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Role of Normandy Superintendent Transformed by Transfers: October 4, 2013

Oct 10, 2013
NORMANDY

BEL-NOR • Inside a fourth-grade room at Bel-Nor Elementary School, a boy studied two numbers on his worksheet: five and three.  Superintendent Ty McNichols crouched beside his desk trying to help the pupil determine which one was greater.

The pupil was clearly struggling.   McNichols made note of that.   As he walked the room, he and two administrators also took note of how well the 17 other students were grasping the same concept and to what degree their teacher, Melissa Murphy, was engaging them.

“We’re trying to get in the rooms and see what they’re struggling with, what they’re doing well,” McNichols said in a hushed voice.

For McNichols, it was day No. 85 on the job — one that was also filled with meetings with central office staff and a bond debt adviser.

His role as Normandy superintendent was radically redefined just weeks before he filled the post.  That is when the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the school transfer statute, triggering the transfer of about 2,200 students in the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts to higher performing schools throughout the region.

Even before the ruling, McNichols faced the daunting task of turning around a school district with the lowest performance rating in the state.

Now, he must make improvements as the district faces an estimated $15 million in tuition and transportation costs for more than 1,000 transfer students.

To stop the transfers, Normandy must regain at least provisional accreditation.  To do that, McNichols must figure out how to improve learning in classrooms.

But he’s not after sudden and massive transformation.  Instead, McNichols is strategically zeroing in on a few areas, such as literacy, science and math, hoping that modest gains will be enough to pick up needed state accreditation points.

Much of what consumes his time and energy has less to do with learning than challenging public perceptions.

Inside his district, that means using public forums and other events to improve the district’s image to keep students and to draw others back.

Outside the district, that means telling groups such as a joint legislative committee in Jefferson City on Tuesday about the impact the transfer law is having on his district.

The job is bigger than just Normandy, McNichols said.

Across Missouri, 11 school districts are provisionally accredited, putting them at risk of receiving the state’s worst rating in a couple of years if their academics, attendance and graduation rates decline even further.

In Normandy, the education of about 3,000 children is at stake, the vast majority of whom perform below grade level in reading and math.  Whether the Normandy district can afford the staff and programs needed to get them up to speed will in part hinge on the choices McNichols makes this fall.

“The reality is he has to continue to give confidence to people in this community that he’s up for the task,” said Chris Krehmeyer, chief executive of Beyond Housing, a nonprofit group that’s trying to address education, housing, health and other area concerns within the district.

SHARING THE MESSAGE

McNichols has spent hours outside his north St. Louis County school district participating in more than a dozen panels, forums and public meetings about the transfer situation.

His message — which he amplifies in the media — is that the migration of students from Normandy schools is not sustainable, particularly if the district must finance tuition costs plus transportation expenses to at least one other district.

“It’s easy to say give families choice and let them go wherever they want,” he said. “It’s not as easy as it sounds.”

McNichols’ high-profile approach to the transfer crisis is in contrast to that of Scott Spurgeon, the Riverview Gardens superintendent, who speaks much less frequently at public forums and in the media about his district’s predicament.

McNichols’ appearances have caused some to ask him if his time would be better spent working on Normandy’s academics.  He addressed this a few times last week at community forums.

“I have to be in the community and in the news because I don’t think our story is being told,” he said.

He introduces himself to community groups as a native St. Louisan who graduated from Christian Brothers College high school.  He began his career as a teaching assistant in the University City School District and then became an elementary school teacher in St. Louis Public Schools and in the Pattonville district.  Over time, he worked as an administrator in the Clayton, Kirkwood and Hazelwood districts.

McNichols shows a photo of his family.  And then he lays out his strategy for turning around Normandy schools.  It requires more support from parents.  It involves an intense focus on literacy and on science, technology, engineering and math.

In one audience was Bobbie BoClair, whose son and daughter attend Normandy schools.  She and her husband had prayed about whether to transfer them to another district.  But their children wanted to stay.  BoClair says she’s happy with that decision.

