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New Superintendents Pushing Through Challenges: In Riverview Gardens, Scott Spurgeon

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

Yesterday, we profiled the new superintendent at the Normandy schools.

Now, we introduce you to the man who finds himself in the same position at another struggling school district- Riverview Gardens. 

Scott Spurgeon is familiar with long shots. The first Northwest Missouri State Bearcat to be named a college baseball All-American, Spurgeon was selected by the Houston Astros in the 36th round of the 1988 amateur draft.  Two knee surgeries caught up to him, so he got a master’s degree and made the transition to education in 1994.

Now, Spurgeon finds himself at the helm of a school district that lost nearly a quarter of its student body following a Missouri Supreme Court ruling. And its his job to bring them back.

A class of first graders sits on the floor of the library at Moline Elementary School in the Riverview Gardens district, eagerly helping librarian Michelle Williamson read "Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons."

They laugh as they realize that no matter how many buttons Pete loses from his coat, he'll always be able to see his belly button, mostly oblivious to a special guest who has joined them for story time. 

Scott Spurgeon - their new superintendent of two months - is becoming a common sight throughout the district. 

Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon said he is optimistic the district will return to provisional accreditation, following a recommendation from the state department of elementary and secondary education board on Nov. 23, 2016.
Credit Kimberly Ney | Riverview Gardens School District
Riverview Gardens superintendent Scott Spurgeon helps students in Kimberly Ney's kindergarten class at Koch Elementary School learn the alphabet. He requires that all 13 of the district's buildings get a visit from a member of the administrative staff twice a month.

"Confidence comes from being present," he says. "And so as the leader of the district, as well as all of my district staff, as well as all of the building principals, we have a real presence in our school system in order to support. We don't teach kids, but our classroom teachers do.

A Way To Make A Difference

"Being present" is part of an educational philosophy that Spurgeon’s honed at schools in Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois. He turned to a career in education after baseball because he was "called" to make a difference in the lives of children.

For personal reasons, he left for the private sector in 2011. But when the Riverview Gardens job came open, Spurgeon decided he wanted back in the game.

"It was probably because of the opportunities that exist here," he said. "I think there's a tremendous amount of talent in our students and our staff."

Spurgeon calls himself a goal-oriented person. And he has a very specific one he thinks he can achieve with the talent he has.

"At convocation, I showed some projections about where we need to be in order to achieve the amount of points necessary for accreditation, and I fully believe that we will accomplish that," he says. "That will be success for me."

A Long Climb Back

In the latest state assessment, Riverview Gardens earned just 40 of 140 total accreditation points. And the financial costs of 1,400 students leaving for accredited schools will wipe out the district's reserves in a year and a half.

But despite the doom and gloom of the data, there’s something different in the air this year. 

"It just feels good to have some sort of support where you’re working together again," says music Richard Thies.

Thies and the rest of the district's teacher's union first heard Spurgeon speak at community forums in 2012, as he was interviewing for the Riverview Gardens job.

Thies, 27-year veteran, was instantly impressed that Spurgeon kept using one word – collaboration. More importantly, Thies says, the superintendent has followed through. 

"It just feels good to have some sort of support where you're working together again." - Riverview Gardens teacher's union president Richard Thies.

"I think you have to have every stakeholder involved in the process to push for the same cause," he says. "And the way we were, there were too many different ways of thinking. Teachers are in those classrooms, they know what it takes to get there, but  yet we weren’t a guided force to go all in the same direction."

It's not the first time Spurgeon's been complimented for bringing more collaboration to a district. Before entering the private sector in 2011, he was the superintendent of Belleville Township High School District 201. John Kasper, who is now the school board president, was part of the board that hired Spurgeon.

"He came in, took away the competitive spirit between Belleville East, Belleville West and had them working together," Kasper said. "If you have the two schools working together, it's only going to help the instruction." And teachers, he said, appreciated that Spurgeon was present in the halls.

"Everybody On The Field."

Spurgeon's also getting praise for expanding the people with whom he'll work - like the Rev. Freddy Clark.

Clark, the pastor at Shalom Church-City of Peace admits he wasn’t aware Riverview Gardens was struggling until he read news coverage of the school transfer ruling. When he learned of the dire straits of the district, he immediately contacted Spurgeon asking what he could do. To his delight, the superintendent instantly accepted the offer of help.

Now, instead of Wednesday night Bible study, the church's 2,500 young parishioners, many of whom attend Riverview and Normandy schools, get help with their homework.

"I’ll use a baseball metaphor or a sports metaphor," Clark says.. When you’re losing, you look on the bench and in the stands, you look everywhere to try and get everybody on the field and that was his posture then and now. And that’s what’s impressive about Dr. Spurgeon as an educator."

As a former ballplayer, Spurgeon is also quick to see the parallels to his current career. It’s all about knowing and buying into systems.

"My first day being July 1, and having to begin to plan and prepare for the Missouri Supreme Court case ruling, it really caused us as a system to have to take our focus and stay real strategic on the work that we needed to get done, as well as take care of our transferring students," he said. "I think it's just staying disciplined, and being the first one here and the last one to leave."

That’s the combo, he says, for a game-winning hit – or an accredited school district. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Listen here to Tim Lloyd's profile of Normandy superintendent Ty McNichols

Get answers to your questions about the school transfer process here.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.