For One Family, A Year Of Early Mornings And Long Drives Draws To A Close
It’s just after 7 a.m., and SheRon Chaney already has her family packed into an SUV and ready for school.
“On a good day like today, I’m hoping it only takes about 35 minutes,” she said.
Leave just a touch later and they could be stuck in traffic for more than an hour. It’s a quirk of St. Louis' commuter culture that Chaney picked up when she decided to transfer her seventh-grade daughter, BrenNae, out of the Normandy School District in favor of Maplewood Richmond Heights.
“We remind them this is not something we’re doing just because, oh, they opened the door,” Chaney said. “No, this is a sacrifice for us every morning.”
She flipped a blinker, hit the Interstate-70 onramp and merged into the sludge of rush-hour traffic.
Early mornings, long drives, hope for a better education: It’s a narrative that’s played out for families across the region this school year. Now the dissolution of the Normandy School District and possible changes in the transfer program are ratcheting up the uncertainty for the Chaneys and hundreds of other families.
Of the roughly 2,200 students who transferred out of the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in north St. Louis County, most went to schools where transportation was not provided.
If a bill that proponents say is engineered to “fix” the student transfer process is signed into law by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, unaccredited school districts would not be required to provide transfer students with transportation to any other district. That could mean families who want to send their children out of unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens will be in same the position as the Chaneys, having to find their own way to get kids to school in a different district.
For Chaney, it was a choice she didn't take lightly and she made different choices for her two school-aged children.
Making her way down I-70, Chaney explained that her youngest daughter, Anandra, is thriving at Jefferson Elementary in Normandy.
“She has a phenomenal principal,” Chaney said. “She has a great rapport with the school. I felt that she would continue to do well.”
Chaney has sat in on math lessons this year and liked what she saw. Then there’s all the new classroom technology, such as giving students access to iPads as part of an upgraded reading curriculum.
Ultimately, transferring Anandra didn’t make sense to Chaney. So, she kept her in Normandy.
Her older daughter, BrenNae, also did well at Jefferson. But after she moved on to middle school, BrenNae started having a hard time. When the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the two decades old school transfer law this past summer, Chaney spotted an opening.
The change they picked, though, hasn’t come cheap and the Chaneys aren’t wealthy people. At the start of the school year, Chaney was unemployed; she now works for St. Louis County’s Special School District. Her husband, Andre, is a laborer at a recycling company in north St. Louis County.
They’ve had to cut corners and lean on the community for support while burning through an extra $320 a month in gas money.
The staff at Jefferson Elementary in Normandy helped provide Anandra, with clothes and glasses, easing the financial strain on the entire family that came with transferring BrenNae to another school district.
“That really subsidized our clothing budget because we had to cut back on a lot things,” Chaney said.
Despite the belt tightening and unsure financial footing, Chaney is confident they made the right decision — keeping one daughter in Normandy and putting the other in a new district.
Chaney thought about transferring BrenNae to Francis Howell, a choice that would have meant she could ride a bus to school every day.
At the same time, Chaney — who is African American — said it was hard to ignore comments made in the wake of Normandy choosing the mostly white district in in St. Charles County as its transportation option. During a meeting this past July at Francis Howell High School, some parents made heated statements that prompted concerns African-American children wouldn’t be welcome. Other speakers pushed back, including a group of students who said they’d be happy to have kids from Normandy in their school.
Shortly after the meeting at Francis Howell, a handful of parents drove in from St. Charles County to a packed Normandy School Board Meeting. They made comments meant to reassure anxious parents that their children wouldn't be subjected to racism.
Nevertheless, it all made Chaney uneasy.
“I don’t want my daughter to be in an environment where she feels uncomfortable,” she said.
Then there were stories from the past.
Her aunt who participated in the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC), which allows African-American students in the St. Louis Public School District to transfer to schools in St. Louis County. It also allows white students who live in the county to transfer to magnet schools in the city. Through the late 1990s it was one of largest desegregation plans in the country.
Chaney said her aunt told her about how she and other students didn't always feel like they were wanted at school.
“She kept saying, ‘I just don't want her to experience that, because it was hard for us,’ ” Chaney said.
Despite early worries and past concerns, the process for students transferring from Normandy to Francis Howell went relatively smoothly with no reports of racism aimed at students. But this past summer, the clock was ticking loudly and the deadline to sign up BrenNae for the transfer process kept getting closer and closer.
Chaney felt it was best to check out all of her options, and when she paid a visit to Maplewood-Richmond Heights, she was sold.
“We just received an enormously heartfelt welcome,” Chaney said.
The warmth didn't just come from administrators.
“There was one parent who said, ‘if you ever need BrenNae to come over early or spend the night, she’s always welcome,' " Chaney said.
It’s not easy being the new kid at school, and given the early frenzy and controversy of the school transfer process, BrenNae was nervous.
“The first day of school they just came up to me and started asking me my name because I didn’t know them,” BrenNae said. “It just made me feel so welcome, so happy.”
Fast forward to the last week of school and the soft-spoken seventh-grader said she’s made a couple new “besties” this year.
It's just over half an hour into the drive, and like clockwork, Chaney pulls up the side of the school.
BrenNae grabs her backpack and hops out.
“All right, have a good one!” Chaney shouts to her daughter through the passenger-side window.
BrenNae replies with the sheepish grin of a middle-school student eagerly looking for the first signs of independence.
“We embarrass her every morning,” Chaney jokes. She lingers just for a minute to make sure BrenNae is safely on her way.
Chaney worries about what the future holds for Normandy, too.
Hope and uncertainty
There is reason for hope, Chaney said, maybe more so than in the past. There’s the partnership with the University of Missouri St. Louis to ramp up classroom instruction. The ongoing work of Beyond Housing to reinforce the community that surrounds schools has her optimistic, as well.