“It seems like something has clicked” in Normandy, she said.

BoClair, like many parents whose children remain in Normandy schools, believes that the district will stop its decline.

McNichols doesn’t promise them transformational change.  Instead, he speaks of improving academics in bite-sized increments.

“If we shoot for 3 percent improvement in all the content areas, we will be — if not at the provisional accreditation mark — then pretty close to it,” he says.

SMALL STEPS

That strategy of modest improvement may strike some as inadequate.

After all, the district earned just 11 percent of the 140 points possible on the state’s annual performance report — the lowest of any district in the state.  To be in range of provisional accreditation, it needs more than 50 percent of the points.

But that same scale also rewards school districts that are making improvement — even if performance still lags state averages.

McNichols often describes his district as climbing out of a basement.  In some academic areas, he says, the district is just a step or two from reaching the basement door.

McNichols and his central office executive learning team are looking for “pockets of success” in their schools — things that are working well that could be easily replicated in other classrooms — that would help the district walk through the door.

So each week, he enters several of the district’s seven schools with Assistant Superintendent Candice Carter Oliver, who takes notes on her iPad.  They walk the hallways with the principal.  They visit classrooms.  Their eyes scan the walls, looking for objectives and evidence of students’ work.  They watch the teachers.  Almost instantly, they can assess the level of expectations and whether learning is taking place.

Then they kneel beside students to see what they’re working on, quietly asking them to explain the lesson.

“Children should be able to articulate what it is that they’re learning,” Carter Oliver said.

Later in the hallway, the principal evaluates the teacher and the classroom environment — and what must be done to improve it.  McNichols, hands in his pockets, listens.  He is also assessing the principal.

McNichols calls it “support from the trenches.”

It’s the kind of work he’d like to do more of.  But the transfer situation, he said, is draining the amount of time he has to spend in classrooms.

“It has required us to spend more time looking at finances, staffing patterns, programs in a lot more detail that we would have if we were just planning for the school year,” he said.

TAKINGS STEPS

McNichols said his schools have been steadily gaining students since Aug. 19, when the school year began.  But if no budget cuts are made, Normandy could face financial insolvency by March, according to state education officials.  The education department is asking for a $6.8 million supplemental budget request to help Normandy get through the end of the school year.

More fundamentally, Normandy must improve while potentially cutting programs and teachers to help the district remain financially stable.

This month, McNichols plans to identify which cuts he will make to attempt to get through the current school year.

In all, 1,046 students have transferred out of the Normandy district — though several hundred of them have never been enrolled in its schools, McNichols says.

The school district says the impact on its total enrollment has been offset by new students moving into the Normandy area.  All told, Normandy reported only 360 fewer students to the state this year than last.  State enrollment figures, however, point to an enrollment drop of about 1,000 students.

Regardless, the financial hit from the transfers is sizable. McNichols says tuition and transportation costs for those students “are going to use more than a fourth of our resources.”

But despite all those challenges, McNichols says improvement is still possible.

And changes, he tells parents and the public, are already afoot.

At Normandy High School, he said, steps are being taken to crack down on disruptive behavior. Cellphones are no longer permitted during the school day.  Later this year, security cameras will be installed outside restrooms, where several students last year disrupted learning for everyone by setting a rash of fires.

Three schools have new principals — the high school, Normandy Middle School and Barack Obama Elementary.  McNichols has increased his top administrative staff to five, from three, to help support every principal and be more responsive to parents.

“Everything here is fixable,” McNichols told a crowd in Pagedale last week.  “It takes time.  It can’t happen overnight.  But it can be fixed.”

Normandy Reaccreditation Plan Focuses on Education and Socio-Economic Concerns: September 19, 2013

Sep 30, 2013

Listen to St. Louis on the Air provide discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area.  The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

By Tim Lloyd and Camille Phillips

With less than three months on the job, Normandy School District Superintendent Tyrone McNichols has a clear plan to regain accreditation from the state and a strong message about the help he needs to make that plan successful.

