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Accreditation consideration: Riverview Gardens, St. Louis top state school board agenda

Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon (center) talks with state board member John Martin (left) and deputy education commissioner Ron Lankford at the state school board meeting in October 2015.
File photo |Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 7:55 p.m. Monday with Adams not getting L.A. job: St. Louis schools will get another hearing by the state school board Tuesday on their request for an upgrade to full accreditation, while board members will also discuss a framework that could lift Riverview Gardens up to provisional accreditation.

A change for Riverview Gardens, which could come at the end of the current school year, would raise questions about whether students who have been transferring from the unaccredited district since 2013 would be able to continue to do so.

At its meeting last month, the state board took note of progress by both districts in their latest annual report card. Riverview Gardens has moved to 79.3 percent from 28.6 percent in just two years; St. Louis rose to 76.1 percent from 45.3 percent last year. But despite the improvements, the board said it wanted to ensure that the growth is sustained before it changes accreditation status for either district.

Under state guidelines, districts with scores over 70 percent receive full accreditation. Between 50 percent and 70 percent merit provisional accreditation, while a score below 50 percent means a district is unaccredited. Riverview Gardens and Normandy are the only unaccredited districts in Missouri.

Before the December meeting – where the Jennings schools were upgraded to full accreditation after several years of improvements -- state board member Mike Jones of St. Louis explained the cautious approach this way:

“You don’t want to have to evaluate someone every year. 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?”

Automatic rehearing for St. Louis

Under rules of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the board of any district dissatisfied with its accreditation status can request an automatic rehearing by the state board within 60 days. The reconsideration can take into account “materials submitted with the original classification, the request for reconsideration, and any materials offered by the commissioner of education or requested by the board.”

DESE is urging that the board stick with its decision from last month to keep the city schools as provisionally accredited.

“While the department commends SLPS for their progress,” a document prepared for the meeting says, “the recommendation has not changed. Established policy and practice require that multiple years of performance data be considered in the classification decision. This requirement has been consistently applied with other districts in the state and therefore precedent has been established.”

No one from the St. Louis schools is expected to testify at Tuesday’s meeting. But Rick Sullivan, who heads the district’s three-member Special Administrative Board, said in an interview that a full-page ad published in the Post-Dispatch last month lays out its case for full accreditation.

The ad noted that in recent years, the city schools have made steady progress academically and financially, including eliminating a $65 million deficit; maintaining a $20 million fund balance; improving facilities with a $155 million bond issue; establishing stable leadership; and increasing the number of schools earning enough performance points to qualify for full accreditation.

It concluded that the district deserves the upgrade “in light of eight years of steady progress … going from broke and unaccredited to the district’s current position of meeting the state’s financial requirements and receiving the required academic points for full accreditation.”

Sullivan put it this way:

SLPS Superintendent Kelvin Adams
Credit St. Louis Public Schools
Superintendent of the St. Louis Public School District Kelvin Adams. (via St. Louis Public School District)

“I think the past five or six years have shown we're on the right track. There's no question that the district is improving in every aspect, especially academics, and there's been a consistent improvement over quite a few years.”

The issue of accreditation is separate from the question of whether the district should continue to be run by the appointed SAB, whose authority is set to expire at the end of June.

The rehearing for the city schools comes after speculation that Superintendent Kelvin Adams, who was hired by the SAB in 2008, was being considered fa similar post in Los Angeles. But the school board there named a deputy superintendent, Michelle King, as superintendent on Monday. His contract in St. Louis is set to expire at the end of June as well.

The Los Angeles Times had reported that Adams was one of two or possibly three final candidates for the superintendent’s job.

Special consideration for Riverview Gardens

When the state board decided last month to maintain Riverview Gardens’ unaccredited status, it also agreed to expedite its next review. Generally, the accreditation classification of districts is reviewed in December, but the board asked DESE to come back this month with criteria that could be used to review Riverview Gardens at the end of the current school year.

It noted that testing changes that will occur this spring could delay student performance data, so that any possible change would come late in 2016. The board said that because such a delay is beyond the district’s control, it wanted to avoid a timetable that would be disruptive to students and their families.

In response, the department is set to present a plan that recaps the district’s improvement over the past few years and sets out a timetable that reviews areas such as curriculum, finances, climate and culture, teacher effectiveness and student performance over the next several months.

It also sets out specific benchmarks for Riverview Gardens to achieve in such areas as attendance, graduation rate and college and career readiness as well as academic performance.

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

The district’s accreditation status is critical because of the state law that allows students living in an unaccredited district to transfer to nearby accredited districts, with their home district paying for tuition and in some cases for transportation.

More than 1,000 students transferred in the first year after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law in 2013. That number has been cut almost in half.

In preparation for a possible change in the district’s accreditation, DESE issued new transfer guidelines last month that urged “all parties involved to provide a transition that is in the best educational interest of transfer students.

“The family, resident district and receiving district should work cooperatively so that existing transfer students may remain in the receiving district until a mutually agreeable and educationally advisable transition point is reached.”

The guidelines are advisory only and have no force of law. Legislators are expected to once again consider changes in the transfer statute. Bills passed in the past two years were vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Follow Dale 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.