Race Issue Is Hot Topic at Hearing on Missouri’s Plan for Failing School Districts

Elisa Crouch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 26, 2014

It came as no surprise to Missouri education officials Tuesday night when the issue of race permeated the hearing on the state’s draft plan to address troubled schools.

The unaccredited Normandy School District—whose student body is nearly all African-American—will likely be the first to be affected by what the state adopts.

This reality brought out a range of emotion from Normandy parents, students and residents who filled most of an auditorium at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. While a handful lauded the department for proposing to do something different, most said the plan adds to Missouri’s history of inequity and racial discrimination in schools.

“If you look at the top DESE staff, none of them look like the 98 percent of the children we educate,” Normandy School Board member Terry Artis said into the microphone, referring to the racial makeup of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro and members of the Missouri Board of Education listened from the front row for nearly two hours as one speaker after the next responded to her proposal. The plan recommends layers of state intervention as schools and districts begin to slip—rather than waiting until they lose accreditation to take action.

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The goal of the proposal is to prevent any district from failing. But when a district does lose accreditation, the Missouri Board of Education could adopt one of several approaches, such as replacing the elected board with an alternative governing structure, or directly supervising the schools.

The board has already called for a transition team for Normandy, which could become bankrupt this spring or summer due to $15 million in tuition and transportation expenses associated with student transfers. The transfer law allows children in unaccredited districts to enroll in better schools at their home district’s expense.

Francis Howell Superintendent Pam Sloan said her concern with the state’s plan is that it allows transfers to continue. About 450 of the 1,000 transfer students from Normandy now attend schools in her district.

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But speaker after speaker accused state education officials of turning a blind eye to issues of poverty and race—two factors that brought out high emotion.

Charles Coburn, who has children in Normandy schools, accused the education department of putting “chains on their feet.”

“We need to get motivated,” he told the crowd. “Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you step back. You step forward.”

Susan Turk, of St. Louis, said to state educators: “You would all be more help for our students and our school districts if you just resigned.” She turned to the crowd and pointed to state officials. “They are disenfranchising low-income, mostly minority school districts, and they should be ashamed of themselves for it.”

Afterward, Nicastro said she was not surprised by the remarks. The state continues to battle racial issues it has yet to resolve, she said.

State board Vice President Michael Jones, of St. Louis, said race must be part of the conversation, because troubled schools are predominantly filled with African-American children.

“You’re either naive or out to lunch if that is not part of the equation,” he said. “It’s a legitimate issue.”

State board member Victor Lenz, of St. Louis County, pointed out the plan would allow the state to tailor interventions to each specific school district.

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