The main academic components of McNichols’ plan involve a new literacy program in partnership with the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a new focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). As part of the focus on STEM, a new science program is being implemented through a partnership with Washington University.

A discussion about the Normandy School District and efforts being taken to regain accreditation and the role of the Normandy 24:1 initiative in that effort.

“We do believe that a focus on STEM throughout our whole entire organization will not only help us with the MAP and the end-of-course exams, but it will also make our students career and college ready for the 21st century,” said McNichols.

New leadership is also in place.

“We brought in a whole new team for the most part,” said McNichols. “We brought in a CFO from other districts, who has been successful. We brought a new curriculum and instruction person….and not to toot my own horn, but the schools and the districts that I’ve worked in, I’ve been successful in improving test scores everywhere that I’ve worked.”

But, said McNichols, Normandy needs more time and more resources in order for the plan to be a success. And with the economic burden of paying for the transfer of 1,000 students to accredited school districts, the school district is facing severe budget shortages.

The district shortages are exasperated by the fact that Normandy is required to pay the tuition of the school students transfer to, which can be significantly more than the amount Normandy spends per student.

“If it was as simple as we got in 12,000 and we sent out 12,000, it would be a wash. We could make the kinds of adjustments that are necessary,” said McNichols. Normandy spends about $12,000 per student, $5000 of which comes from local funds and $7000 of which comes from the state.

“But in some cases we have districts such as Clayton that cost us 19. So that’s $7000 over the 12 we have to come up. Which means we have to reduce $7000 on the 12 for the students that have stayed.”

McNichols wants the state legislature to fix the rate of tuition so Normandy doesn’t have to pay the cost differential. He also wants a halt on further transfers and to be given a grace period before Normandy is held to the new state accreditation standards.

“That would be a fix that gives us the time, the resources and the support to try and make an impact with the students,” said McNichols. “And the reason I say that with regards with Normandy—Normandy just lost its accreditation in January…so we really have not had a full year to implement comprehensive strategies to become accredited.”

Does Income Level Affect A School District’s Accreditation Score?

In addiction to academics, addressing the needs of economically underprivileged members of the community is a big part of  McNichols’ plan for earning back accreditation. More than 90 percent of students in the Normandy School District receive free and reduced lunch.

McNichols sees the instability poverty creates in the lives of his students as inhibiting their ability to focus on school. And the numbers seem to support his view. In the St. Louis region, schools with a high percentage of students enrolled in free or reduced lunch have lower accreditation scores from the state.

Look at the map below for more details. It compares the percent of students enrolled in free and reduced price lunch with the total accreditation score for each school district in St. Louis and St Charles County, as well as St. Louis City.

In order to qualify for free and reduced price lunch, a child must come from a family with an income that is 130 percent or less of the poverty rate.

The nonprofit organization Beyond Housing has initiated a plan to provide community support for socio-economic development through a program called 24:1, uniting the 24 municipalities in the school district to create “strong communities, engaged families and successful children.”

“What we’ve said to the Normandy School District for the last three and a half years is how can we and all our other partner not-for-profits be most helpful, strategic and tactical to help the children who show up to the Normandy Schools each and every day be successful? What would that look like?” said Chris Krehmeyer, president and CEO of Beyond Housing.

Beyond Housing and its not-for-profit partners have built homes and put in a grocery store in Pageville as part of their efforts to stabilize neighborhoods. They are also working towards putting in a health clinic and expanding pre-Kindergarten programs.

Through the 24:1 Initiative, McNichols and Krehmeyer hope to provide a more stable home environment for the children of the Normandy School District. With a more stable home life, they hope students can better focus on doing well in school.

 

Normandy Students Return to School to Find Community Backing: August 19, 2013

Aug 20, 2013

WELLSTON • A crowd of alumni and parents gathered on the sidewalk outside Normandy High School this morning, cheering for the students exiting buses and cars to begin their school year.

