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If Riverview schools regain accreditation, will transfer students have to return?

Riverview Gardens students entertain before Thursday night's state hearing, May 5, 2016
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

When he opened Thursday night’s state hearing on the status of the unaccredited Riverview Gardens schools, assistant education commissioner Chris Neale spelled out the two big decisions the district faces.

First, the state school board will decide, as early as next month, whether the district’s progress merits an upgrade to provisional accreditation.

If that decision is yes, then local school districts where Riverview students have transferred under state law will have to decide whether those students may stay even though the law doesn’t give them that right.

“If the numbers are there and the standards are met,” Neale said, “accreditation is earned. Then, there are other thorny problems that have to be solved.”

In his presentation, Superintendent Scott Spurgeon made the case for accreditation.

Since he took over in 2013, Riverview Gardens' score on its annual state report card has climbed steadily, to 111 points out of a possible 140 last year – well into the range needed for accreditation. He cited progress in student achievement in all areas of study, plus the district’s graduation rate. Partnerships with local agencies have helped provide students with a richer overall experience, he said.

But having enough points to move out of unaccredited territory doesn’t necessarily mean the upgrade will occur. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been working on criteria necessary for such a move to happen. Commissioner Margie Vandeven said that MAP scores from the current school year won’t be available for consideration by the state board, but other standards will be.

She added that the question of whether transfer students would have to return to Riverview if it is no longer accredited is a separate question from whether the status would be changed.

“Whether or not the district regains its accreditation is based solely on whether it meets the criteria necessary to do so,” she said in an interview before Thursday night’s hearing at Westview Middle School. “And then we deal with the law that associates the consequences of the transfer situation.”

She has urged superintendents of districts where Riverview students have transferred to allow them to stay at least until they reach an appropriate point, such as moving from elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school.

But she acknowledged that no district will have to keep students from a district that is no longer unaccredited.

“The law is silent,” Vandeven said, “so once a district is no longer unaccredited, the transfer rights essentially stop. Then it's up to the local districts to make the right decision for kids.”

Three bills were introduced in the legislative session that ends next week that would have clarified the transfer situation. But none of them has made it very far, so the law apparently will remain unchanged.

That situation concerns some parents who spoke up during the public hearing.

One of them, Tann Hill, said that her two children were thriving in Hazelwood schools and she doesn’t think they should have to return to a district she said is not able to meet their needs.

“I have a gifted child,” she said. “He's advanced on both math and English on the MAP test. I'm satisfied where they're at; they like where they're at; and I pray to God that they stay where they're at.”

Robert Colyer, another parent of transfer students, said he doesn’t agree with some speakers that families who have their students transfer are somehow undermining Riverview Gardens’ efforts to succeed.

He said students who live in the district deserve support no matter where they attend class.

“When we take that attitude,” Colyer said, “that’s when we’re for all the children.

Former Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon discusses the district's progress at a state hearing on May 5, 2016.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon discusses the district's progress

“If we’re advocating for our children in the transfer program, please don’t see it as advocating against Riverview. That’s not what we’re doing.”

But the overwhelming majority of the more than two dozen speakers at the hearing praised the district and Spurgeon – so much so that at times it seemed more like a pep rally. Many took the occasion during teacher appreciation week to thank specific staff members who have helped their children make progress.

State Rep. Tommie Pierson, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, is a former president of the Riverview Gardens school board, before the district was taken over by a state-appointed board. He told the hearing that Spurgeon’s leadership has moved the district to the point where it deserves to move out of the unaccredited ranks.

“We’ve never had a kid problem in Riverview,” he said. “We’ve always had an adult problem. And to solve an adult problem, it takes an adult.

“This community has suffered long enough. It is time now that if the numbers are there, Riverview Gardens needs its accreditation back.”

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.