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Beyond Housing is highlighted in the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program Blog as a model for addressing the challenge of poverty in suburban communities.
“The suburban county (St. Louis County) includes over 90 municipalities and more than 20 school districts, making cross-jurisdictional collaboration difficult. Despite these challenges, the region is piloting models that hold promise in combating growing suburban poverty, thanks to some innovative local leadership here. – See more at: http://confrontingsuburbanpoverty.org/2014/06/in-st-louis-county-communities-join-to-fight-suburban-poverty/#sthash.FTs7C0qJ.dpuf
We have been asked by many to share our opinion about all the recent news concerning the Normandy School District given our close partnership and significant investment in the 24:1 Initiative footprint.
Let us start with several foundational beliefs of Beyond Housing.
- We believe that Home Matters and, while we start with housing, we know home is so much more than the house. Home is about the life in and around where you live that fuels and draws out the best of the people that live there.
- We believe that, if we are going to create thriving communities, we need to focus on all the aspects that make a thriving community: education, housing, health, jobs and economic development.
- We believe that at the core of a strong community is a strong public education system. Successful children are not possible without strong schools and strong schools are not possible without strong communities.
We have watched from within this community the stress and strain of this last school year. The Normandy School District is more than just a school district. It is a community. We have seen great success and resilience as well as frustration and anger. We have had the State Supreme Court, the Governor, the State Legislature, the State Board of Education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education all play a role in deciding the future of our community and its children. Through all of this, we have remained unwavering in our commitment to the children and to the community that is 24:1. We are committed to this community for the long term and understand we will need to work with many partners to be successful. This commitment will continue no matter the end result of others actions.
At this time, there are many unknowns in the State Board of Education’s recent resolution, the district’s lawsuit, and the Governor’s veto of SB493. We hope all the unanswered questions get resolved so we have full clarity on its impact on the children, the community and our work.
While there are many more questions than answers, we do know that the community’s voice still needs to be respected and heard. The Joint Executive Governing Body (JEGB) approved by the State Board of Education presents a great opportunity for that to happen. The State Board will have the authority to appoint local representatives who know and are a part of the community. Because strong public education is such a critical component of a strong community, we advocate for local representation on the JEGB to help ensure that the governing structure over the district is responsive to the voices and experiences of the local community.
Finally, we hope that from this point forward, each and every one of us who work in this community and who are involved in the education of its children put the well-being of children first. They deserve our best and given where we are today they have not gotten our best. We will continue to keep you informed and be a support system to the families and children in the community. They deserve nothing less from us.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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