accreditation back,” she said, “and they failed to do it. I don’t see any change.”

Another parent, Montrice Williams, actually attended Mehlville schools as a deseg student, coming from the city. She said would like her third-grade son, Cannon, to attend either Parkway or Clayton, even though she felt Mehlville was very welcoming when she was a student there.

“My experience in Mehlville was great,” she said. “But my introduction to the experience was terrible. Parents were trying to transfer their fears to their children, who didn’t feel the same way.” She said the situation then appears to be similar to the situation in Francis Howell now.

Still, Williams said, she does want her son to experience the same benefits that she had from attending school with people of a different race.

“Diversity is a big issue for me,” she said. “There is so much education you get that isn’t always in the classroom.”

But she does have one very precise negative memory from her days at Mehlville.

“What I didn’t like was being at that bus stop at 5:59 in the morning,” Williams said.

New education law

While parents were mulling the ramifications of a 20-year-old education law, a new law signed by Gov. Jay Nixon last week also was a subject of discussion.

It allows state education officials to move more quickly to take over an unaccredited school district and appoint a special administrative board, like the ones running Riverview Gardens and the St. Louis Public Schools, which are now provisionally accredited but still being run by an SAB.

Steve Ehlmann, the county executive of St. Charles County, wrote in a letter to Peter Herschend, president of the state board of education, that the state should appoint an SAB to run Normandy as soon as possible.

“The decision by the Normandy School District Board of Education to provide transportation only to schools in the Francis Howell School District has raised many questions and caused great concern regarding school transfers,” Ehlmann wrote.

He said that when the legislature passed the transfer bill back in 1993 -- when he was in the General Assembly and voted against it -- the provision was designed “to be so severe that no school board would allow its school, or any school in the same or adjacent county, to become unaccredited.” He compared the option to the sequester of funds from the federal budget.

Under the new school law, Ehlmann said, a hearing can be called as the first step to putting an SAB in place in Normandy. He urged Herschend to call such a hearing immediately and schedule a special meeting in July, to help ensure that a new board is in place “when the students arrive at Normandy schools next month.

At the very least, he said, such a board needs to be in place when the district begins planning for next year, and before any teacher contracts are signed for the next year.”

Though he acknowledged that “there is nothing magical about the appointment of a special administrative board,” Ehlmann said in the case of Normandy, “I believe time is of the essence.”

Another provision of the new school law would allow an accredited district to send personnel into an unaccredited one, in addition to having the students move in the other direction. The head of the National Education Association in Riverview Gardens, Richard Thies, told the Beacon Monday night that he isn’t sure that merely putting new teachers into the district would make much difference.

“I think we could take all of the Mehlville teachers and bring them to Riverview Gardens,” Thies said, “and all of the Riverview Gardens teachers and bring them to Mehlville, and unless other conditions change, you would still have relatively the same outcome. There’s a lot more going into this than just teachers.”

And he isn’t sure about how much effect an SAB has, either, based on the experience in Riverview Gardens.

“I think there has been a lack of collaboration between all of the stakeholders in the district. The SAB tends to make decisions on its own without involving other stakeholders.”

Could he cite any examples? “Pretty much anything.”

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.