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Normandy Schools Collaborative Holds Pep Rally, Orientation Promising A Brand-New Start

Normandy superintendent Ty McNichols
Dale Singer/St. Louis Public Radio

The new Normandy Schools Collaborative kicked off the new school year Monday by spelling out for teachers and other staff members how its new approach will help it regain accreditation from the state.

Part pep rally to generate excitement, part orientation session to set expectations, the three-hour session at Viking Hall on the Normandy High School campus was designed to show how things will be different now that the state has taken over the district with an appointed board and close oversight.

How was the session received?

“It was awesome,” said Julie Berman, a speech language pathologist who is employed by Special School District and works at Jefferson elementary school in Normandy.

“It was just all about being open to change and being dedicated to helping our students and just stepping forward on the right foot and having a great school year.”

Superintendent Ty McNichols, who is starting his second year as head of the district, called the meeting “our opportunity to kick off the beginning of the year, set expectations, get everybody feeling like part of the family…. It was a time to come together in fellowship and kick off the year with a great start, and I think we accomplished that.”

Asked what will be different that can raise the academic achievement of a district that has not been fully accredited by the state for many years, McNichols said having a new relationship with the state will bring Normandy more resources and more support. The approach to learning will also be different, he said.

“We are focusing on a few things and doing them well,” he said. “We’re going to focus on leadership, deepening our knowledge base throughout the organization and effective feedback. That’s going to be new from what we did last year.”

When the collaborative replaced the old Normandy school district on July 1, all contracts lapsed, so finding new employees became one of the district’s top priorities. After job fairs late last month, McNichols said the hiring of teachers and other staff is nearly complete, with openings “down to a handful of people.” He said about 45 percent of the staff will be new.

New budget cuts

McNichols said the district has cut about $4 million from its budget, after large cuts last year that included closing an elementary school and laying off more than 100 teachers and others. Included in this year’s cuts is a reduction in the district’s security spending, to $588,000 from $1.1 million.

Security has been a sensitive subject in Normandy since a story published in the Post-Dispatch in May 2013 branded Normandy High School the most dangerous in the area. That reputation played a big role in a long meeting in July 2013 in Francis Howell,  the district Normandy chose to pay transportation to for transfer students; unhappy residents there cited the high school’s security problems as an issue with the transfers.

When statistics for the 2012-13 school year came out last summer, the St. Louis Beacon updated the situation, noting that the 2011-12 statistics had shown an unusual spike and the new numbers were down to a level consistent with what they had normally been in the past.

Asked why Normandy chose to cut its security spending, McNichols said Monday that that area, like many others, had to be reduced so that the district could stay within its budget. He also said that incidents were down once again for the 2013-14 school year, including a significant reduction at the high school.

To compensate for the reduced spending on security, he said, the communities that make up the district are going to support Normandy outside of school. He also said that security will be part of the focus for other staff members.

“We’ll be focusing on effective instruction and classroom management and staff stepping up and taking on a leadership role,” McNichols said. “We hope that our students, like last year, will continue to work with our staff so that things don’t elevate or escalate into anything negative.”

Should security be cut at a time like this?

“You know,” he responded, “one could ask that about all of the different departments, is it the right time. But it is what it is. You know, we have to be prudent about the resources that we have because we still have kids that are in the transfer program, and we will be still paying for those kids – at a reduced rate, but it still exists.”

Music and T-shirts

While McNichols explained the spending cut and other changes, staff members were filing into the cafeteria for a quick lunch between the morning convocation and afternoon meetings at the district’s individual schools.

Outside, music and cheerleaders greeted them as they walked from one building to another. Inside, many wore T-shirts that had been distributed to staff members at the high school. The front said “We bleed Red and Green,” with the back adding: “For Life” and the hashtag #NormandyStrong, which became widespread as the district fought not to be dissolved.

Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

That kind of enthusiasm was also apparent from teachers who took part in the morning session.

“They did a pretty good job in trying to bring the teachers together,” said Aman Lado, who will be at the Normandy early childhood center, “and get them to understand that it’s a new direction. We’re going to really collaborate to make sure that all the teachers are on board and be able to bring the families and community back on board, especially those families coming back into the district.”

He said that he did not see any difficulties with teachers accepting the district’s new approach in the classroom.

“For the teachers,” he said, “it’s about really accepting the idea that you can move the children forward no matter what. The teachers really have to buy into that because there are a lot of new teachers coming on board, and being able to buy into the fact that we can move the children forward regardless of the situation.”

Tamara Mays, who will be at Lucas Crossing elementary school and is new to Normandy, said she thought the meeting sent a good message that all of the staff is in the same boat and needed to stick together.

“I don’t know if it’s a different way,” she said of the new Normandy approach. “They’re just making sure we’re all on the same page.”

Karen Hamilton, who will be teaching science at the middle school, said she wanted to work at Normandy because “I just felt that I could contribute some of my expertise in science to help raise achievement levels for the students.”

Did the tumult of recent month worry her at all?

“No,” she replied,  “because now I look at it as a new school district, and whatever happened before is in the past. We’re moving forward now. And I’m looking forward to that.”

Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Patrick Gilligan, who is starting his teaching career teaching social studies at the high school, said he thought joining the staff at Normandy would be “a really great opportunity to be part of a team in a community that’s really working for something positive.”

He was impressed with the attitude the administration showed, he said.

“They definitely stressed that they’re open to suggestions from the employees and that they’re willing to try out a lot of new things this year,” Gilligan said, “and how we all have to be open to new ideas and implementing them in our classroom. So there was a lot of focus on how to bring new ideas into the classroom.”

To Judy Davis-Edwards, who heads the district’s unit of the National Education Association, the opening convocation “was excellent. It was motivating. It got the teachers all energized and excited about what we will be going to do next year.”

Davis-Edwards, who will teach a technology class at the middle school, doesn’t think there will be any problem combining the veteran Normandy teachers with the newcomers.

“Everybody is excited about working together, coming together to do what is best for the students,” she said.

“It’s going to be a great year.”

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.