The adults were holding a pep rally of sorts for the 3,000 students staying in this unaccredited district, after about a quarter of their peers transferred to higher performing schools this month under a state Supreme Court ruling.

But their presence spoke to something much greater. They’ve always been with the district in spirit, they said, but now they were pledging to doing anything they could to help the district get back on track. Improving Normandy schools has risen to a level of urgency among them.

“This woke up the whole community,” said James McGee, mayor of Vinita Park, holding a poster board sign.

As Normandy students returned to their classrooms, a regional discussion is well underway about what can be done to support struggling schools, and how to turn around those that have failed.

That discussion will continue to play out this afternoon and Tuesday in Jefferson City, as the Missouri Board of Education holds its monthly meting. On the agenda is the transfer situation and how to better address failing schools.

At Normandy High School, Makayla Smith, a senior, walked toward the front gate of her high school with a smile on her face. Her brother, Bryce Smith, a sophomore, was behind her.

“A lot of my friends did leave, but I believe they’re coming back,” Makayla said. “I am ready. We want to make a fool out of what’s been said of our school.”

The district faces estimated tuition and transportation bills of $15 million as it works to comply with the state transfer statute. That law, upheld by the high court ruling in June, requires unaccredited districts to pay tuition and transportation costs of students who wish to attend schools in higher performing districts. Riverview Gardens is the other unaccredited district in the region.

Even so, Superintendent Ty McNichols and Derrick Mitchell, the new principal of Normandy High School, both expressed optimism that things will improve this year. Mitchell said he’s been working since July on an intensive plan underway to improve academics at the high school.

“I truly believe that if I help Normandy, I help the St. Louis region,” he said.

Message to Parents from a Francis Howell Teacher: August 1, 2013

Aug 5, 2013

August 01, 2013 12:00 am  •  Kathy McMillan

I am an educator in the Francis Howell School District at an elementary school. As an educator I want to let the parents of the children coming to this district know that I see their child as any other child: a child with hopes, dreams, fears, and the right to a good education.

I do understand the fears of Francis Howell parents worried about the education of their child. I am confident that the educators here in this district will continue to be the best they can be. They will teach your child using the prescribed curriculum. This will not change. They will include the children coming in from the neighboring county. These children will receive the same education as any other child would that comes into this district, whether they move into the district or are bused in from a neighboring county.

I also understand the fears Francis Howell parents have for their child’s safety. I am sure many of you moved to this district because of the schools and that includes the feelings of safety. Your fears are being heard and as educators we will be there to protect your child — emotionally, mentally, and physically from any disaster, naturally or man-made. Just as we, as educators, will protect those students coming into our district. We all hear about the violence and drugs in other districts and I am sure Normandy has their fair share of both, but don’t be fooled into thinking this district doesn’t have its own fair share of violence and drugs. Through the Safe Schools Act, those students who have committed these acts will not be allowed into our district. This applies to a few children just as it does here.

Normandy parents’ fears are as great as Francis Howell parents’. These parents will have to put their children on a bus to travel quite a distance to be able to give their child the benefit of a desirable education. I am sure this is a scary proposition. The Normandy parents realize there will be other obstacles for their child to overcome. Some parents in the Francis Howell School District have fears of Normandy children attending school here, and these fears are being relayed to their children. As children hear the fears of their parents, they will take on these fears and bring them to school. Thus our job will be to care for all children, not just those from Francis Howell but those children from Normandy. I, as an educator, will do just that: safeguard all children who attend this district no matter where they reside. As educators we are here to make all children feel welcome and safe.

Everyone needs to understand the children currently in the Normandy School District will be coming to Francis Howell for an education every child deserves. You can work to change the law, but this won’t happen this year. I understand the difficulty of this situation. It will be difficult for all those involved, the parents of both districts, children from both districts, administrators from both districts, and the educators from both districts. I can only hope that we can all take a step to make this less difficult for everyone. Each parent needs to encourage kindness, respect, trust and caring in their child/children as the districts work through this circumstance.

