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Riverview Gardens plots path back to accreditation

Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - As superintendent of the Riverview Gardens School District since July 1, Scott Spurgeon has an array of facts and figures, plans and practices that he says can help the district regain accreditation.

But, he told a hearing called by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Wednesday night, he also has one solid indicator that things are looking up.

“The first few weeks of school,” he told a few hundred people at the district’s Family Community Resource Center, “the kids were sitting with their heads down, no smiles on their faces.”

Now, Spurgeon said, “kids are smiling. They’re active. They’re learning. Things are changing.”

Whether they are changing enough to move Riverview Gardens back into accreditation territory remains to be seen. Only if accredited can the district  stop losing students who may transfer to nearby accredited districts. At the first of two sessions called by DESE to discuss the district’s blueprint to improve student performance, Spurgeon’s enthusiasm was matched by speakers’ denunciation of the state law that allows the transfers from unaccredited districts.

Justin Dixon, a communication arts teachers at the district’s Central Middle School, told education commissioner Chris Nicastro and members of her staff that “for the first time since I’ve been here, real progress seems possible.”

But the financial drain on Riverview Gardens threatens to short-circuit that momentum, he said, robbing the district of students and money and punishing those students who have decided to stay.

He said that district teachers sent to receiving districts to observe their operations report that the facilities are better but the teaching is about the same. What needs to be done, he said, is stop allowing students to leave and take money with them that Riverview Gardens needs.

“It is time to end these shortsighted, ineffective and harmful transfers,” Dixon said.

No exceptions, no excuses

In his presentation, Spurgeon strode back and forth in front of the crowd, using a computer presentation to relate how Riverview Gardens will return to the prominent position it once held among area districts.

Using the slogan “No exceptions, no excuses,” he said the district has to proceed with a real sense of urgency, improving its collaboration, collegiality and communication to raise student test scores.

But, he added, the district doesn’t need a lot of outside help to get the job done. “Everything we need to change this district is in this district,” he said.

Going through Riverview Gardens’ first evaluation under Missouri’s new school standards – where the district received just 40 points out of 140 possible – Spurgeon pointed out how much progress could be made if just 20 students moved up in their ratings, from below basic to basic or from basic to proficient.

In another area where the district can score more points, attendance, Spurgeon said a new attitude is needed to make sure parents get their kids to school every day.

“Can that be an issue for us?” he asked. “Absolutely. Can it be changed? Absolutely. It’s a cultural change.”

Financially, he said the district will be recommending cuts to “right size” its workforce, though he added “we’ll do our best to stay away from the classroom as much as possible.”

He projected how many points the district could earn in various categories for next year’s evaluation, with a goal of 104 – a score that would put it into accreditation territory, though state school officials have said they need to see sustained improvement before any accreditation classification would change.

“Everything you see on that board is absolutely doable,” Spurgeon said. The key, he said is to make sure everyone works together toward the same goal.

“We have got to ensure that we leave politics and egos at the door,” he said.

And he ended with a quote from Thomas Edison

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Accountability needed

The dozen people who spoke after Spurgeon mixed pride in the district with criticism of state education officials for taking over Riverview Gardens, which has been governed by a special administrative board since 2010.

“In the news, we keep hearing that Riverview Gardens is failing,” Theresa Beck, a teacher at Meadows elementary school, said, gesturing toward state officials sitting in the first few rows. “Well if we’re failing, so are they.”

Three years ago, Beck added, the state had a “prime opportunity to create real education reform.” She challenged Nicastro and her staff to “embrace the opportunity to fix things.”

Isaiah Smith, a senior at Riverview Gardens High School, said the public never hears about the good things in the district, like its choir, its jazz band, its ROTC program or its debate team. He said seniors had garnered more than $1 million in scholarships and are working hard to make their school succeed.

“You may shut us down,” he said, “but you may not shut us up…. We will not go down with a fight.”

Niketia Coleman, who works at Highland elementary school and has four children who have graduated from the district’s schools, said they are parents, college graduates, homeowners, taxpayers and registered voters.

“Isn’t that the goal of education?” she asked.

She said Riverview Gardens needs the same financial and emotional support as surrounding districts to make sure students are learning as they should.

“There are no short cuts to quality education,” Coleman said, “and you cannot have quality education without services, resources and professional development in addition to accountability of all stakeholders….

“Most of all, we need DESE to take a stand for Riverview Gardens.”

Listening, then forumulating plans

After the session, Nicastro, who once served as superintendent in Riverview Gardens, said that the second hearings to be held there and in Normandy next month will continue to take testimony from the public. But they also will be an opportunity for her department to present ideas it is considering for a plan that will be presented to the state school board in January.

She said she was surprised that people think her department can fix the transfer program, since it is mandated by state law and DESE only can provide guidance for how transfers can be conducted.

Two recommendations her department is likely to make, Nicastro said, would be for DESE to have more legislative authority to issue such guidance and for changes in how districts that are receiving transfers charge tuition.

“We’re assuming we’re not going to eliminate the transfer law,” she said. “Most of the legislators I have talked to have said that is not going to happen. So if you assume they are not going to eliminate the law, we have to see what it will take to make the law work.”

Nicastro said the financial cost to Riverview Gardens and Normandy has been harmful.

“I’m concerned about taking resources and assuming that the only way we can help kids get a quality education is to send them somewhere else.”

She said she would like families to have an array of options that may include transfers.

Nicastro said she likes the emphasis that Spurgeon has put on classroom learning and likes the district’s spirit, which can help it succeed. She noted that both Spurgeon and Ty McNichols, who became superintendent in Normandy on July 1, faced immediate challenges that most of their colleagues don’t have.

Asked if she thinks Riverview Gardens will be able to once again be accredited, Nicastro didn’t hesitate.

“I always believe that any district can regain accreditation,” she said. “It’s happened before. It’s happened in this district. I know it can be done.”

And she came back to the theme she always sounds in such circumstances – adults can’t stand in the way of making sure students get a good education.

“It’s never a problem with the children,” Nicastro said. “The kids are great. They just need adults who create the kind of opportunity and environment where they can be successful.”

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.