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State extends deadline for Normandy students to transfer

The students will participate in after-school, mentor and summer programs to help them learn skills that could help them in and outside of school, such as conflict management.
Stephanie Zimmerman

(Updated 3:09 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19)

On Thursday, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced that it was changing the deadline for Normandy students to apply for transfer to April 1.

"In light of the court ruling on Normandy’s accreditation coming after the Feb. 1 deadline to transfer," DESE said in a statement, "the department is updating its student transfer guidelines. The new deadline for Normandy parents to notify the district that they wish to transfer their students in the 2015-16 school year is April 1, 2015.  It is important to note that this guidance is non-regulatory. It is offered to help districts effectively manage the school transfer process."

The department's full guidance on transfer questions is here.

DESE did not extend the deadline for students who want to apply to transfer out of Riverview Gardens, the state's only other unaccredited district.

Read our earlier story below.

Encouraged by a judge’s strongly worded ruling, Mona Johnson plans to call the Normandy Schools Collaborative early Monday morning to get a transfer for her son.

Johnson had been told she was out of luck when she missed the Jan. 31 deadline set by Normandy for students who wanted to take advantage of a state law and attend class in an accredited district.

But now, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Michael Burton has declared Normandy to be unaccredited, not accredited as a state oversight district as designated by the state board of education. So all students who live in Normandy are eligible to take advantage of the opportunity to transfer, and Johnson wants her son to go to school in Pattonville and improve his reading ability to match his fifth-grade peers.

“He’s grade levels behind,” Johnson said of her son’s experience in Normandy. “He’s not on a fifth-grade level at all. I have tried to get him in other programs, but they don’t have any programs.”

It’s unclear whether Normandy will accommodate Johnson or others who did not sign up before the deadline but now want to seek a transfer. Attorney Joshua Schindler, who has represented families seeking broader transfer privileges, says the district’s cutoff date for transfer applications was far too restrictive.

“Normandy has set an artificial deadline for the end of January to submit applications to transfer,” he said in the wake of Burton’s ruling. “There is no legitimate basis to set such an early deadline. Basically, all that has been happening is that everybody is trying to put barriers in the way so the kid cannot get a decent education.

“This is a clear message that any child who wants to transfer out of Normandy should be allowed to transfer to any school.”

The academic experience of Johnson’s son – she didn’t want to give his first name – is typical, based on Normandy’s worst-in-the-state showing on the most recent evaluation of Missouri public school districts.

In last week’s 37-page ruling that granted a permanent injunction to students who want to transfer out of Normandy, Burton points out that the district earned no points for academic achievement last year. Even if it increased its score nearly sevenfold, he said, it still would not rank high enough to move out of unaccredited territory.

Burton summed up the collaborative this way:

“The NSC is not merely ‘unaccredited’: it is abysmally unaccredited.”

Financial drain

In the 2013-14, the first year that students could transfer out of Normandy after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the 1993 transfer law, about 1,000 students took advantage of the opportunity. This year that number is down to about 420 students, with another 85 who signed up in January, according to interim superintendent Charles Pearson.

And the state-appointed Joint Executive Governing Board that has been in charge in Normandy since July 1 routinely approves tuition and transportation payments to the districts receiving the district’s transfer student; another $325,015.51 was approved at the board’s meeting last week.

So far, the number of transfers has been low enough to prevent Normandy from running out of money, as some had predicted if the transfer pool had reached 500 students or more. Still, as Mick Willis, the district’s assistant superintendent of administration, put it last week, Normandy’s budget remains “in survival mode.”

At that same meeting, when it was time for public comment, speakers complained about persistent discipline problems and a lack of cleanliness at Normandy Middle School. One parent, Crystal Washington, put her solution to such problems plainly:

“If these kids want to leave, give them the opportunity to leave.”

Understandably, Pearson – who took over as superintendent last month after the resignation of Ty McNichols – wants students to stay. He is encouraging parents to keep their children in Normandy and give the district time to turn things around, academically and otherwise.

He also hopes the General Assembly will make changes to the transfer law, including a financial fix such as a cap on the tuition that unaccredited districts must pay to receiving districts when students decide they want to leave.

'If these kids want to leave, give them the opportunity to leave.' -- Normandy parent Crystal Washington

“I keep hoping there will be a legislative solution to it,” Pearson said, “That would actually give us that cap that we can manage to work with, so that indeed our children who are here can still be served and those children who are going can also be served as well.”

Would the district be willing to extend the deadline for families to sign up for a transfer?

“We will be giving this the best thinking we can about the best solution for our children,” Pearson said.

'Irreparable harm'

For Schindler, that answer isn’t good enough.

“Not every child in Normandy wants to transfer,” he said. “I think the next step they’re gong to argue is well, you had until the end of January to file your application to transfer.

“But the reality is that the court hadn’t issued its final order. So at this point, it’s incumbent on Normandy to extend the deadline to some reasonable date, probably in March, to enable all kids to transfer.”

Burton framed the situation in these terms:

Judge Michael Burton
Credit St. Louis County
St. Louis County Circuit Judge Michael Burton

“To force students who seek little more than an adequate education to remain in this unaccredited district — rather than allow them to continue their education in accredited school districts -- will cause them irreparable harm. This harm cannot be repaired after the fact.”

Asked Thursday night whether Normandy would be willing to extend its transfer deadline, Richard Ryffel, vice president of the district’s governing board, was noncommittal.

“We haven’t had anywhere near enough time to even think about what the ramifications of doing that would be,” he said, “so I couldn’t answer you.”

Even if a student wanted to transfer now, Schindler said, Burton’s ruling should allow that move to occur.

“It’s never too late to give a kid a decent education,” he said. “So if a parent believes a kid is not getting a good education in Normandy, and we all know it’s difficult to transfer mid-semester, but even if were the last day of a semester, and a kid could get one day of a quality education, they should be entitled to do that.”

For Johnson, getting her son into a class that will improving his reading ability is a top priority. He’s been in Normandy since the third grade, when the family moved from Ferguson-Florissant, and she has seen a marked decline in the academic atmosphere since then.

If he could go to Pattonville,  where she would be able to drive him to school and back, she said he would have a better chance to improve.

“He should at least be reading at the fifth-grade level,” Johnson said. “He should be able to advance.”

She wants to take advantage of the opening that Burton provided, and as soon as possible.

“That’s my first plan on Monday morning,” she said.

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @Dalesinger

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.