“People are trying,” she said. “People are rallying around Normandy, and that’s what you have to do.”
Even though some students returned, the costs associated with the transfer process proved to be too much for Normandy. The state sent it an extra $2 million to keep it open through June, but the district will cease operations after that. On Tuesday the State Board of Education voted to move forward with a plan that will reconstitute it as the Normandy Schools Collaborative.
Like Riverview Gardens and St. Louis Public Schools, control of the district will rest in the hands of a state appointed board. Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said the move signals the state's intent to improve classroom performance for students in Normandy.
“The first thing we need to offer is hope,” Nicastro said after the board’s decision. “And that’s really what I would hope they got from today’s actions, is hope that we are on their side, that we are standing with them, in an effort to try to provide quality school choices in the Normandy school district for families and children.”
Normandy will remain unaccredited through June. After that, though, the board could change the district’s accreditation status. If it remains unaccredited, the Chaneys can stay in their home and continue to send BrenNae to Maplewood-Richmond Heights. Should the district’s status be upgraded, the impact on the school transfer process is unclear.
Contracts will expire when Normandy ceases to exist. Some administrators have already left for other, more stable jobs. Even Superintendent Tyrone McNichols, who was only weeks into his first job leading a district when the transfer law was upheld, said after the state board's decision that he's not certain about where he stands. Nicastro has said that she plans to meet with McNichols and other district staff next week.
A year that started with turmoil is now ending with turmoil, and that has Chaney worried about the daughter she kept in Normandy and the one who she moved out of the district. Yesterday, Normandy filed a lawsuit in St. Louis County Circuit Court that challenges the very validity of the transfer law. And given how fast things moved when the transfer law was upheld, she feels like anything is possible.
“This situation happened so quickly last summer, I can see them this summer reversing the decision,” Chaney said.
Even though BrenNae's grades are about the same as they were last year, Chaney is concerned about her creative and sensitive middle-schooler taking a step backward if she can no longer transfer her to Maplewood Richmond Heights. The constant field trips and hands-on learning there have BrenNae more excited about learning. For example, instead of learning about friction from a text book alone, students took a field trip to Steinberg Skating Rink.
“She’s not only learning more, she understands the process and why she’s learning it,” Chaney said.
She's back on the highway now, heading north toward her job in Hazelwood.
“I still support Normandy, I still love Normandy,” Chaney said. “But for my daughter, it’s just not a good fit. It may be unfair to others, but as a parent I have to do what’s best for my child.”
As School Year Winds Down, Researchers Gear Up
While the state board works out all the details surrounding the newly created Normandy Schools Collaborative and Nixon weighs whether or not to sign a bill to alter the school transfer program, there are buckets of questions.
But Kathleen Sullivan Brown, an education professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis, said there's a big one that floats to the top.
“Was all this disruption worth it?” asked Sullivan Brown.
The answer, she said, will be multifaceted, hard to come by and could be years away.
“We will get anecdotal evidence of individual families, of individual schools,” said Sullivan Brown.
The first set of hard numbers will arrive in late summer when the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education release data as part of the Missouri School Improvement Plan (MSIP5). The standards are used by state officials to evaluate the accreditation status of school districts.
Because MSIP5 was engineered to focus on the progress of each student, they’ll get a level of detail that wasn’t available under previous versions of the standards. Even though data from this school year will provide clues, Sullivan Brown cautioned against making hasty conclusions.
“We would need really a couple of years,” Sullivan Brown said. “We would really have to see how many children were affected and how they did, particularly academically.”
There is some precedent in the body of research on students like Chaney's aunt who participated in the VICC program. But even with decades of data and countless personal stories collected, Sullivan Brown said understanding how it may have influenced student success remains a tricky maneuver.
“It’s difficult to even get the baseline for how they would have fared if nothing had happened,” Sullivan Brown said.
Regardless of the difficulties involved, she said the list of topics researchers plan to examine will be lengthy and extend beyond the classroom.
For example, the transfer program is a case study for how administrators react when faced with sudden shifts in policy. After all, superintendents for both Normandy and Riverview Gardens were only weeks into their new jobs when the law was upheld by the state supreme court. There are also questions about the larger political culture surrounding education policy. Add in the numerous warnings about the chaos the law would create. Public officials only began considering how it could be made more sustainable after it was implemented on a large scale this school year.
To get a jumpstart on their work, researchers at Saint Louis University are in talks with state officials to gain greater access to student data from this year. They plan not only to look at how the transfer program has affected the students who left but the students who stayed in Normandy and Riverview Gardens as well.
“If kids are hearing, ‘I might close your school next year. We might not have enough money for you to come back next year,’” said Saint Louis University Education Professor Alex Cuenca. “What’s the student’s motivation to do well on an exam?”
There are examples of similar transfer programs in other American cities, but Cuenca said the jigsaw puzzle of districts and demographics in the St. Louis region are unusual.
“This particular transfer situation is really unique,” Cuenca said. “You have the proximity between really affluent districts and underperforming districts.”
Cuenca is also planning to study how media coverage of the transfer program has shaped the way students and teachers in Normandy and Riverview Gardens think of themselves.
It’s a topic that was certainly on the minds of high school students in Normandy when they gave Parkway students a tour of their school. While students from both schools had been discussing high level education policy by way of video conference during the semester, it was hardly the hot topic. For many students in Normandy, the tour was a chance to break down persistent stereotypes.
“Opposed to what they see on the news, we’re just like any other high school student,” said Normandy senior Shakiyla Hughes during the tour.
Watch St. Louis Public Radio reporter Dale Singer discuss the student transfer program and policy at 9 p.m. tonight on "Stay Tuned" on the Nine Network.
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