As I have spoken to many of my colleagues, their hearts are in the same place. We became educators because we want to teach children; it doesn’t matter where they reside. We will be the best we can be and do our best to make a positive difference for all children. We will do our best to educate each child and treat them with the utmost respect and kindness. We hope to have the same respect from the parents and students as well. So let’s put our differences aside and work together to make this a good year for all involved. I hope everyone will stand by me and work together to make this a successful year.

Kathy McMillan is a literacy coach in the Francis Howell School District.

Help Normandy School District Regain Accreditation 7-23-13

Jul 23, 2013

July 23, 2013

In the midst of all of the controversy surrounding the Normandy School District and its current challenges, it is important that the entire St. Louis area knows that many of us continue to support our school district. We are 100 percent behind the new superintendent, Tyrone McNichols, his staff and all of the district’s students in their quest to continue the progress that has been made over the last couple of years.

Although there has been much publicity about the problems, not much has been printed or aired about the significant progress that has been made in some MAP categories’ test scores, attendance and other key measurements used to determine accreditation. Our children are improving. Our district is improving. We have to stand behind them and help them get to full accreditation.

I urge parents to remember that when accreditation is restored, and I believe that will be soon, what will be the impact on your child if you yank him/her out of the Normandy School District now only to have the tuition support to keep them elsewhere yanked out from under you and them? It’s tough right now, but I believe the district will get to full accreditation when it is allowed to focus on actions to get there instead of how to ship children all over the place. Let the district get down to its accreditation business and let’s help them get there.

Mayor Monica M. Huddleston  •  Greendale

Beyond Housing Expands Pagedale Footprint: 7-19-13

Jul 19, 2013

PAGEDALE • Fresh from developing a supermarket, senior apartments and a bank branch on Page Avenue, Beyond Housing is taking on more projects across the street in an effort to spur commercial development on that thoroughfare.

A health clinic and a movie theater are planned on a mostly vacant site that includes a former auto transmission repair shop and two small houses.

The nonprofit group concentrates on low-income housing but led the effort to lure a Save-A-Lot store to the tired stretch of Page. The grocery opened in 2010, followed by the 42-unit Rosie Shields Manor apartments for low-income seniors, and last November, a branch of Midwest BankCentre.

Save-A-Lot was Beyond Housing’s first foray into commercial development. Beyond Housing owns the property.

The grocery’s success led the nonprofit to try to grow more businesses on a street marked by abandoned buildings and empty lots.

Chris Krehmeyer, Beyond Housing’s president and chief executive, said that rebuilding communities requires better health care, more jobs, good education and economic development, as well as decent housing.

“You have to focus on everything,” he said. “The fabric of a place is never one thing.”

Getting a supermarket, new senior housing and Pagedale’s first bank indicated that the area has a brighter economic future, Krehmeyer said.

“Clearly, having the grocery store and the senior housing is catalytic — showing that something is happening here,” he said.

Beyond Housing plans to build two buildings for the movie theater and health clinic projects in the 6700 block of Page. Enterprise Bank already has committed about $8 million in federal New Markets Tax Credits to the projects.

The Beyond Housing CEO said those credits will yield nearly $3 million in equity for the projects, which will cost $8 million to $9 million. The nonprofit is still raising the remaining money.

Construction could begin early next year and be completed by late 2014 or early 2015, he said.

Krehmeyer said he is discussing with St. Louis County officials establishment of a pediatric care clinic on the second floor of a new building. The nonprofit wants retail space on the first floor.

The CEO also said he is in preliminary talks with the operators of the MX and Moolah movie theaters about running a three-screen complex seating 500 people.

Both structures would be built near the street with parking in the rear.

Beyond Housing plans to buy more empty commercial property in the vicinity with the goal of producing what Krehmeyer calls the Pagedale Town Center. A restaurant, dry cleaners and coffee shop are among businesses he hopes can be drawn to the area.

