"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Getting Prepared in Francis Howell School District

The radio whined with the emergency alert tone. A meteorologist interrupted the broadcast and spoke in measured tones warning the public of an approaching storm. “The conditions are ripe for tornadic activity as this low pressure system moves into our area. We’ve already seen signs of rotation as these rainclouds have moved across our state. Residents are advised to take shelter in a basement. Keep emergency supplies handy and stay tuned for future alerts.” Meanwhile families gather children and flashlights and, most likely, watch nervously out their windows ready to run for the basement stairs at the first sign of heavy wind or low rumbling noise reminiscent of a freight train. Only the imprudent  would blithely ignore the warnings. They know there is only a chance that a funnel cloud will come down on their house, but they have seen the pictures and read the stories of those who did not beat the odds in such a storm so they want to be prepared. Those who are prepared are the ones who survive. Meanwhile they pray, and most likely their prayers will be answered, that their family and neighbors are spared any harm.

Such was the atmosphere at last night’s meeting of Francis Howell School District officials, school board members, legislators and the public. The concerns of many in the room were not unfounded. One doesn’t have to do much research to discover the trouble plaguing the Normandy School District which recently announced their intention to transport the students, wishing to exercise their legal right to transfer to an accredited school district now that their district has lost its accreditation, to FHSD.

In calm measured tones FHSD Superintendent Dr.  Pam Sloan read section 167.131 of Missouri statute describing the legal rights established for students registered in unaccredited districts. Another school administrator reviewed the history of the Turner v. Clayton case which went all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. The court determined that there were no Hancock Amendment violations in the law and that districts’ “impossible accommodation” defense was not valid. If they had the space, they had to accept the transferring students.

Dr. Sloan stated very clearly that she did not believe it was in anyone’s best interest to send students from unaccredited to accredited districts for their education. This was not a fix to the problem of poor student performance and failing schools.

What was made abundantly clear to the audience, by both administrators and school board members of FHSD was that this was not their decision and they had little to no say in what was happening to their school district. Neither the solution nor the timeline was under their control. They could receive anywhere from 400-1,000 students from the Normandy school district. They could not turn away those will long disciplinary records. They would not be receiving any extra funds for additional staffing to meet the needs of these children. They would not have the luxury of time to develop well thought out plans on how to receive them because the district would not even know until the end of July how many were coming and they would only be receiving their student files a little over a week before school was scheduled to begin.  The court had their schedule, and the school district was just going to have to live with their late decision.

A river of parents stood in line to voice their concerns and ask their questions. Some had done their homework, even calling the Normandy district to confirm that they employed metal detectors, a fact which a FHSD administrator initially denied, but who then fell silent when the parent named her contact in NSD who told her they used them as well as armed guards in the schools. Many agreed with the assessment of one teacher who said this situation was like “putting a band aid on a wound” of NSD.

Some had not done their homework. One parent proposed her plan to have FHSD hire teachers to go to Normandy. This was a weak attempt to appear unbiased while maintaining a “not in my back yard” position. Everything she outlined in her plan had already been done in Normandy like firing all the teachers, bringing in outside experts, sending in more money (over $700k). Normandy schools still look like a war zone and their students test scores languish at the bottom. Her solution, in addition to being expressly forbidden by state law, has zero chance of success.

Carl Peterson former Fergusson  School Board President addressed the panel citing the root of the problem in legislation (SB 603) and calling out the legislators involved in creating this mess, most notably Scott Diekhaus. None of the legislators mentioned were in the audience having termed out or left the Missouri legislature. It will be up to their successors like Kurt Bahr and Kathy Conway, who were present, to find a solution.

“This is not a fix!” blasted FHSD School Board Vice President Mark Lafata at the state representatives and senators sitting in the front row. The legislature got them into this mess. He called on the public to call their legislator and get them to write new legislation to fix it.

