With claps and cheers, the crowd parted as students walked up the steps Monday morning to Central Middle School for their first day of classes.
“Whoo! Welcome back!” the group of teachers, administrators and community members in the Riverview Gardens school district shouted. “Have a great day!”
The students are among 4,500 beginning a year where roughly a fourth of their classmates will not return, transferring to higher-performing districts under a law upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court just two months ago.
Superintendent Scott Spurgeon, who is in his first year with the unaccredited district, was among those greeting the kids.
“It’s time for this situation to turn around, and we’re going to make it happen,” he said. “We’re going to come out of this. The support is here.”
School districts across the area have wrestled with how to comply with the high court ruling. The law allows children in unaccredited school systems — such as Riverview Gardens and Normandy — to transfer to another district. It also says the failing district must cover the tuition and transportation costs.
In all, 1,451 students have opted to leave Riverview Gardens, and an additional 1,189 asked to leave Normandy schools.
Monday offered the first glimpse of what school might look like for those who stayed behind.
Marquise Hoye, 13, pulled on his Adidas backpack and walked into Central Middle School wearing a light blue polo shirt and navy shorts. His mom wondered if the students leaving the district would mean smaller class sizes for him.
“Some of the kids I know aren’t coming back,” Marquise said. “I’m hoping my favorite teachers are still there.”
The day was marked by promises from Riverview officials such as Spurgeon to improve education in the district — even as it faces losing as much as $19.7 million in tuition and transportation costs associated with the transfers.
That money leaving the district concerns Linda Simmons, who was dropping off her child at Danforth Elementary on Monday morning. But she did not consider transferring her fourth- and eighth-grader from the district.
PARENTS TAKE 'WAIT AND SEE' ATTITUDE
“I like it here. It was never an option for me,” said Simmons, who has seven other children who graduated from the district, and all went on to earn college degrees. “But I’m worried about what kind of quality teachers they can attract now.”
Tiara Pugh tried to transfer her 12-year-old son from Central Middle School, but she didn’t make the deadline. She had hoped to send him to Mehlville, where she graduated from.
“We’ll see how this year goes,” she said.
Other parents have complained they were essentially denied the ability to transfer out of Riverview — unless they agreed to transport their children to other schools at their own expense.
The Riverview Gardens district had opted to send buses to Mehlville and Kirkwood districts for transferring students. But both those districts set limits on the number of children they would enroll. About 300 students requested transfers to those districts but were denied.
One of them was the 16-year-old daughter of Lajunta Brown, who wanted to move from Riverview Gardens High School to Mehlville. She did not get picked in the lottery, and her mother chose not to send her to school Monday.
“She wasn’t learning anything, and the environment was not good,” Brown said.
Brown’s complaint about the lottery process could soon result in litigation. The Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, which advocates for school choice options, has suggested it may file suit against Mehlville for denying transfer requests.
The group argues that the school transfer statute offers no basis for turning away students. In recent days, the group has been in conversations with school district leaders in Mehlville and Kirkwood and said Monday they hoped to reach a solution. The group estimates less than 100 families seeking transfer to a school with transportation still have not found one.
It was unclear Monday how many students ultimately reported to the first day of classes in Riverview Gardens. District officials did not have those figures available.
School administrators across the region say the enrollment picture over the next few weeks could remain unclear as transfer students from Riverview Gardens and Normandy report to more than 20 districts.
Some have wondered whether families who have been offered transfers will actually exercise their right to leave.
Last week, the Francis Howell district kicked off the process, opening its doors to 475 students who had the option to transfer. As of Monday, 447 transfer students had begun attending schools in the district, Francis Howell officials said.
And in Ferguson-Florissant, nearly 400 of the 425 students transferring came for the first day of school on Monday. Superintendent Art McCoy wants to make sure they keep showing up. He said the district may use some of the tuition money for those students to help transport them to their new schools, and that local churches might also step in to help.
Next week, Normandy will learn whether its efforts to hang on to students have been successful. Classes resume in the district on Monday. Like Riverview Gardens, officials there say they will be eager to prove to students who did not transfer that they made the right choice.
Phillip Boyd, an assistant superintendent in Normandy, said it’s nice to be able to move past some of the politics of the transfer process.
“We’re able to concentrate on the kids,” he said.