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State education officials hear plans, passion at Normandy meeting

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Normandy school Superintendent Ty McNichols marshaled a detailed array of facts and figures Monday night to show state school officials how the district arrived at its unaccredited status and what it is doing to win its accreditation back.

But it was the passionate testimony of teachers, students and other members of the community about what the school district means to them that roused the crowd packed into Viking Hall on the Normandy High School campus.

“We are separate, but we are not equal,” middle school teacher Bridget Curry told Missouri education commissioner Chris Nicastro and several members of her staff. “We need separate AND equal education for all of our babies.

“Our students need and deserve educators who care about them and their lives.”

The 90-minute hearing was the first of two called by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education into the situation in Normandy, which has seen 1,000 students transfer to other districts because it is unaccredited. The financial drain on the district, up to $15 million, has prompted a request by the state school board for $6.8 million in additional funds so the district can survive the current school year, but the funds are by no means a sure thing.

To show the state it is serious about prudent spending, and to cut its budget, the Normandy board has voted to cut 103 teachers and other staff members plus close Bel-Nor Elementary School at the end of this semester. Personnel who are affected by the layoffs are expected to learn their fate after the board meets Wednesday night.

After being introduced by board president William Humphrey, who said that “the district is in most capable hands,” McNichols spoke for more than 45 minutes, spelling out factors that have led to Normandy failing to be fully accredited since 1996.

He said 98 percent of the district’s enrollment is African-American, with 93.6 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. It has a high mobility rate, 59 percent – a key factor affecting student success.

The average income of families in the district is just less than $23,000, he said, giving Normandy the second-highest poverty rate among Missouri schools.

“These are not excuses,” McNichols said. “These are our demographics.”

Despite the students who have chosen to transfer – including 250 who live in the district but have never attended Normandy schools – the transient nature of its population means the district still has 88 percent of its former enrollment. But the costs for tuition and transportation it must pay for transfers have reduced the amount of money available to fund the education of the 3,000 students who have chosen to stay.

After listing the efforts Normandy is making to save money, improve student achievement and help students keep up to date with technology, McNichols told the education officials – and the crowd in the stands – that improving Normandy’s status is a joint effort.

Noting that the big crowd is a big indication of interest in the schools, McNichols said: “We can’t do this by ourselves…. This is our time, and we’re asking everyone to join us on this journey. We accept the challenge and the responsibility to make this vision a reality.”

And for those in the district, he said his mantra is a simple one.

“If you are not here to grow, then you have to go.”

Signs of the times

McNichols’ presentation prompted a standing ovation, with members of the crowd waving signs that had been handed out by members of the Normandy branch of the National Education Association.

“Where is our help from the state?” some read. Others asked:

“What about the students that stayed in Normandy. Don’t they deserve a good education?”

Then the public comments began.

Brian Jackson, president of the board of aldermen in Beverly Hills, one of the many small communities that make up the Normandy district, told the state education officials that they needed to have a better understanding of how the makeup of the district is different.

“The criteria must change,” he said, referring to the standards used to judge and classify Missouri school districts. “What you are doing, you are adversely affecting our students. The way they are being adversely affected, they are in a situation where you’re almost asking them to make bricks without straw.”

Because of the transfers, Jackson said, plus the transience of the families that can lead to low attendance, the district is handicapped several ways.

“There is no way you can take $13 million to $15 million from us and help us get better,” he said.

Shirley T. Robinson said the Normandy budget can’t withstand paying for transfer students plus paying to educate the students who stay at home.

“Our students need to stay in our community,” she said. “You talk about breaking up families. We’re breaking up communities. When you do that, students don’t communicate because they don’t go to school together.”

Dryver Henderson, a resident of the district who has been active in trying to increase support for the schools, emphasized the need for governance of Normandy schools to remain in the hands of elected officials.

“We want to keep control local,” he said. “We want to keep Normandy free and public. And we don’t want misleading information or poor leadership….

“Our kids are great, qualified and capable. They can become leaders, successful people in all walks of life – doctors, lawyers, military leaders, politicials, you name it. Our kids can do it.”

After one senior at Normandy High School said she had started a petition to prevent the upcoming layoff, she began a chant: “SAVE OUR TEACHERS!”

That theme was taken up by Dianitia Butler, also a senior and the student representative on the Normandy school board. She told reporters after the meeting that the students who decided not to transfer elsewhere have to become more active in trying to help the district improve.

“I feel it’s their obligation to stand up for their school,” she said, “to say I am here because I chose to stay here.”

More meetings scheduled

DESE has scheduled another meeting in Normandy for Dec. 11 and has two similar meetings planned for Riverview Gardens, the area’s other unaccredited school district, on Nov. 20 and Dec. 16. Nicastro said that those sessions are designed to engage the public, and at the next Normandy meeting, besides hearing from more residents she expects to have a framework for the department’s plans to help failing districts.

But she acknowledged that the sessions also could serve as the public meetings required by a new state law before it can intervene in the governance of unaccredited districts.

After Monday night’s session, Nicastro praised the passion of the members of the public who spoke. She said she had hoped to hear more detail from McNichols about specific steps Normandy is taking to improve, but she added that her staff has been keeping close tabs on the district and checks its progress regularly.

“We know they are taking some specific strides and we hope we’ll be able to help them do that,” Nicastro said.

She emphasized that poverty and other factors cited by McNichols can be difficult to overcome, but she added that some districts with demographics similar to those in Normandy have been able to succeed, and she hoped the district can learn from their example.

“It’s not impossible,” Nicastro said. “It happens.

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.