WELLSTON • Cameron Hensley is an honors student at Normandy High School with plans for college. But this year his school quit offering honors courses. His physics teacher hasn’t planned a lesson since January. His AP English class is taught by an instructor not certified to teach it.
The first-period English class is held in a science lab because the room across the hall smells like mildew and lacks adequate air conditioning. Stools sit upside down on the lab tables.
On a recent day, Hensley looked at an assigned worksheet. He wrote “positive” or “negative” beside 15 statements, depending on their connotation. “This is pretty easy,” he mumbled.
When Missouri education officials took over the troubled Normandy School District last summer, they vowed to help its 3,600 students become more college- and career-ready. About a quarter of the enrollment had already left for better schools under the controversial Missouri school transfer law, extracting millions of dollars from Normandy in the form of tuition payments to more affluent districts.
Even so, state education officials promised a new dawn in the district, with new leaders, better faculty and an unprecedented degree of attention from their department in Jefferson City.
But Hensley’s experience suggests things have gotten worse for many students who remain in Normandy schools.
Hensley, 18, began his senior year to find his favorite teachers gone. Electives such as business classes and personal finance were no longer offered.
He has written no papers or essays since fall, he said, aside from scholarship applications. He started reading a novel that the class never finished. Partly because of a lack of electives, he ended up taking fashion design first semester. He has no books to take home. He’s rarely assigned homework.
His one challenging class is precalculus.
“Last school year I was learning, progressing,” Hensley said. “This school year, I can honestly say I haven’t learned much of anything.”
Demetris Drummer, the AP English instructor, re-entered the classroom to see whether students had questions about the worksheet. Then he left again.
“Snatching all the old teachers, putting in the new — it didn’t turn out so good,” Ariauna Carver, also a senior, said after Drummer was out of earshot.
Drummer is one of the new hires brought in by the state. Before Normandy, he taught for one year at Roosevelt High School, a low-performing school in St. Louis. Drummer is not certified to teach AP English, which is supposed to be a college-level course. Students initially were taking the class on computers. After a few weeks, Hensley and his classmates marched down to Principal Derrick Mitchell’s office and demanded that an instructor teach them.
Drummer said he likely won’t be returning in the fall. He expressed frustration with his students, who have “gone off on me a couple of times.” He also said he understands where they’re coming from.
“They’ve missed out on a quality education,” he said. “And it’s not their fault.”
A LONG DECLINE
In 2014, Normandy High was the worst-performing high school in Missouri, earning just 8.6 percent of the points available on the state’s annual performance report. Its enrollment is almost entirely black. The students come from a patchwork of 24 tiny municipalities in north St. Louis County with sagging income levels and employment rates.
By the time Normandy students reach their senior year, the chasm between their achievement levels and those at wealthier, more diverse schools is vast. Last year, nearly 40 percent of the class of 2014 failed to graduate. While some seniors are reading at a 12th-grade level, teachers say others have reading skills similar to a typical third-grader.
Hensley’s mother, Gloria White, said she believes the state set up Normandy schools for further failure. Her sentiment is shared by parents throughout the district who have spoken at public forums.
But the district’s problems did not begin last year. In 2010, the state closed Wellston’s failing schools and assigned those children to Normandy schools, which had been slipping for two decades. Normandy lost accreditation three years later. This history sits at the core of parents’ anger.
Early this school year, parents, teachers and students spoke out about escalating problems, such as classroom disruptions, inconsistent discipline and ineffective teachers.
In October, Hensley stood at a microphone in the cafeteria of Lucas Crossing Elementary School, where Normandy’s newly appointed board gathered to hear from parents and students.
“This year, it’s like everything that was said about my school has come true,” Hensley said. “Nobody — kids, me — we really don’t have purpose coming to school. … I love my school, but I’ve been discouraged in my school.”
Hensley now says he feels like those words fell on deaf ears.
“Everything I’ve said hasn’t made a difference.”
Nearly a year ago, members of the Missouri Board of Education convened in Jefferson City to remake the school system. They renamed the district the Normandy Schools Collaborative. They replaced the elected school board with a five-member state-appointed panel, which now has full oversight of the school system. They directed all teachers and principals to reapply for their jobs.
State education officials helped determine which teachers would stay. Ultimately, 48 percent of the staff was replaced.
The Missouri school board president said at the time that Normandy students deserved nothing less than the highest standards.
“As long as it’s tough,” Peter Herschend said. “It’s got to be tough.”
Teachers have described environments that have left them exhausted and demoralized. New teachers have struggled with managing their classrooms, which are larger in size and lack the support of teachers aides.
Some said they often spend their planning periods subbing for teachers who quit or didn’t come to school. They work a longer school day and stay after school twice a week for 90 minutes of state-mandated training.
“Complete waste of time,” one high school teacher said, asking not to be identified. “I could have spent that time planning something for them (students) to do.”
The lack of learning in many classrooms has fueled behavior problems.
Normandy Middle School suspended nearly a third of its students one day in the fall. The high school did the same. District numbers show discipline incidents have dropped significantly since then.
