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Parents still wary of Normandy schools, despite upgrade in academic standing

Normandy marching band performs during the VP Parade in Forest Park Saturday, July 4, 2015.
File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

Last Tuesday was supposed to be a monumental day for Normandy’s public school district. It was kicking off 2018 with a distinction it had not enjoyed in almost five years: It was no longer unaccredited in the eyes of the state school board.

Instead, school was canceled because of below-zero morning temperatures. Leadership at Normandy Schools Collaborative, as the district has been known since a reconfiguration in 2014, still took a few minutes to acknowledge the milestone.

“We paused about 30 minutes into the meeting and said, ‘Wow, this is the first day of the provisionally accredited Normandy Schools Collaborative,’” Superintendent Charles Pearson said. “We excitedly clapped and everything and then got back to work.”

There’s still a lot of work to do. Pearson quickly admits Normandy’s 3,000 students are not where they should be, but test scores, attendance and graduation rates are trending up.

“We still have developing to do, but we’re not where we were. And I think that’s really the message we want to share,” Pearson said.

The State Board of Education recognized two consecutive years of performance scores in the “provisionally accredited” range and voted to bump up the district’s academic standing last month.

The change in status allows Normandy to end a controversial transfer program that at its peak, left it paying millions of dollars for a quarter of its students to attend higher performing schools.

Annual test scores and the high school graduation rate still fall below state averages. That has many parents wary of whether the district has improved as much as it appears to have on paper.

The decision to stay or go

SheRon Chaney said “it was like a pain in your throat” when she learned the transfer program will be ending. St. Louis Public Radio first documented Chaney’s “hectic mornings” to get her middle daughter, BrenNae, to school in Maplewood Richmond Heights in 2014. Chaney said the high schooler has made “tremendous progress.”

Chaney’s youngest daughter, Anandra, is still enrolled in Normandy, where Chaney said she has “phenomenal” sixth grade teachers at Jefferson Elementary.

Chaney was planning to move Anandra to Maplewood Richmond Heights for junior high because she’s skeptical the district’s upper grade levels have improved since BrenNae struggled there.

“It’s frustrating when people tout and say Normandy is doing so much better,” Chaney said. “You don’t really see the better, you just hear the better.”

Credit File | Tim Lloyd | St. Louis Public Radio
From left, Andre, Anandra, BrenNae and SheRon Chaney stand on the porch of their family home in Pasadena Park in north St. Louis County in 2014.

Most of the 17 districts that receive transfer students will allow them to stay until a “natural transition point,” such as when a student finishes elementary school. That means BrenNae, now a junior, will be able to graduate from Maplewood Richmond Heights.

Currently nearly 600 students transfer to other schools. Normandy only provided free transportation to Francis Howell School District in St. Charles. That transportation will stop in May. Many students will continue to get rides from their mom or dad each morning. Pearson acknowledges some of those students will never come back.

Richard Jackson is among the parents who say the decision of whether to return to Normandy is a difficult one. Jackson and his wife, Cherry, decided to pull their son, Ethan, from the district after first grade. He’s now in sixth grade in the Parkway School District with many friends and a spot on the football team.

“He’s established,” Jackson said. “He doesn’t want to revert back. That’s kind of traumatizing. He already had to change once, now he has to change again.”

The Jacksons have two years, until Ethan finishes eighth grade, to decide whether they’ll return to Normandy or move.

Pearson encourages parents such as Jackson and Chaney to “really take a look at the changes that have happened in the district since you were with us three years ago.”

“It’s not magic bullets, it’s just very, very intentional and it’s time intensive and the kind of change that’s happening doesn’t happen over a month, but it can happen over a nine month period,” Pearson said.

School choice advocates contend parents shouldn’t be forced to return to Normandy until it’s on par with the top schools in the region.

“Their academic improvement is so low, it’s really not there,” said Cici Tompkins of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri. “So I do congratulate the district for having made some improvements, but when it comes to actual student performance, we don’t think they’re quite there yet.”

The prospect of her child studying at Normandy also has the Chaney family considering moving to within the boundaries of Maplewood Richmond Heights School District.

Moving “has been at the forefront in the last few weeks,” said Chaney, even though she likes her house.

“Weighing that neighborhood up against the opportunities and options for my daughter, I would probably consider moving,” she said.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Inform our coverage: This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. Please click here, to see responses from others who shared their school transfer stories. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here.

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.