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State schools officials get 'positive' feeling from Normandy schools

Normandy Middle School student Joshua Washington addresses Thursday night's public hearing
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

A year ago, Normandy residents were accusing Missouri education officials of failing to support their school district and setting them up to fail.

But just as the district’s score on its state report card showed great improvement last year, so did the public’s attitude at a public hearing at Normandy High School Thursday night.

The district remains unaccredited, with the lowest report card score in Missouri. But its report card score last year was 30.4 percent of the points possible, up from just 7.1 percent the year before.

Both state Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven and district Superintendent Charles Pearson were optimistic that improvement will continue.

“Twelve months have made a tremendous difference in the culture and the climate that we’re seeing in the district right now,” Vandeven said in an interview, referring to residents’ attitudes.

“They’re feeling a real positive tone in the district, they’re feeling some success, and they feel inspired by what they are seeing in the district, and that’s very exciting to see.”

But, she added, how well students perform on this spring’s state tests will go a long way toward determining Normandy’s future.

“We are very pleased with what we are seeing in the leadership that’s in place right now, the stability that Charles Pearson has been able to bring to the district and his very solid leadership,” Vandeven said. “But it’s too early to really talk about any of the performance outcomes with absolute certainty at this point in time.”

For his part, Pearson told several dozen residents and others at the hearing that accreditation is a short-term goal.

“Once we get there,” he said, “we’re free to do other things.”

Praising the partnerships the district has been able to form with local companies and colleges, he wants to make sure that Normandy graduates can take their place as productive employees, as part of what he called a career pipeline.

“It is feasible that the children of this district could see themselves connected to an UMSL,” Pearson said, “could see themselves connected to an Express Scripts or connected to an Emerson or connected to a Centene.”

Scoring well on state tests, he said in an interview, is simply an indication of how well students are internalizing their learning.

“When we talk about the points and the scores,” Pearson said, “the real question is 'Are our children learning deeply?' We know that if children are learning deeply, then they’ll perform well on assessments.

“So we look at the rate of movement both at the top and the bottom, and while we’d like it to be faster, you might say, we are pleased with where we are in terms of the growth we’re getting and we’re going to go even faster next year because we understand exactly how things are moving now.”

Mandated by law

State law requires that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education hold two hearings a year in districts that are unaccredited.

Last April’s session was held toward the end of the first year of the Normandy Schools Collaborative, the entity set up by the state school board after it dissolved the old Normandy school district.

At that time, residents complained that DESE had not helped the district as much as it should have.

The next hearing, in November of last year, demonstrated a different attitude. Residents grouped at tables urged the district to work hard to make sure students come to school and gain the so-called 90/90 mark – with 90 percent of Normandy’s enrollment in class 90 percent of the time – that would earn points on the district’s annual evaluation.

Vandeven said that meeting was good evidence of how residents have taken a different tack. The change is even greater now, she added.

“Twelve months have made a tremendous difference in the culture and the climate that we’re seeing in the district,” Vandeven said.

“They’re feeling a real positive tone in the district, they’re feeling some success, and they feel inspired by what they are seeing in the district, and that’s very exciting to see.”

'Twelve months have made a tremendous difference in the culture and the climate that we're seeing in the district right now.' -- Education commissioner Margie Vandeven, on Normandy

Public comments at the hearing were not all positive. Some students praised the schools for helping students make progress. But for others, the news was not good.

Sheila Love, who has two children in Barack Obama elementary school, complained that too often, children there are out of control, bullying others.

“The truth is the truth,” she said.

And Robert Davis, an 11th grader who took advantage of the state transfer law to attend school in Francis Howell, said his experience there has been much better than what he endured in middle school in Normandy.

“I never felt like I was truly accepted by any student,” said Davis, who said he is autistic. “I was made fun of. I was insulted.”

At Howell, he said, he has gotten better grades and more help with academics. “I feel like my time has helped me grow into a better person,” Davis said.

Pearson noted that reading remains a problem in Normandy, particularly in the upper grades, and he said he wants to use adult literacy programs to help high school students.

“We need to keep providing help for children as long as we can,” Pearson said.

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.