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Student transfers brought new focus on quality in schools, Nicastro says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2013 - The transfer of students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens to accredited school districts has forced a lot of dislocation and financial stress, but panelists at an education forum said Tuesday it has also prompted people to look at students in a new way.

And, insisted Chris Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioners for elementary and secondary education, despite what some people say, the process has not resulted in a mess.

She told the symposium at the University of Missouri-St. Louis that despite some glitches like late buses, the transfers have gone smoothly.

“In Kansas City,” Nicastro said, “people say, ‘We have to do something, we don’t want the mess they have in St. Louis.’ I say it isn’t a mess. Superintendents stood up when the court decision came down and said OK, we’re going to take the kids.”

After the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in June that the law allowing students in unaccredited school districts to transfer was constitutional, districts had to scramble to arrange the logistics for the transfers, which as of this week totaled more than 2,200 students.

Now that the immediate crisis is over, Nicastro said, education officials and lawmakers need to address basic policy questions and change what she said is an unsustainable model, with the sending districts paying tuition and in some cases transportation costs as well.

As that conversation moves forward, she added, people need to make sure that no one loses sight of the basic goal: quality education for every student in Missouri.

“How do we craft a plan that really focuses on kids, not adults?” she asked members of the audience, including educators and officials with a variety of organizations designed to help children and families.

“All of you good people notwithstanding, this not about you. This is not about our institutions. It’s not about my department. It’s not about creating a system that supports our needs.”

She added:

“Every child in Missouri deserves access to quality education. Every single child. Making sure that happens is everyone’s responsibility.”

Until the transfer situation forced a new look at an old problem, that realization was sometimes hard to come by, panelist Kate Cases of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri said.

“When was the last time someone in Mehlville cared about a kid in Riverview?” she asked.

Casas and others noted that school choice has been available in Missouri in many forms over the years, including the voluntary desegregation program in St. Louis and St. Louis County that began in the early 1980s.

But now, Nicastro said, the transfer law – passed 20 years ago, with unintended consequences – has forced people to look at the issue in a new way.

“We’ve had choice in this area for a very long time,” she said. “We know how to handle that. We just have to do figure out how to do it differently.”

Casas said that to look at the transfer option only as a choice program is to misinterpret the situation.

“This is not a choice program,” she said. “Choice would mean you don’t have to get on a bus if you didn’t want to. To many parents that we talked to, this was choice between bad and a little bit better.”

But, she added, in many cases the transfers have made a big difference in the lives of children who have been in their new schools for just a little more than a month.

“Parents say things to us like ‘We didn’t know school could be like this,’” Casas said. “'Our kids are two years behind, and in their old school they told us they were gifted.’”

As lawmakers begin to look at possible changes to the transfer law, Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, noted that the perspective of members of the General Assembly might need adjusting.

“Those of us in the legislature, who are only there eight years at most in either chamber, look for short-term solutions,” she said. “We put Band-Aids on problems today rather than look for long-terms solutions for the future.

“We’re short-term thinkers. We as a group look for short-term solutions that we can take home to our districts and say, look what we’ve done. I think we need to grab on to this moment in time and say this is a crisis, what are we going to do?”

But, she and other panelists added, making changes to the state’s educational system won’t necessarily be enough if other factors such as economics and race aren’t in the mix as well. She crystallized the situation by telling the story of a student who came to school so tired she had problems staying awake in class.

Asked what the problem was, the girl replied: “When my mom got home from work last night, we had to go to the laundromat.”

Casas said a big step forward in crafting solutions would come when people start talking just about how something can get done but also talk about why situations are the way they are in the first place.

“So often we’re afraid to hurt somebody’s feelings and call out the truth about what’s going on in school buildings,” she said. “I think that has prevented a lot of forward momentum. Once we start talking about the how and not everybody agrees on the why, you run into a wall.”

Longstanding problems

To give a sense of how long the problems in education have been around and how intractable they have been, at an earlier panel, Tom Irwin of Civic Progress mentioned that he had read reports from more than 50 years ago when the organization of the area’s top business executives was formed.

At that time, he said, its agenda included two key issues: public education and a new bridge over the Mississippi River.

Progress has been made with the bridges, Irwin noted, but we’re still working on education.

To move forward with quality schools for all children, Robbyn Wahby, education adviser to Mayor Francis Slay, listed several keys, including using data and technology, improving collaboration among all groups involved, bringing higher education into the conversation and fostering a willingness to try approaches that ultimately may not succeed.

“Don’t get trapped into feeling that this looks like something that failed before, why should we try it again?” Wahby said.

And, she added, anyone who wants to help solve the problems in education and the social woes that go along with them needs to stop looking to other players for the solution.

“We are the people who are going to tell us what to do,” Wahby 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.