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Riverview Gardens will have to wait on accreditation upgrade

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

Members of the Missouri state school board praised progress made by Riverview Gardens in recent years Tuesday but postponed any vote that could upgrade its status from unaccredited.

Because the board put off until at least this fall any consideration of making the district provisionally accredited, students living in Riverview Gardens will remain eligible to transfer to nearby accredited schools in the coming school year.

Echoing what officials from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said last week when their recommendation for delay was made public, members of the state board said during their meeting in Jefferson City that their decision to postpone a decision wasn’t a case of no, just a case of not yet.

“I think we should reflect with a great deal of pride for Riverview Gardens for what they have accomplished to date,” said Peter Herschend of Branson. “This is not a time of failure. This is a time of absolutely moving in the right direction, and they should be proud."

Mike Jones of St. Louis added that the board has no authority to change the state’s transfer law, so it had to be very mindful of the ramifications that an upgrade to provisionally accredited status would bring to students in Riverview Gardens. Some parents whose children have thrived after transferring out of the district have urged the state board to delay any change in the district’s accreditation.

For two years after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the transfer law in 2013, lawmakers worked to make changes to the transfer process. Both efforts were vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon. In the most recent legislative session, three bills introduced to make changes went nowhere. Jones’ comments were designed to take account of that sequence of events and the situation that remains.

“The elephant in the room, no pun intended, is a function of the transfer statute as it relates to unaccredited school districts,” Jones said.

In his presentation to the board, assistant education commissioner Chris Neale said that of the five categories the state had set out to gauge whether Riverview Gardens deserved an upgrade in accreditation status, the district made the grade in just three — English, math and college and career readiness.

It fell short in science, Neale said, and it did not have enough data in social studies.

To reach provisional accreditation status, a district needs more than 50 percent of the 140 points available in its annual report card from the state. Since Superintendent Scott Spurgeon took over in 2013, the district has made steady progress. Last year, Riverview Gardens achieved 79 percent, well into provisional accreditation range.

Neale said if the district continues on the trajectory it has shown in recent state evaluations, its scores “should bring provisional accreditation in the very near term.”

In a statement, education Commissioner Margie Vandeven praised the district’s hard work and improvement.

“The board’s decision is not a reflection on their tremendous progress in the last few years,” she said.

Spurgeon did not address the board at the meeting on Tuesday. When news of the likely delay in any upgrade came last week, he had this reaction:

“On the one hand, would I have wanted to see the classification upgrade? Absolutely. I think our students, out staff, our parents and our community deserve that. On the other hand, it continues to verify that we're making progress and I'm very proud of that.”

One group that has been active in urging state officials to delay any upgrade in Riverview Gardens’  accreditation status, because of the experiences of students who have taken advantage of the state’s transfer law, is the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM). It has organized parents of transfer students to contact DESE and the state board to postpone any decision.

"This is not a time of failure. This is a time of absolutely moving in the right direction, and they should be proud." — State board member Peter Herschend

After Tuesday’s move to delay any accreditation upgrade, CEAM official Peter Franzen released a statement emphasizing  how the district still falls short in some areas.

"It's important to note that RGSD is improving,” said Franzen, who is CEAM’s associate executive director, “but it is equally important to understand that it did not meet the standards set and that is why no recommendation for reaccreditation is being made.

“CEAM believes that every child deserves access to a quality education regardless of zip-code. In the case of seriously underperforming school districts like Riverview, where there is a history of low student achievement, students need an immediate quality option and that’s what the transfer law provides. It gives students and parents the opportunity to have a voice in their education. What we have seen since the 2013 State Supreme Court ruling validating the transfer law is an unprecedented level of attention and human capital directed at improving failing schools."

Besides Riverview Gardens, the only other unaccredited school district in Missouri is Normandy. It has also shown improvement in recent years but is nowhere near the level of provisional accreditation.

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.