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Missouri, other districts will aid Normandy and Riverview Gardens

Gov. Jay Nixon announces a plan to help Normandy and Riverview Gardens schools. Behind him, at Bel-Nor school, are from left Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson, Webster Groves Superintendent Sarah Riss and Missouri education Commissioner Margie Vande
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon says school districts that have received transfer students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens will begin an unprecedented effort to help those schools in a variety of ways, from lowering the tuition they charge for transfers to providing training, tutors and other assistance.

And Nixon says the state will do its part by giving the two unaccredited districts $500,000 each to boost reading programs that educators say are essential to student success.

But Nixon still isn’t saying whether he plans to sign an education bill passed earlier this year by lawmakers. The legislation has split school groups, with some saying it expands student opportunities and others saying it erodes money from public education. He told a news conference at Bel-Nor school in Normandy Tuesday that his office is still reviewing the wide-ranging legislation, HB42 .

The bill doesn’t address one area that many had hoped would be included – a cap on the tuition that accredited districts can charge for Normandy and Riverview Gardens students who want to transfer from their unaccredited districts. Instead, it provides for additional charter and virtual schools and a variety of other education changes.

But under the agreement announced by Nixon, several districts would voluntarily limit the amount of tuition charged for transfer students to $7,250 a year, the amount that is charged for students who transfer under the desegregation program. The costs of tuition and transportation have been a strain on the Normandy and Riverview Gardens budgets since the transfers began two years ago.

Don Senti, the executive director of EducationPlus, which helped broker the agreement, said the exact number of districts agreeing to reduced tuition, and the amount they will charge, is still in flux because several school boards in affected districts have not voted on the policy change yet.

But he, Nixon and others in the room packed with area school superintendents and others emphasized the unprecedented nature of the agreement, which grew out of a meeting convened in Nixon’s office.

“It is tremendously encouraging to see the spirit of regionalism flourishing here,” Nixon said, “at such a critical time for St. Louis and for public education.”

Nixon, Senti and others stressed that the packages of assistance going from the 22 districts that receive transfer students to Normandy and Riverview Gardens will vary from one district to the other. Besides the possibility of reduced tuition charged for transfers, the help could include areas like:

  • Teacher training and professional development
  • Specialists in reading and math
  • Curriculum designed to improve student achievement
  • Instructional coaches for AP courses in American government, statistics, English and biology
  • Reduced costs by using regional purchasing contracts

EducationPlus, the consortium formerly known as Cooperating School Districts, also plans to conduct an audit of the information technology systems of the Normandy Schools Collaborative as well as analyze the district’s academic performance data and assess its curriculum to make sure qualified teachers are teaching all required courses.
Nixon stressed how the plan shows the urgency of making sure that Normandy and Riverview Gardens regain accreditation, ideally within two years.

“This is no longer a long-term debate,” he said. “This is an action plan to move forward and move forward now.”

Veto urged for school bill

Nixon appeared in an elementary school that was closed 18 months ago in a cost-cutting move but will be reopened for the coming school year as a kindergarten center.

Charles Pearson, Normandy’s superintendent, said the district already had a plan to emphasize reading to improve its academic achievement. Part of the money, he said, will be used to create an age-appropriate library for the new kindergarten center.

“This allows us to really implement that literacy plan around reading and writing,” he said, “and now turn around and add some additional focus on supporting math as well. So this is going to be very important.”

He said the upcoming tuition reductions were not figured into Normandy’s preliminary budget, so it should make the district’s financial position even stronger. Normandy’s appointed board is expected to approve the budget at a meeting Thursday night.

“We are redefining Normandy,” Pearson said.

"This is no longer a long-term debate. This is an action plan to move forward and move forward now." -- Gov. Jay Nixon, on plans to regain accreditation for Normandy and Riverview Gardens

When the board determined that the district would be in a strong enough financial position to open schools in August and keep them open for a full school year, part of its plan was to get cooperation from other area districts for a variety of academic and other services. In a letter to Nixon earlier this month, outlining the collaboration agreement, Senti – on behalf of area superintendents who will take part in the pact – once again urged Nixon to veto HB42.

“We believe that the best long-term and lasting solution to the issues now facing the unaccredited districts is to help them implement their own plans to regain accreditation,” he wrote, “and assure they provide the quality education all of our children deserve.”

Sarah Riss, the superintendent of schools in Webster Groves, said at the news conference Tuesday that the key to making sure the help being provided by other districts to Normandy and Riverview Gardens is to listen to what those districts say they need, then help them fill the gaps.

“We all have something to share,” she said, “and we all have something we can learn from each other to benefit the students we serve. It is really important to note that this is really a reciprocal process. There are talented educators in both districts, and we will learn from each other.”

By coming together to help students in the unaccredited districts – those who have stayed, not those who have transferred – the superintendents are teaching by example, Nixon said, and reinforcing the lesson that strong schools make for strong communities.

“They create a sense of shared identity,” he said. “They reflect shared values. They provide the foundational knowledge our children need to become lifelong learners, and the foundational relationships, that can last a lifetime.”

For education news, 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.