The revival began three years ago with the Save-A-Lot. Chon Tomlin, spokeswoman for the Earth City-based grocery chain, said the Pagedale store is doing well.

“The community has embraced us with open arms,” she said.

The grocery is across a parking lot from another Beyond Housing project, the fully occupied Rosie Shields senior housing.

On the building’s first floor is a branch of Midwest BankCentre, which is Pagedale’s first bank. John Shivers, a Midwest vice president who helped launch the bank last fall, said the branch is exceeding expectations.

Midwest officials had done a six-year projection on the number of accounts and volumes of loans and deposits to expect at the Pagedale branch, Shivers said.

“As of two months ago, we were operating at year four,” said Shivers, adding that the branch will meet its sixth-year projections “with ease.”

Home-improvement loans and low-cost checking accounts are the bank branch’s bread and butter.

“We’ve been able to gain the trust of people by offering products and services the community needs,” Shivers said.

Over the next couple of years, Beyond Housing plans to transform more than part of Page Avenue’s streetscape. In the works is a redone street, too. The East-West Gateway Council of Governments is supporting Beyond Housing’s proposal to redo a half-mile stretch of Page under the government’s Great Streets program.

On Page, the program to make streets more than car-oriented thoroughfares involves reducing the number of traffic lanes from four to two, with a landscaped center turn lane. Wider sidewalks also are planned.

“Right now it’s just like a highway,” Krehmeyer said. “We want to slow everything down.”

The Pulse of St. Louis: June 15, 2013

Jul 10, 2013

This week’s edition of The Pulse of St. Louis focuses on Beyond Housing, a St. Louis area agency working to revitalize communities in dire need of help.  Learn more about the homes and businesses that have been built in Pine Lawn and Pagedale, and plans of development in other north county areas.

Chris Krehmeyer, President/CEO of Beyond Housing; Viola Murphy, Mayor of Cool Valley and Phillip Boyd, Chief Administrative Officer for the Normandy School District sit down with Shirley Washington to discuss Beyond Housing and the work to help entire communities become better places to live.

The entire telecast contains 5 segments/videos.  Scroll down their page to see all of them.

  • The Pulse of St. Louis Beyond Housing
  • Beyond Housing Residents Thoughts
  • Beyond Housing Vitalizing Neighborhoods
  • Beyond Housing Projects
  • Beyond Housing Final Thoughts

Beyond Housing Educates Homebuyers: June 7, 2013

Jul 10, 2013

For those buying a home for the first time, the process can be full of surprises that can throw plans to buy a home off course.

And, if buyers don’t have a firm grasp of what they can afford, they may wind up owning a home with a mortgage that’s bigger than their budget allows.

Eric Zegel, homeownership education director at Beyond Housing, said potential home buyers, particularly first-timers, shouldn’t go through the process alone.

He advises that those unfamiliar with the steps necessary to buy a home visit with a housing counselor credentialed through a nonprofit agency, such as St. Louis-based Beyond Housing, which offers classes for $95.

The Post-Dispatch interviewed Zegel about the home-buying process. Here’s an edited transcript.

As the economy recovers, are you starting to see more people looking to buy their first home or shift from renting to homeownership?

We are seeing a slight uptick as home prices are still stable and interest rates remain low.

As they begin the process, they need to do a solid review of their credit and finances. The banks often look at the overall gross income, before taxes. And for a lot of people, their take-home pay is a lot less.

How can housing counselors help in the process?

We are all about providing the education piece. We’re not committed to any one loan or one product. We look at the whole picture and walk clients through the process from lending to finding an agent and being there at closing. We try to mirror what a bank or lender will ask for, such as having back pay stubs and bank statements.

We’ll look at their credit report, identify problems, and advise people on how to make improvements to their credit scores, such as paying down balances to 30 percent of their credit limit and paying their bills on time, all the time. We advise that people don’t open a lot of new credit or close older accounts in the months leading up to a home purchase.

