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Is St. Louis' School Transfer Program 'A Mess?'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are in St. Louis, Missouri today for a special broadcast from St. Louis Public Radio. We're going to be giving you a bit of St. Louis flavor. In a few minutes, we will talk about one of the city's biggest bragging rights. Hint, it has nothing to do with swinging a bat or throwing a ball.

But first, we are going to focus on one of those issues that have been very much in the news in this area, but this is an issue that's challenged Americans all over the country. And that issue is how to ensure educational opportunity for all students when they come from communities with very different resources, and you have students who are achieving at different levels. Here in the St. Louis area, this is exactly what parents from a number of area school districts are asking after a court decision this summer ordered school districts to accept students who wished to transfer from schools that had lost their accreditation.

That meant that this fall, some 2,000 students in the St. Louis area are now attending schools outside their home districts, some of them are facing long bus rides. And the run-up to the transfers was filled, as you might expect, with some emotion from parents who worry that their children's own achievement would be hampered by newcomers, and others who worried that their children would not be well treated. We're now a few months into the school year, so we wanted to see how this is going. So we've called on two educators who are directly involved in the story. Ty McNichols is a superintendent of Normandy School District here in the St. Louis area. According to state enrollment figures, about a thousand students have transferred out. Eric Knost is the superintendent of Mehlville School District, also in the St. Louis area. His district is receiving students from another district that's lost its accreditation. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

TY MCNICHOLS: Thank you.

ERIC KNOST: Thank you.

MARTIN: And for additional insight, we also have with us Don Marsh. He's a familiar voice to many public radio listeners here. He is the host of St. Louis on the Air here on St. Louis Public Radio. Don, thank you so much for joining us.

DON MARSH: My pleasure, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: And I should add that for those of you who aren't able to make it to St. Louis today, you can still join in on the conversation on Twitter. We're using the hashtag, #TMMStLouis. Don, I'm going to start with you and I understand this is a complicated story so I'm going to ask you to make it as simple as you can simple. But as I understand it, this is all based on an old law, like 1993, that said that if a school district doesn't meet certain criteria then, you know, parents can choose to transfer their children to another district, and the home district has to pick up the tab. So why is this happening now?

MARSH: Well, it went largely unnoticed for a long time until the city of St. Louis - public schools in St. Louis lost their accreditation, and a couple of families in the city decided they would take advantage of this 1993 law. This was just a couple of years ago, and they did that. They brought it to court and it bounced around the courts for quite a while. The Missouri Supreme Court dealt with it twice, and last June, finally made the ruling that upheld this. We call it the Turner Law. That's the name of one of the families that filed suit. So the city of St. Louis, in the meantime, received provisional accreditation, so all of that became moot. But in the meantime, Normandy and Riverview Gardens lost their accreditation and all of a sudden the move was on by some families in those districts to move their kids to adjoining counties.

MARTIN: So, Ty McNichols, do you mind describing what some of the conditions were that led to the district losing its accreditation? I do want to mention that you were just taking over as superintendent while all this was already underway. So what were some of the conditions there?

MCNICHOLS: Well, based on the new criteria from the state of Missouri's Department of Education, there's an accreditation process. And so as a result of that, Normandy lost its accreditation primarily because of the achievement results on, what we call, the Missouri - MAP test and the end-of-course assessments. And our students didn't do well on those assessments. Historically, our students haven't done well on that assessment. But what they changed from MSIP 4 to MSIP 5, it put us in a new category in which, historically, we were given provisional accreditation. This time, they decided, using the same markings with the new system, to make us unaccredited.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, that this is - you can imagine this is an emotional issue - you know, where your kids go to school, what the conditions are, who's going to be teaching them, is it outside of the neighborhood. This has always been an emotional issue, and this was no different. So, Eric Knost, as we mentioned, yours is one of the three school districts that have taken in some of the transfer students, and the debate has been emotional and, at times, some people might argue racially charged. And I'd like to play a clip from a forum held in the days after the school transfer announcement was made. This is not your school district.

KNOST: Thank you.

MARTIN: I want to emphasize this. This is from the Francis Howell School District, which is another of the receiving districts. But this is a parent who's expressing her concerns. Her name is Beth Sorami (ph) and here it is.

BETH SORAMI: I want to know where the metal detectors are going to be, and I want to know where your drug-sniffing dogs are going to be. And I want - this is what I want - I want the same security that Normandy gets when they walk through their school building. And I want it here.

MARTIN: Eric, what about that? Did you hear concerns like that?

KNOST: No, I think what we have to keep in mind is this is an emotional issue. There's perspectives that you have to keep in mind when you realize how people respond to them. But I heard some of that. I'm very proud of the Mehlville community. We are a community that focuses heavily on character education, and our children embraced the concept. In fact, our children, our existing resident students, probably had the least problem with this than anybody else.

But there were, you know, there were the phone calls, there were the occasional comments that did come my way that reflected some of that tone, but very, very little. And as time went on and as we had the opportunity to talk and discuss about what the program was and what it meant, and I think people could settle down and a lot of that diminished.

