Behavior Problems Boil Over at Normandy Schools

Elisa Crouch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 12, 2014

The principal of Normandy Middle School temporarily kicked out 20 percent of the student body this week for disruptive behavior and required face-to-face meetings with parents as a condition for them to return.

The Normandy High School principal took a similar step.

It was the kind of move teachers have hoped for since the school year began on Aug. 18. And it had the blessing of state education officials who, over the summer, gave the Normandy system a new name and governing board.

Missouri’s top educators spoke of an historic opportunity when they restarted the failing Normandy School District in July and began overseeing its daily operations. The north St. Louis County district has been the worst performer in Missouri for several years. The new management replaced 45 percent of staff and required teachers to spend 90 minutes twice a week in training.

With the school year into its fourth week, a handful of new teachers have resigned. One middle school teacher sought medical treatment after being hit in the head by a textbook lobbed by a student. Many new teachers are white and previously taught in more affluent suburban schools. Some are struggling to connect with their students, most of whom are black and come from impoverished backgrounds.

The professional development provided by the state hasn’t helped them manage, they say.

Dozens of teachers throughout the Normandy Schools Collaborative have reported feeling stressed out and exhausted from larger class sizes, a longer school day and the additional demands placed on them by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which now oversees the district. On top of those issues are the behavior problems–students throwing books and pencils at teachers in some classrooms, engaging in verbal outbursts and physical fights. The students causing the problems are in the minority, but they’ve made learning impossible at times for many.

So on Tuesday, Principal GeNita Williams called 136 middle-schoolers into the auditorium. She told them that letters had been sent to their parents. First thing the next morning, a crowd of parents filled the school lobby. School administrators asked them to sign behavior and academic contracts outlining what is expected of them, their children and school staff. Students who came back without a parent were sent to the library.

It was a drastic step, Williams said, meant to address a pervasive problem that’s at its worst at the middle school.

Children across the district are processing the chaotic events related to the police shooting of Michael Brown a few miles away in Ferguson. Added to that, many familiar teachers have been replaced, and dozens of transfer students have returned to Normandy schools–some unwillingly.

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Eighth-grader Tre’Shon Brown is among the children bringing home stories of teachers who are too nice and classmates who are too disruptive. His mother is worried.

In a year when leaders have promised change in Normandy schools, “I’m not seeing a change as of yet,” Dionja Brown said. “This is the last time I’m giving Normandy a chance. I’ve tried. I’ve really tried not to give up on Normandy.”

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[Editor’s Note: Both Normandy Middle School and Normandy High School are 98 percent black.]

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