The local school board and school district officials confirmed what I have said in MEW, they are not really in control of local education. And yes you will be financially responsible for other people’s decisions. One parent warned, “I don’t want to hear about a tax increase in the next couple years because we have all these additional students. “  Her comment was met with thunderous applause. Not unreasonable when you consider that 70% of FHSD’s revenue comes from local taxes while only 35% of NSD’s does and the district has been told they will not receive any additional money from the state. The audience was not comforted  by DESE’s promise to step in if Normandy became late on their monthly tuition payments to FHSD. It will become nearly impossible for FHSD to pass any tax increases in the foreseeable future, even the ones they really need.

The concerns brought up by most of the public were not unreasonable: “How much bigger will my child’s class be getting? How might this affect the special services or special education he/she is currently receiving? If only 32% of these children, according to the DESE website, are literate at grade level, how will this affect FHSD’s scores and accreditation? How are those children going to cope in a district where 80% of the students are reading at or above grade level? What plans are in place to ensure everyone’s safety?”

The point was made by several people that this was not a black v white issue. Everyone at last night’s meeting supports kids having the opportunity for a good education. If you took out the knowledge that Normandy is a primarily black school you would not find these questions offensive. When you break down these concerns (without your church lady false mantle of moral superiority) they appear no different than people who tie down their patio furniture and head for the basement when the emergency alert sirens go off.  They are just asking, how do we prepare? Accusing those people of lacking character for even voicing these concerns, like one commenter did, ignores practicality in an effort to make one appear to have a higher character by redefining character to mean throwing caution to the wind.

The parent who accused people of still living in the 1950’s and citing examples of violence or bullying currently in Francis Howell completely ignored the matter of scale that concerns residents. As recently as May 5th, the Post Dispatch reported that Normandy was the most violent school district in the state, “Normandy stands apart not only for its sheer number of fights, but for a dramatic spike in serious discipline incidents — which have nearly doubled since 2009, according to district figures reported to the state.” In addition, due to some storms that pushed a few north county families into the FHSD a couple years ago, the district residents have already had a taste of what that culture is like. Incidence of violence in their schools rose after only a few weeks from these few families. It is not unreasonable to try to imagine what the district looks like if you multiply that influence by factors of 100.  http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/education/normandy-high-the-most-dangerous-school-in-the-area/article_49a1b882-cd74-5cc4-8096-fcb1405d8380.html

All those who spoke were vying for credibility, from school board members who have been in city districts, to teachers with many decades of experience teaching in both city and suburban schools, to parents who were active in the FHSD, to parents who had lived in those inner city districts, lived through the violence and did whatever they had to do to move out of it. In my book those parents had the most credibility. Having lived it and tried every coping mechanism possible to deal with it they found the only solution was to leave and they feared that all they had worked SO hard to give their children was being threatened because the problems were following them.  If we do not consider experience as a teacher then we are doomed. Only those in the ivory towers of universities can afford the luxury of thought experiments to solve problems. The reality is that many of the “solutions” they dream up, like Common Core, have no basis in experience and therefore have a huge chance of failing. It would be unwise to jump into their solutions without building up some defenses or looking for an escape route.

I believe that the families and staff of FHSD will welcome the transferring students. It was unnecessary to tell them, like the one Normandy mother of middle schoolers did, that not all these students were troublesome. This mother promised that her children really wanted to learn and she planned to be a very involved parent. I’m sure she is not the lone case of responsible parenting in Normandy.  Most of the people in the gym and auditorium last night are praying that many of these kids will be just like their own kids; happy, welcoming and ready to learn. The fact is we want to think that everything will be ok. It takes a lot of effort to hold on to anger or fear. There will be a vetting process and I expect that Francis Howell will accomplish that reasonably and compassionately. But it is unreasonable to ask people to agree to trust everyone up front, just as it is unreasonable to expect that the funnel cloud will not descend on your house. You take precautions.

1 comment:

  1. Something I do not quite understand....when they report the number of incidents of violence at Normandy...do they report only those incidents which do not involve special needs students? Special needs students are officially the responsibility of the county cooperative. I am not saying that I am sure that is the case...I am saying I do not know, but would lke to.


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