MARTIN: I'm going to hear more about how it's going now. But, Ty McNichols, I do want to point out that the Normandy school board also heard from parents after the decision. This is just one perspective. This is from a parent named Lawanda Wallace. Here it is.

LAWANDA WALLACE: Am I in 2013 or am I in 1954? Because it's great that you can choose to go to a school district, but you're going to a school district that don't want you based on stereotypes and prejudice and racism.

MARTIN: Was that a widespread concern of your parents, Ty McNichols?

MCNICHOLS: I think the biggest concern for our parents were how their kids were going to get to the schools. And I think what has become the focus of our parents, particularly for the 75 percent who have stayed, is the resources. The way this structure is set up, Normandy gets about - we spend about $12,000 per student. And so we're spending about 30 percent of our actual resources to send kids to other districts. So we have districts that tuitions range from as high as $19,000.

We're obligated to pay that difference. And that difference comes from those kids who have stayed. And so that's been the biggest concern. You know, most of the parents that we talk to - because when the case came down, our administrative team decided to go down and meet and be visible with every single parent who chose to come and apply. And most of their concerns were historical things that have happened in the district prior to me and my predecessor, in regards to just being responsive to their needs. It wasn't about, you know, where they were going or not going 'cause the majority of our kids, technically, aren't going to Francis Howell, which that clip is from that you played.

MARTIN: Sure. Right.

MCNICHOLS: The majority of our kids are going to the local districts, and their parents are providing transportation for them.

MARTIN: How many kids overall have transferred out?

MCNICHOLS: About a thousand kids have transferred. Originally...

MARTIN: Out of how many? What percentage of the student body does that represent?

MCNICHOLS: Well, it's kind of ironic...


MCNICHOLS: ...Because when you look at our actual enrollment right now, compared to last year at the same time, we're only down by 350 kids.

MARTIN: Interesting.

MCNICHOLS: Because we have a big transit community. We get a lot of kids that still move in and out of our district despite the transfer. We had a thousand kids who transferred out. We had 1,200 who originally signed up. And so - and that included private and non - and public school families. We also had...

MARTIN: OK, I'm sorry. I just want to...

MCNICHOLS: We also had 250 kids who didn't live in Normandy who moved into Normandy to transfer out.

MARTIN: Interesting. Well, that's interesting, too. So I do want to hear about how it's going, but, Don, if you could just tell us a little bit more as a person who hears a lot from people in the community. What were you hearing about this?

MARSH: The term that I heard most often was, what a mess this is. And I think everybody would agree that it is. I mean, you've all these kids being transferred. More to the point, I think, is the fact that with these new standards the state is imposing on public schools, there's a likelihood that as many as 11 or more schools throughout the state - and Kansas City, by the way, is part of this problem, I think you mentioned that - that 11 other districts in the state might find themselves in this position. So people are saying, when is the legislature going to do something? When is something going to happen that can happen quickly?

MARTIN: But what's the something? What is the something that they want to happen?

MARSH: Oh, there are any number of ideas being floated, and these gentleman could address them more specifically than I. But they're talking about changing the way that tuition is handled amongst the districts. They're talking about setting up kind of special districts where kids can go, and accrediting schools within unaccredited districts where kids can transfer.

MARTIN: So the uncertainty was unsettling.

MARSH: Oh, it's - of course.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're broadcasting from member station KWMU, St. Louis Public Radio. We're talking about education and you can join the conversation using the hashtag, #TMMStLouis. So, Eric Knost, let's hear it. How is it going? I mean, of the - the concerns would be obvious.

KNOST: Sure.

MARTIN: People are concerned about kids they don't know. They're concerned about whether the teachers are going to have to change their teaching style...

KNOST: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...To accommodate the newcomers. Have any of those concerns come to pass?

KNOST: That's the problem with this conversation.


KNOST: None of those things are concerns. The concerns is the conversation needs to be backed way up of why we are in the situation in the first place, and what are we doing to help communities survive, to help schools within communities survive, to make sure the heartbeat of a community is not sucked out of that community by allowing this to happen. What we know - the answer to your question, Michel, is the children are doing just fine. Our children that were already there are just fine. They now are our children. We embrace them. We love them. We care for them. We nurture them. We educate them. And we'll continue to do that. So that may be a good option for those children, and we'll embrace that.

But it does not address the fact that it does nothing to help an unaccredited school district re-gain accreditation. In fact, it further damages their effort because it depletes their resources. And I'll never forget a phone call I received from a Riverview Gardens resident - did not have students in the school - and pleaded with me to not abide by the law. And her reason was that she did not want to see - she didn't want to see teachers going out the door from their community. She didn't want to see resources going out the door from her community. And she didn't want to see what she called their prized possession, the students, going out the door from their community. Efforts need to be made. And we also have to realize that the piece that nobody ever wants to discuss...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, we need to take a short break, but we are going to continue this conversation in a minute. We're talking with Eric Knost of Mehlville School District. Ty McNichols, superintendent from Normandy School District. Don Marsh, host of St. Louis on the Air here on St. Louis Public Radio. We hope you'll stick around. We're going to continue this conversation after a short break. We're going to hear from the other educators and Don Marsh, as well. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, live from St. Louis. Please stick around. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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