We’ll also look at creating a spending plan and look at their bank statements. A bank will take a look at your past 3 to 4 months of bank statements, and they’re looking for overdraft fees. That will be a red flag.

What percentage of the home price should a buyer put down for the purchase?

The traditional figure of 20 percent is still fairly good, but with home values not increasing, it may not be the most prudent approach (to lock up so much of their savings in a house). We see home values as not rising significantly, so it depends on their financial situation, and they can do anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent.

What are people typically unprepared for?

They’re usually surprised at how much out of pocket money they’ll pay, from earnest money and money for inspections. That can all cost $2,000 cash. Days of no-money-down homes are over, if they’re going to do it right.

Another common mistake is not doing all their homework. They should follow the rule of three — get three estimates or price ranges for loans, and look at fees, the rates, and mortgage insurance. It’s a competitive banking environment, so compare banks.

Some banks are keeping the loans in-house and not selling the loan, which has been very helpful. You’ll have a one-on-one relationship with your banker after closing.

What other advice do you offer for a successful homebuying process?

Don’t rush. Someone might have a short sale they want to sell you that can close at the end of this month. There are lots of houses out there. Slow it down. There’s still a lot of inventory and prices and rates will remain stable. Rushing through it can lead to errors, and you don’t want to get stuck.

Also, based on what we see with their finances and things going on in their lives, such as if they’ve only been with a job a short amount of time, renting could make better financial sense than buying. You’ll find a bank that wants to loan you the money, but it might be better to wait a year.

Eric Zegel

Title • Homeownership Education Director, Beyond Housing

Age • 44

Career  • Peace Corps volunteer; Spanish teacher, St. Frances Cabrini Academy; adjunct faculty, Community Development Practice, Washington University.

Education • Bachelor of Arts degree, California State University, Monterey Bay; Master of Social Work, Washington University.

Personal • Married with two children, lives in University City.

Housing Counseling Works: May 29, 2013

Jul 10, 2013

May 29, 2013 12:00 am  •  Christopher S. “Kit” Bond

Home sales in Missouri are up more than 9 percent from last year. While this progress is good news, it is essential we look at lessons learned over the past six years of the housing crisis. One of the most important lessons is that home purchase education and counseling must become a central component of the mortgage process, particularly for first-time home buyers. That’s a key conclusion reached by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission, which I co-chair, in its report, Housing America’s Future: New Directions for National Policy.

For homeowners who lose a job, suffer a medical setback or experience another type of crisis, housing counselors can assist in developing an “emergency response plan” before they fall behind on their mortgage payments. I heard first-hand how counseling provided by incredible local organizations like Beyond Housing saved Missouri families from losing their homes. A recent Department of Housing and Urban Development study on foreclosure counseling reinforces the value of early intervention: According to the study, nearly 70 percent of homeowners who sought counseling before becoming delinquent on their mortgages were in their homes and current on their mortgage payments some 18 months later. By contrast, among homeowners who entered counseling six months or more after falling behind on their payments, only 30 percent were current on their mortgage and in their homes at the end of the follow-up period.

The bottom line is that counseling can help motivated but at-risk homeowners understand their options and avoid delinquency and foreclosure.

Counseling before a house is purchased is also critical, helping families decide whether they are ready to assume the financial obligations of homeownership. I have heard repeatedly from counselors, families, and civic leaders that pre-purchase counseling’s most important contribution is helping prospective buyers understand when it is not the right time to purchase a home. I have no doubt that thousands of families would have been spared heartache and financial stress if they had received counseling before signing on to unsustainable mortgages during the housing bubble.

In a recent study examining 75,000 mortgages originated over a two-year period from October 2007 to September 2009, one of our country’s leading community-development organizations, NeighborWorks America, provides the latest evidence of the power of pre-purchase counseling. The study concludes that mortgage borrowers who participated in NeighborWorks’ pre-purchase counseling program were nearly one-third less likely to be 90 days or more delinquent in the first two years after closing than those borrowers who did not receive counseling. This percentage reduction in mortgage delinquencies was virtually identical for first-time and repeat buyers.

