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For Normandy Middle School students, words of encouragement and apology

Principal GeNita Williams presents certificates to eighth graders at Normandy Middle School
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

The promotion ceremony for 205 eighth graders at Normandy Middle School featured the usual words of encouragement and advice, plus memories of the past three years and more than a few hoots and hollers from family supporters.

But first, they got an apology.

Mike Jones, vice president of the Missouri state board of education, told the students that he realized the efforts by education officials in Jefferson City to help Normandy haven’t always succeeded. The district remains unaccredited and is finishing up its first year being run by a state-appointed board.

Before he began his official remarks, Jones told the students — and their parents — that the state board and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education owe them “a collective apology for failing to provide you with the education experience you should have.”

In an interview after the ceremony, Jones said that before the state’s efforts can improve, he and others have to admit that what they have done so far has fallen short.

“If we are going to try to build a team going forward together,” he said, “everybody has to acknowledge what went right and what went wrong. It’s really important when you are in the most powerful position to acknowledge that we made mistakes. You can’t get to common ground until you first admit that we made some mistakes.

“It didn’t go like any of us wanted it to go. We had good intentions, but good intentions didn’t get it done.”

Specifically, Jones added, when the old Normandy school district was dissolved last June 30 and replaced with the Normandy Schools Collaborative, letting all employee contracts lapse probably wasn’t the best idea.

“If I had to pick a single thing,” he said, “the turnover in the staff didn’t create the upside that we would hope for. It created a greater disruption. So you have to argue with that much instability that undermined anything else that somebody was trying to get done.

“That was our call. We made it. It didn’t work. We’ve got to own that.”

Jones’ term as vice president of the board ends at the end of this month. Last month, he said he didn’t want to move up to board president because he wanted to be able to speak more freely on behalf of “those children in places like Normandy that never have anybody in positions of authority and influence make their fate the single most important priority.

“We have a statewide educational and political apparatus to look out for ‘all our children,’ as people are so ready to say. I'm going to focus exclusively on these children.”

“I’m possible”

When it was those children’s turn to speak, they represented their classmates in ways that brought laughter and shouts of encouragement from the audience in Viking Hall on the campus of Normandy High School.

Jewell Hall, who welcomed the crowd, spoke of stressful times at the middle school, where even Superintendent Charles Pearson has acknowledged academic and other difficulties. But, Hall said, “we did not give up,” and teachers helped them succeed.

The top eighth-grade scholar, Mohammed Ahmad-Gol, reeled off the names of a number of those teachers, thanking them all for their dedication.

Destiny Watson said that she and her family had to decide whether Normandy was the best place for her to continue her education, and her decision to stay “turned out to be better than I imagined.”

"Tonight, I look into this crowd and I see some of the smartest kids in the world." — Eighth grader Jerrell McKinney

Her teachers pushed her and her classmates to their limits, she said, adding:

“Not a day goes by that they don’t try to help us and guide us into mature adults.”

To those who say that success is impossible, she told her classmates, “you’re wrong. The word itself says I’m possible…. Success is possible. You are possible.”

And Jerrell McKinney, charged with talking about the memories that the eighth graders would be taking with them, said simply, “Tonight, I look into this crowd, and I see some of the smartest kids in the world.”

Four pillars

In his speech, Jones told the eighth graders that they were going through a significant rite of passage.

“You’re not grown yet,” he said, “but you’re no longer a child. You’re making the transition to being an adult.”
He said they should view the life ahead of them as a book with blank pages, where nothing is ever deleted or erased.

“The world is going to judge and measure you by what’s on that page,” he said. “Whatever is there, you put there.”

He gave them four watchwords to use to guide the lives that will go into that book: manhood and womanhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift, not just for themselves but for those around them.

“It is really about can you lift humanity,” Jones said, “lift people a little higher than they were before you showed up.”

Principal GeNita Williams, who will not be returning to the middle school for the coming school year, had the final words of the evening before dismissing the students from the hall.

“I’ve seen you guys grow in such momentous ways, outrageous ways,” she said, “and it’s truly touched my heart. I hope that you guys take away the spirit that was generated at the middle school. Always do your best, each and every single day. It is important for you to look good on paper. Please remember that. I love each and every one of you. It’s been my pleasure to serve you as principal.”

Follow Dale Singer for education news: @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.