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Normandy schools focus on improving attendance

Richard Ryffel, head of the appointed Normandy school board, listens to a small group discussion at the district's public hearing.
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

State education officials praised the Normandy school district Thursday night for the progress it has made over the past year.

Then the superintendent asked for ways the district could move even faster toward its goal of accreditation.

And, Superintendent Charles Pearson emphasized, accreditation is simply the next step in his long-term plan for Normandy.

“Accreditation is a short-term goal,” he told about 100 people who met at Lucas Crossing elementary school for a hearing called by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. To make sure he got his point across, he asked the audience to repeat it like a mantra:

“Accreditation is a short-term goal.”

Still, to reach even provisional accreditation, Normandy is going to have to improve its score on the annual state report card. It made solid progress in its first year under a state-appointed board, moving from just 7.1 percent of the possible points to 30.4 percent. But that remained the lowest score in Missouri, and the only one in unaccredited territory of below 50 percent.

That showing didn’t stop education Commissioner Margie Vandeven from praising the progress Normandy has made.

“I think we're thrilled to see the enthusiasm so far,” she said before the hearing began. “Walking into this room tonight, I've already made a comment that it feels like a different place culturally. We're excited to see that. Again, it's really early in the process, so we need to continue to focus.”

Reviewing where the district has been and where it has to go, Pearson admitted that the goals set for the coming years might be a stretch, but he said they are not out of reach.

“We could have set safer goals and have a greater chance of hitting them,” he said. “But safer goals would not have gotten us where we want to go.”

He focused on reading as one of the areas where Normandy has to concentrate, and he said it is one that can be championed in the home as well as in the classroom. He urged families to set aside special times and places for their children to sit down with books.

“Be sure the children are reading every single day,” he said. “Every single day. On weekends. Thanksgiving. Christmas Eve. Our children need to be reading every single day. Only you can do that, because we’re not in the home with you.”

Chris Neale, an assistant commissioner with DESE, echoed Pearson’s emphasis on making sure students are striving for goals that may seem out of reach.

“Encourage them when it’s hard,” he told parents. “Hard work is what they need. It’s not what they like, but it’s what they need. Encourage them to work hard in school, because this district is heading in the right direction.”

You can’t learn if you’re not there

When small group discussions began considering ways to help the district move forward even faster, the most frequent area of concentration was attendance. It’s worth 10 of the 140 points a district can earn on its annual report card, by having 90 percent of students attend school 90 percent of the time. Normandy got no points in that category in its most recent report.

Now, the goal is to “strive for 95” – the percentage the district wants to hit for attendance.

When the groups reported back to the meeting, the phrase "kids can’t learn if they’re not in school" was heard often. And the groups had a variety of suggestions to improve the situation, from incentives for students to penalties for parents.

Tina Mosley, whose son graduated from Normandy two years ago, said putting pressure on parents, and giving them help when they need it, is the key.

“You have students who say ‘I don’t want to go to school today,’ and you have parents who say OK, because they don’t want to get up anyway,” she said.

Tina Mosley
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Tina Mosley

“Parents need to get involved. Parents need to be held accountable. Parents need to buddy up with a neighbor and say, 'Hey, I’ve got to be at work at this time, can you make sure that he gets out the door on time to catch the bus or walk to school?' Parents need to come up with solutions.”

Cathy Weaver, who teaches reading at Lucas Crossing, said the school used to have an atten-dance, where students with a good record for showing up were rewarded with an event. But an increased emphasis on academics forced that effort into the background, she said.

Nancy Hartman, who served on the elected Normandy board before it was dissolved last year, said volunteers need to get out to homes to press the attendance issue.

“We knocked on doors last summer in the neighborhoods,” she said, “to find parents who were willing to become parent leaders. They know who the kids are and how they get to school. We could have those parent leaders reach out to families in the neighborhood to find out what they need to do to get those kids to school.”

And Mosley emphasized that gaining the attendance points on the way to accreditation is only a secondary reason for making sure kids make it to class.

“Attendance is the number one priority that needs to be addressed,” she said, “and not just because of the point system, but because all children need to learn, and all children need to be present in order to learn.”

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.