Despite the proven success of counseling in helping consumers understand the fundamentals of finance and housing, its relatively modest scale has limited its overall effectiveness. In its 2014 budget request, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has requested $55 million for the federal Housing Counseling Assistance program, a $10 million increase from the 2012 funding level. HUD explains this increase will allow it to leverage $320 million in other public and private funds, while reaching 2.1 million consumers, including those in underserved rural areas here in Missouri. While continued federal support for housing counseling is critical, other actions are also necessary to ensure the benefits of counseling reach a wider pool of borrowers.

One possible approach is for lenders and regulators to offer counseling incentives, such as insurance discounts and lower fees, to those borrowers on the margins of creditworthiness. In this way, housing counseling can function as a “credit enhancer,” mitigating the risk of lending to these families and serving as an important entry point to achieve homeownership.

Lenders can also consider requiring counseling for certain products. The homeownership set-aside programs of the Federal Home Loan Banks, designed to assist lower-income and first-time homebuyers, include counseling as a required condition for eligibility. As the housing market heated up from 2003 to 2008, the foreclosure rates in these programs were notably better than the rates reported for prime loans through conventional mortgage programs.

While housing counseling techniques have been growing in sophistication, there is still more to be learned about what is most effective for different types of borrowers — group sessions, one-on-one counseling, telephone and Internet-based outreach, or a combination of approaches.

The good news is that we know housing counseling works. Now it’s time to fine-tune our counseling strategies, broaden their availability, and make counseling an essential stop on the path to homeownership.

Christopher S. “Kit” Bond, former governor and U.S. senator from Missouri, is a co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission with former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros and former Sens. George Mitchell and Mel Martinez.

Advance Solutions in School Districts: May 13, 2013

Jul 10, 2013

May 13, 2013 1:00 pm

The contradiction was enormous between the Friends of Normandy Gala on May 4 and and the glum front page story in the Post-Dispatch on May 5 (“Normandy: Most dangerous school in the area”). The gala is the annual celebration of the Friends of Normandy Foundation that culminates in the awarding of college scholarships to Normandy School District students who have excelled. Its theme was “The Best Is Yet To Come.” It honored education as the proven pathway to a better life and celebrated the determination of students, parents and teachers to make learning priority one.

What I experienced there was a community celebrating children who have successfully traveled the first leg of their educational journey and who are eager to embark on a new stage of their learning career.

No one is implying that there are not problems that need attention to create a better learning environment for the children of Normandy. But stories that only fan the flames of hopelessness are not part of the solution. Just a month earlier, the Post-Dispatch examined the challenges of poverty in the district through the eyes of teacher Duane Foster (“Music teacher leaves Broadway to rebuild Normandy theater program”) as he leverages the performing arts to engage students in education.

Normandy voters last month approved Proposition T to significantly enhance the district’s security and monitoring infrastructure. But the challenges it faces require more than just enhanced monitoring. It requires reorienting education programs to build on successful strategies in place, while developing new tactics and engaging the community to help build a better future for our students.

We all have a stake in advancing solutions, not hopelessness, in school districts that serve disadvantaged communities. As we move forward, all involved parties will need to re-double efforts to resolve the safety issues raised by the Post-Dispatch. Yet, readers should also know that new strategies are being applied — with success — in partnership with the Normandy School District as part of Beyond Housing’s mission. We are advancing a unique approach to community development that nurtures empowering strategies around education, housing, health, job training, economic development and community engagement/capacity building. In fact, on April 12, our vision drew praise from White House officials who termed it “the most extensive collaboration among government, education and civic leaders” they had seen in the U.S. And yet, we all understand that progress takes time.

In the future, I encourage the Post-Dispatch to join us in helping solve these problems as it reports on important issues and learns facts that support our conviction that “the best is yet to come” in the communities served by the Normandy School District.

Chris Krehmeyer  •  St. Louis

President and CEO, Beyond Housing