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Transfer students blend in at Kirkwood High School

Transfer student Javonn Hill, 17, yells to another student as his bus pulls out on Oct. 10, 2013, at Kirkwood High School. Hill lives in the Riverview Gardens School District. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

Racquel Wooten wants her kids to get a good education. That hardly seems newsworthy, but Racquel and the kids live in a duplex in Wellston, so they find themselves involved in one of our region’s biggest and most complicated news stories.

They’re in the Normandy School District, which lost its accreditation in 2012. State law says that kids in an unaccredited district can transfer to an accredited district, with costs being borne by their home district. After legal challenges to that law failed, kids from Normandy and Riverview Gardens, another unaccredited district, were allowed to transfer at the start of this school year.

Racquel’s five children transferred to the Brentwood School District.

Actually, this was not the first disruption in their schooling. They used to go to Wellston schools, but the state dissolved that district in 2010, and the Wellston students found a refuge, of sorts, at Normandy.

By the way, that was not a big story. Cynics might point out that almost all the students involved were poor, and news follows its readers, which tend to be middle class.

The failures of the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts were not confined to the poor. Students could transfer to any district within their county or in an adjoining county. According to the letter of the law, the home districts would be responsible for all costs, including transportation, but that would have quickly bankrupted Normandy and Riverview Gardens, something the poorly conceived law did not take into account.

So the educational establishment reached a compromise. The unaccredited districts would be required to provide limited transportation options. Riverview is providing transportation to Mehlville and Kirkwood schools. Normandy chose Francis Howell.

But if parents were willing to provide transportation, they could send their kids anywhere. Or, they could stay in the Normandy or Riverview Gardens schools.

There was much discussion at the duplex in Wellston.

Britney, 17, and Brian, 15, are the oldest of the five kids. Britney was a straight-A student at Normandy. She was ready to start her junior year. She wasn’t keen on another disruption. She remembered her sense that the Normandy teachers looked down on the Wellston kids who had transferred in. She didn’t want to go through that again.

Brian wasn’t such a hot student, but had played JV football as a freshman. He was about to start his sophomore year. He was more open to transferring.

The three youngest kids, Chineye, 10, Canaan, 9, and Raven, 7, were pretty much neutral. Except for Canaan. He didn’t want to transfer.

But the father of the three youngest, Clarence Jones, liked the idea of getting them out of Normandy schools. So did Racquel. And she favored a clean break. She didn’t want to send the kids to Francis Howell with the other Normandy kids. She wanted them to make new friends and be in a new environment. She researched other districts. She finally settled on Brentwood.

All five enrolled for the fall semester. Britney and Brian felt a little behind academically. But Brentwood provided resource classes and counselors — and perhaps most importantly, the two felt welcomed. Britney took regular classes instead of the honors classes she had routinely taken at Normandy High, and she ended the semester with all A’s and B’s. She was also a cheerleader.

Brian had a B average and started on the football team.

The younger kids did fine, too. Even Canaan came around. His new school had a playground.

So everybody was happy with the decision to transfer.

Last month, the family car, a 12-year-old GMC Yukon, was repossessed. Suddenly, transportation was gone. Racquel is a cook at a Red Lobster. She gets about 25 hours a week. Clarence is a self-employed plumber, but work is hard to find. The family’s credit is not good.

So how do the kids get to school? “With the grace of God,” said Clarence. More literally, it’s through the generosity of friends and family. Racquel is forever trying to set things up. But when you are dependent on other people’s schedules, things are uncertain. Often, now, the kids are late.

Public transportation is an option, but not a good one. Britney said the trip requires either four buses, or two buses and MetroLink, with a transfer on the Metro.

The family gets some help. Brian is on the wrestling team, and the coach gives him a ride home from practice and meets.

Still, it’s a struggle. All the kids want to stay at Brentwood, but it’s hard to figure out how the logistics will work. Just as it’s hard to figure out the big story itself, except that at the heart of it are people like Racquel, who simply want their kids to get a good education.