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State school officials acknowledge they need to do more to build trust in Normandy

Andrea Terhune
Normandy website

JEFFERSON CITY – One year after the Missouri state Board of Education dissolved the old Normandy School District and put an appointed board in place to run the new Normandy, state board members say a credibility gap still exists between Normandy residents and state education officials.

And that gap could grow, with the announcement Tuesday that the president of the appointed Joint Executive Governing Board, Andrea Terhune, is resigning for personal reasons. She is leaving the board as of July 6, education Commissioner Margie Vandeven told state board members.

The Rev. Cedric Portis of Third Presbyterian Church in north St. Louis County was confirmed as a new member of the Normandy board. He replaces Charles Pearson, who had been president of the board before leaving in January to become the interim superintendent in Normandy. He since has been hired to take the job on a permanent basis.

Now, Vandeven said, a search will begin to find a replacement for Terhune. In the meantime, she said, board Vice President Richard Ryffel will be in charge.

In a news release, Terhune explained her decision this way:

“I am unable to meet my professional obligations and continue to devote the necessary time and attention to the Normandy Schools Collaborative. This decision was an extremely difficult one to make. I appreciate the opportunity to serve the board, the communities supported by the NSC and most importantly, the children. I will always champion the Normandy Schools Collaborative and remain available to assist when needed.”

Terhune is an IT consultant.

The changes on the appointed board mirror a lot of the unsettled atmosphere that has marked Normandy’s past year.

The first year of the collaborative has been marked by a growing sense of dissatisfaction among members of the community, as shown by complaints aired at a state hearing and other meetings. News stories about a lack of qualified teachers, students sleeping in class and good students unhappy at a lowering of expectations also hurt the district’s image.

Charles Pearson
Credit Normandy Schools Collaborative
Charles Pearson

To help improve the situation, the board has approved a plan proposed by Pearson to move kindergarten students to their own center at the former Bel-Nor elementary school and move sixth graders to the elementary schools from Normandy Middle School. The Normandy board also approved a resolution last week saying that the district’s budget is solid enough that it can open its doors in August and remain financially viable for an entire school year.

Underneath it all has been a sense that the state has not provided enough support, in terms of personnel and money, to help Normandy move out of its unaccredited status. Vandeven told the state board that she was glad to see that the Normandy board resolved to open schools and keep them open all year, though the budget remains fragile.

And, she added, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will do what it can to help Pearson’s improvement plan work. What’s needed now, Vandeven added, are specifics.

“Everybody wants to help Normandy,” she said. “Everybody wants to contribute. Everybody wants to provide services. Charles’ task is to determine, this is what I need.”

Credibility gap

But Vandeven acknowledged that communication between the state and the Normandy community has been haphazard at best, and as a result a lot of people are unhappy with assistance coming from Jefferson City.

Some board members were more candid, talking about a credibility gap that exists between state education officials and Normandy.

“I know we have a lot of well-meaning parents who are frustrated and sometimes take out their frustrations in ways that are not very informed,” said Joe Driskill. “But the fact remains that perhaps there are situations where curriculum and instruction are not at the level we want them to be.

'If you do something for me, without me, you do something to me.' -- Mike Jones Edit | Remove

“Communication seems to be one-sided. Communication coming out of Normandy is at a level that doesn’t seem to counter some of these bad stories.”

Mike Jones, who last week apologized for the state’s failure to improve things enough in Normandy, put it this way: “We kind of went in with a lot of authority and not a lot of legitimacy…. We didn’t execute well enough to win support on the ground.”

And, Jones added, more candor could help turn things around.

“We have to be honest about what we can and cannot do,” he said, “and about what the expectations are…. We have to be transparent and not spin the story. When you talk to people, you want to give them hope. All that’s true. But you also have to give people realistic assessments.”

Above all, Jones said, the state has to work with Normandy in a true collaboration. Likening the situation to that after a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, he said too often people want to provide help but not the kind of help that those in need really want.

Jones said. “If we can just remember that before we start, we’ve got a chance to build a collaboration that can survive mistakes….

“If you can build trust, you’ll figure out the strategy. If you can’t build trust, the strategy will never be successful.”

Changing of the guard

At the meeting, Peter Herschend of Branson stepped down as president, in advance of his leaving the state board after 24 years of service. Former state Sen. Charlie Shields was elected president at the last board meeting and received the gavel Tuesday from Herschend.

Noting that he had served under six governors and five education commissioners, Herschend said that when he joined the board, districts were classified under criteria that had nothing to do with student achievement. Then, he added, “we had the audacity to require performance” and started the Missouri School Improvement Program, which is now in its fifth version.

Peter Herschend, right, hands the gavel to incoming state school board President Charlie Shields. Behind them are Mike Jones (left), outgoing vice president, and incoming vice president Victor Lenz.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Peter Herschend, right, hands the gavel to incoming state school board President Charlies Shields. Behind them are Mike Jones (left), outgoing vice president, and incoming vice president Victor Lenz.

“If you think there is controversy now,” Herschend said about the beginnings of the program, “You should have been around to hear it then.”

He said MSIP has become more rigorous with each new system, and those changes should continue.

“Without high expectations,” Herschend said, “you will not have high results from students.”

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.