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Missouri school board considers accreditation upgrade requests for 3 St. Louis-area districts

Judy Baxter, via Flickr

Three school districts that have been crowing about their latest state report card after years of struggle could find out soon whether they will be rewarded with an upgrade in their accreditation status.

For schools in Jennings and St. Louis, the change would be from provisional accreditation to full accreditation. For Riverview Gardens, which is now one of two unaccredited districts in Missouri, a move up to provisional accreditation could get the district out from under the financial burden of student transfers now in its third year.

All three districts have asked the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state school board to upgrade their status. The issue is on theagenda for the board’s meeting in Jefferson City on Tuesday, where DESE will make known its recommendations in each case. DESE let members of the state board know what it will be recommending but would not release the information to the public before the meeting, which begins at 8:30 a.m.

Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven has praised progress made by the districts. But she also has emphasized that scores on the state’s annual performance report (APR), particularly those based on just one year of testing, aren’t the only factor taken into consideration in determining a district’s accreditation. Under the current school improvement program, progress has to be maintained.

“There have been three performance reports that have been issued under the fifth version of the Missouri School Improvement Program (MSIP5),” she said. “Each of those reports have been made up of three years of data. So what we’ll do is look at the last thee annual performance reports and see whether districts have reached the threshold.”

Benchmarks in Missouri’s accreditation system require districts to earn at least 70 percent of the points possible in their annual performance report to be classified as fully accredited. Scores between 50 percent and 70 percent earn provisional accreditation, while districts scoring below 50 percent — currently only Riverview Gardens and the Normandy Schools Collaborative — are unaccredited.

On the report cards released by the state in October, results for all three districts seeking upgrades were encouraging. Jennings, which was already in the fully accreditation range last year at 78.2 percent, moved even higher this year, to 81.1. St. Louis Public Schools improved to 76.1 percent this year from 43.2 percent last year. Riverview Gardens scored 79.2 percent, up from 45.3 percent in 2014.

Even Normandy, which continues to have the lowest score in the state, showed a big gain, rising to 30.3 percent from 7.1 percent a year earlier.

Changes from the past

Anyone familiar with how Missouri’s accreditation system has worked in the past knows that the numbers alone don’t tell the story.

Take the case of the St. Louis Public Schools. Back in 2012,  under the previous school improvement rating system, the district was granted provisional accreditation, even after then-Commissioner Chris Nicastro had said it needed to show that the progress it had made could be sustained.

Then came 2013, the year that the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the state law that allows students who live in an unaccredited district to transfer to nearby accredited schools. That same year, the state also first implemented the latest improvement program known as MSIP5.

Instead of continuing its upward movement, the St. Louis schools sank back into unaccredited territory. Still, the district retained its provisional accreditation and escaped the prospect of having to pay for students to transfer elsewhere.

The kids who are already transferring this year, you're not going to stop them from transferring in the middle of the school year. — Vic Lenz, vice president of the Missouri state board of education

Mike Jones of St. Louis is a member of the state board that will decide whether to grant the accreditation upgrade requests of the three districts. He said the ability to sustain progress is an important factor in the outcome.

“You don’t want to have to evaluate someone every year,” he said. “A year is too short of a time frame. You put yourself in the position that if something changes next year, what are you going to do?”

Jones said the cases currently presented to the state board by all three of the districts have a degree of merit, but they also bring complexity.

“I would say that our decision has to be both correct and fair,” he said. “Sometimes, correct is not always fair, and sometimes the fair thing to do is not the correct thing to do. So I think our balancing act on these three would be doing the right thing and the fair thing.”

What happens to transfers?

If the board does grant Riverview Gardens with provisional accreditation, one question that remains unanswered is this: What happens to students who live there and have transferred to nearby accredited districts?

The costs of tuition and transportation for the transfers has put a heavy strain on the budgets of both Riverview Gardens and Normandy, and both districts would love to get out from under that financial burden.

Even though the law makes clear that students who live in unaccredited districts have the right to transfer out, it says nothing about what happens when a district regains accreditation, either provisional or full.

Margie Vandeven elementary and secondary education
Credit Official photo | Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
DESE Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven says untangling the school transfer issue for schools that regain accreditation will be a challenge.

“I think that’s the big question we want to make sure is clearly addressed before we move forward with any kind of designation,” Vandeven said. “How do we ensure that those children who are in a transfer situation will be appropriately attended to? Because we want to make sure we’re keeping our eyes on the kids.”

When the transfers began, DESE issued non-binding guidelines that helped districts manage the logistics of moving students elsewhere. Can the department issue similar regulations to ease the process going the other way?
“Those are areas that we’re looking at right now,” Vandeven said. “I think we’re counting on our districts and the state to come together to think about what will be the best way to proceed. We have to work through those issues.”

Vic Lenz of south St. Louis County, who is vice president of the state board, said no matter what rules are ultimately devised, he knows how he would like to see the situation involving Riverview Gardens proceed.

“The kids who are already transferring this year, you’re not going to stop them from transferring in the middle of the school year,” he said. “If there is a change in the accreditation status of the district, then any change in their transferring would come at the end of one school year and before the beginning of the next.”

Jones added that those decisions may not have to be made right away. He said that just because the board plans to discuss possible accreditation changes Tuesday after DESE’s recommendations are made public, doesn’t necessarily mean the matter will be settled.

“Everything could be decided,” he said. “I’m not ruling that out. But I am also not ruling out the possibility that after we listen to the recommendations, and have a discussion about it, we may take some of these decisions under advisement.

New Normandy board member

Also at Tuesday's meeting, the state board will consider the nomination of Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge to join the Joint Executive Governing Board of the Normandy Schools Collaborative.

Westbrooks-Hodge is an executive with Express Scripts who graduated from Normandy High School. She would take the spot on the board vacated by Andrea Terhune, who resigned in June, and would serve until the end of June 2017 unless term is extended by the state board or the Normandy board is dissolved before that time.

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.

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