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Riverview Gardens pushes for accreditation upgrade

Riverview Gardens students sing before a public hearing on the district in December 2015.
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

A mandatory state hearing on the status of the Riverview Gardens school district Thursday night turned into a cheerleading session on the progress the unaccredited district has shown over the past two years.

But the question of whether it will win the upgrade it has asked for, to provisional accreditation, remains unsettled.

State law requires that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education hold regular hearings for any district that is unaccredited. At the session at the Riverview Gardens Family Community Resource Center, attended by about 100 people including students, Superintendent Scott Spurgeon recited statistic after statistic showing how the district has improved in the past two years.

In the state’s annual performance review, the district moved from 63.5 points last year to 111 points this year, which Spurgeon said was one of the top two improved showings in Missouri. It also put the district solidly within the range for full accreditation.

Still, at its meeting earlier this month, the state board deferred any decision on the district’s request for an upgrade that would no longer let students living in Riverview Gardens transfer to nearby accredited districts.

Instead, the board asked DESE to come up with a system that would allow another look at the district’s performance at the end of the school year, instead of waiting until next December as the normal schedule would call for.

The decision clearly disappointed Spurgeon at the time. And Thursday night, he went a step further, saying that it is clear to him that not everyone wants the district to succeed.

In an interview after the hearing, he explained that view this way:

“I think it probably has a lot to do with the ability for students to have some school choice, because we’re an unaccredited district, I believe that’s one of the main reasons.”

Spurgeon also told the supportive crowd at the hearing that he has no intention to relax the efforts that have brought the district to where it is today.

“When you start to feel comfortable,” he said, “don’t.”

He praised efforts by teachers, students and the community, saying that the united approach has helped Riverview Gardens make the strides it has. And he recalled the situation he found when he became superintendent two years ago, when that kind of spirit was hard to find.

“The only folks who worked with us in Riverview before 2014 were the ones who got paid,” Spurgeon said.

He listed what he called the major factors that have helped the district make progress, including a positive climate and culture, emphasis on reading and writing, leadership capacity, collaboration and improved technology.

Now, Spurgeon said, it’s time to build on what has been achieved so far.

“It’s easy for a district to see success for a year or two, then sit back and say, ‘Whew, we did that,’” he said. “We have to work harder and faster. It’s too easy to fall back into old habits.”

The district took the opportunity of the hearing to show off what students can do. Each school had a table along the walls surrounding the meeting room. In the lobby, a student choir sang; inside, a combo played. And students from Koch elementary had recording equipment and microphones to capture the action.

Most of the members of the audience who spoke during the public comment section of the hearing echoed his enthusiasm, though some expressed disappointment that improving the district’s accreditation status would mean an end to their children’s opportunity to transfer.

Students from Koch elementary school in Riverview Gardens work with recording equipment
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Students from Koch elementary school in Riverview Gardens work with recording equipment.

But Shawntelle Fisher, who provides free tutoring in two of the district’s schools, thinks the spirit and the hard work of the teachers and the administration should be rewarded.

“I see firsthand the work that the teachers put in daily, and the new tactics that the principals have come up with to use to help the students succeed,” she said in an interview after the hearing.

“They’re doing great work. They’re reaching out to organizations in the community to form partnerships, because they realize that it really does take a village to raise a child. They can’t do it all alone. That’s what we as a community need to do, step up to the plate and help support the district.”

Chris Neale, an assistant education commissioner with DESE, said that before the state board’s meeting next month, his department is going to try to come up with a system to evaluate Riverview Gardens at the end of the school year, even though the latest test scores from exams taken this coming spring will not be available yet.

He said the district will be evaluated in areas such as curriculum, governance, finances and its use of data to improve instruction.

“Certainly we never want to walk away from student performance,” Neale said, “because that’s the reason that schools exist. So we’ll try to provide an accurate profile for the district in that regard.

“But we want to make sure that the district is healthy or becoming healthy and sustainably so, so that if there is a decision to reclassify them, it’s a decision that takes a long term view for the district.”

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.