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Search For Missouri Schools Chief Is Lengthened

Peter Herschend
DESE website

JEFFERSON CITY -- The Missouri state board of education voted Tuesday to put the search for a new commissioner on a slower track, then had a lengthy discussion about one of the big issues the next commissioner will face – turning around Normandy schools.

Rather than the accelerated process that board president Peter Herschend had favored, in which a successor to Chris Nicastro would have been chosen this week, the board bowed to objections from a variety of education groups that said such a fast track would have left them out of the process.

Instead, Herschend announced a timeline that calls for applications and nominations for the commissioner’s position be open until Nov. 21. Members of the public are also invited to give views on the position until that date.

All nominees will be contacted to determine whether they are interested in succeeding Nicastro when she retires at the end of December. Those who want to pursue the job will then be asked to submit an application letter, a resume with references and a personal essay no later than Dec. 1.

The board will then narrow the field and invite finalists for a personal interview before voting on a final selection.

“Hopefully,” the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said on its website, “the selection process will be completed by Dec. 31, 2014. The initial date of employment will be mutually agreed upon between the state board of education and the candidate selected as commissioner of education.”

In an interview, Herschend acknowledged that given objections voiced by several education groups,  “whoever we selected as a commissioner on a fast track, which would be the way we were going, would have run up against a tsunami of resentment and opposition from multiple groups simply they felt they hadn’t had a chance for others to be considered.”

Asked if he thought the objections to his original plan were reasonable, Herschend replied:

“In a perfect world, I would hope that they would all have had perfect trust in the state board of education’s infinite wisdom and the answer is, nobody trusts anybody that much, so it’s perfectly OK that they expressed it, and I think our job is to be good listeners. I think we listened.”

At least one group, the Missouri-National Education Association, had said that limiting the field of potential candidates to those in leadership positions at DESE would have meant a non-diverse applicant pool because everyone in top management at the department is white. Herschend said that factor had not been part of his thinking. He noted that two out of the eight men who sit on the state board are African-American – 25 percent of the decision-making body. (There are no women on the state board.)

He said the board does not plan to make a national search for Nicastro’s successor and does not plan to advertise. Spreading the word about the position through the media and through professional organizations should bring in a good crop of candidates, Herschend said.

“We’ll have good applicants from the pool who are already familiar with education,” he said. One of the things that hasn’t changed is that this board wants to keep the ship that is sailing now moving in the right direction.” He said he already has received six or eight names for the position unsolicited.

Thejob posting on the DESE website said the board is looking for someone who can “recruit and retain qualified and effective people to staff the department; understand the intricacies of budget and department finances; create an environment conducive to staff creativity; and exercise the power of the office for the benefit of all public schoolchildren in Missouri. In all activities, the commissioner will respect his/her role as the lead educational agent responsible for Missouri’s students.”

Desired qualifications listed for the successful candidate include vision, empathy, management and communication skills, demonstrated success and effective team building. Salary for the position is $185,904.

Another qualification that Herschend stressed in the interview is a candidate’s willingness to remain in the job for five to 10 years.

“That’s important,” he said. “It’s bad management to have a new commissioner of education appearing every second or third year. I don’t want that.”

Normandy’s accountability plan

The board also heard from officials at the Normandy Schools Collaborative, the newly reconstituted school district formed when the old Normandy school district was dissolved June 30. The new Normandy is run by a state-appointed Joint Executive Governing Board and has a teaching staff that is 48 percent new, since all contract with the old Normandy lapsed when the switchover occurred.

Superintendent Ty McNichols laid out details of the district’s accountability plan, which was approved unanimously by the state board, but not before members asked sometimes pointed questions about academics, discipline, attendance and reports of teacher dissatisfaction.

Entrance to Normandy High School campus
Credit Google Maps screen capture
The gates of Normandy High School, one of the institutions in the Normandy School District.

McNichols said the district will be continuously monitoring student achievement, not just once in a while, and teachers will get regular feedback from their supervisors in five-minute or even 30-second meetings. Collaboration within the district and with state education officials is a key to Normandy’s success, he said.

“We have to build a culture where it’s about the work,” McNichols said. “We talk about the work, we’re engaged with the work -- not only what’s working but what’s not working.”

He said the district hopes to meet the state standard of 90 percent of students attending 90 percent of the time, but he noted that already some kids have missed so much class that they will not be able to reach that goal. To help keep others in class, he said, Normandy is using incentive programs and parent liaisons to encourage students to attend regularly.

State board member Joe Driskill said he was impressed with the details of the plan, but added:
“I don’t want to talk about the plan. I want to talk about reality.”

He noted a perception among parents at a recent open house that conditions in Normandy are getting worse, not better, since the state took over, and a feeling by some teachers that DESE is not doing enough to support their work.

McNichols responded that much of the staff had to be hired after July 1, and “most educators know that’s not the prime time…. Imagine if you start your business over and hire 48 percent of your staff new and they’re coming straight out of college. They haven’t interned in your building; they’ve interned in other places.” He likened the process to beginning a professional sports draft in the fifth round.

Charles Pearson, seated, talks with Superintendent Ty McNichols.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Normandy board President Charles Pearson, seated, talks with Superintendent Ty McNichols

Noting that most teachers remain, even though 11 have left, McNichols said they are dedicated to turning Normandy around.

“We have a lot of people who are committed to wanting to work in the Normandy school district,” he said. “What they don’t have is a very deep toolbox right now. They’re looking to find tools that will make them successful. That’s our challenge. It takes time….They want to be successful with our children. But it takes time.”

Charles Pearson, a retired educator who heads the appointed Normandy board, said he expects the next 10 weeks to show some improvements “as teachers begin to feel more equipped. I believe morale will begin to rise because people will be more effective in their work.”

State board member Mike Jones asked about things that have not gone well and what specifically will be done in the next 10 weeks to make a difference. Pearson said that keeping close track of how students are performing will be a big factor.

“We have data now,” he said. “It’s not about opinion.”

Still, Jones said, the discussion about Normandy has to be more analytical and less superficial.

“Sometimes we’re just too damn polite,” he said. “We don’t know how to look at the game tape. The reason you look at the game tape is to find out what you’ve been doing wrong so you can do it better.”

Asked what the state could do specifically to help the district, McNichols asked whether the tuition that Normandy has to pay for students transferring out of the district could be fixed at a lower rate, to help the district’s budget stabilize. Nicastro has said that if the number of transfer students rises to 500, the district could go bankrupt; so far, it has held steady at just over 400.

In a presentation to the state board Tuesday afternoon, the Normandy Schools Collaborative was the only district in Missouri to be identified as financially stressed. DESE said it will continue to monitor the district's finances and approve all expenditures as it has since February.

Peter Kachris, DESE’s liaison to Normandy, asked whether the state could pay more attention to people in poverty, giving them the support they need beyond money. And Pearson asked for a greater understanding of the context in which Normandy operates in north St. Louis County, given the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

He said that “schools should concentrate on what they do best, and services should come from the community.”

Jones said he hoped Normandy would emphasize reading and literacy, particularly fiction, because it allows children to imagine a world outside themselves.

“Once you learn how you imagine,” he said, “there’s nothing you can’t be. The rest of it is just all technical skills. Reading is the key to imagination, and imagination is the key to success.”

Herschend, like his board colleagues, expressed support for the plan, but he added that implementation has to come soon.

“You have an excellent plan in place,” he said, “but it is a plan. If I want to climb Mt. Everest, I have to have a plan, but then I have to start putting one foot in front of the other.”

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.