However, when asked whether classrooms have been any less disruptive, about six high school juniors shook their heads as they ate lunch last week in the cafeteria.
“We haven’t really learned anything,” Deboney Cherry said.
Across the table Tyron Jones added, “That’s why we entertain ourselves.”
Hensley considered transferring but chose to stay. He’d been in Normandy schools since kindergarten. He played tuba in the band. He thought many in the region had a misperception about Normandy High, and he wanted to prove them wrong.
Instead, he said, he was proved wrong.
Graduation is five weeks away. Hensley is deciding between Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and Jackson State in Mississippi. He wants a career in computer science.
Like many in the class of 2015, he would be the first in his family to earn a college degree. His mother works as a seamstress in Brentwood. Hensley has a part-time job as a cashier at the Family Dollar on Natural Bridge Road — a job that he’d prefer not to have beyond his teenage years.
Hensley sat down in front of a computer in the counselor’s office. His jazz band instructor hadn’t shown up for second-period class and there was no substitute teacher. Hensley typed his password and pulled up his grades.
“A’s,” Hensley said. And one B. Yet Hensley scored a 20 out of 36 on his ACT. Automatic admittance to the University of Missouri system requires a 24.
“If I wasn’t raised the way my mother raised me, I don’t think I’d be going to college,” Hensley said. “A lot of seniors have part-time jobs, and they want to stay there because they don’t think they’d make it in college. I put that on this school.”
Mostly, he puts it on his teachers. Teachers often put it on Normandy parents. The level of distrust between school and the community is high.
When the buzzer sounded to mark the start of third period, Hensley took a seat in the second row. Other students trickled in several minutes later, including Carver, who shares most of Hensley’s classes.
“Third period is nothing to expect,” she said after she sat down. “She doesn’t take attendance. No work at all. No intent to do any work.”
The instructor, Ivy Word, sat in the front corner looking at her computer screen. She’s a substitute teacher who’s been in charge of the class since the start of the school year.
Some students sat at the back of the room, ear buds in their ears. Some slept. Carver and four other girls talked about prom. Carver took out a comb and began braiding a classmate’s hair. Another girl began gluing fake eyelashes.
In classes where teachers have given up, students have, too. They spend the hour texting friends, snapping photos and sending them by social media.
Interim Superintendent Charles Pearson listened to a general description of the scenes in some Normandy High classrooms. He took his glasses off, looking grim.
“I would offer no excuse for that,” he said. “I have not seen all flawless. I have not seen all horrible. I have to be candid — what you have described I have not seen. What you have described is plain unacceptable. It’s immoral. It’s unethical.”
In a telephone interview, Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven called the atmosphere “absolutely not acceptable. I’m sad about what you described.”
She pointed out that her department has not been in Normandy schools since giving full oversight to the appointed board in January.
Across the Normandy Schools Collaborative, teachers in some classrooms are succeeding. Pearson calls them “pockets of success.”
“There are some strong teachers, and there are some teachers getting stronger,” he said.
For example, Angela Alao has every kindergartner in her class at Lucas Crossing Elementary reading at least simple sentences, based on a recent visit to the school. This is in spite of the fact that almost none of them began the school year knowing the alphabet or having attended preschool.
At the high school, Winifred Deavens left retirement to teach math. Last week, at the start of fourth period, she ordered two students who weren’t supposed to be in her room to leave. She worked with Hensley and about six of his classmates on logarithms, a mathematics function usually introduced in eighth- or ninth-grade algebra. The college-bound group practiced the work. Those not interested in learning sat listening to music.
There’s only one set of books in precalculus. Students cannot take them home.
Despite state intervention, there was no additional money to pump into Normandy schools, aside from $450,000 that the Legislature approved to support literacy. The district remains financially fragile.
In many ways, the fate of Normandy lies with the Legislature. Lawmakers are considering a bill to modify the school transfer law. But that bill would not place limits on the amount of tuition that area districts may charge for transfer students.
“It’s hard for anybody to say it’s a stable situation,” Vandeven said, later adding: “More money is going out the door (per student) than is coming in.”
Meanwhile, the number of students who have applied to leave Normandy schools for more successful ones in the next school year has climbed 50 percent to 639 — a number that Vandeven doubts Normandy can afford at current tuition rates.
Regardless, district officials are planning to operate schools next year. Honors classes and AP courses are to be restored at the high school. Teachers will be trained in June to teach them, Pearson said.
Vandeven said Normandy needs more resources to address the needs of its best and most-challenged students.
“We’ve learned many lessons throughout this year,” Vandeven said. “I’m sure there are things we’d do differently.”
Drummer, Hensley’s AP English teacher, said he didn’t want to defend how the year has gone for these students.
“I understand why they’re frustrated,” he said. “I don’t feel like they have had the quality education they should have to succeed. I don’t know if I should attribute that to the state or just the genuine feeling that the teachers don’t care about the students.”
Support for this story was provided by The Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education, developed by Renaissance Journalism with funding from the Ford Foundation.