NORMANDY • 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.
Over the past two days, parents have come to the school miffed about the letters, but came to understand the situation. “Many of them were unaware of the behaviors we shared with them,” Williams said in her office Thursday, as parents continued to stream into the middle school. “We will take drastic measures to ensure the school is a place where learning and teaching are occurring.”
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.”
MORE STUDENTS, LESS STAFF
Monday night, about 40 teachers gathered in the Normandy High School cafeteria. Leaders with the Missouri National Education Association wanted to know what the past four weeks had been like for them. After the state lapsed the district, the teachers lost union representation. Their contracts were thrown out and they had to reapply for jobs, resulting in the loss of tenure and collective bargaining rights.
Union leaders are trying to regain footing here.
“I want to hear about it,” said Charles Smith, president of the organization. “What’s happening inside the buildings?”
The first teacher who spoke said some days she works from 8:20 a.m. to 6 p.m. with only a 30-minute break. Often teachers must choose between planning their lessons and grading papers, because frequent staff meetings replace planning time, another said.
“Are you getting the support you need?” Smith asked.
“I don’t feel we are,” one teacher said.
“There are no more aides,” another added. “They’ve all been cut.”
While district enrollment is around 3,700, up by 700 children, staff levels are down, according to lists provided by the district. As a result, some teachers told Smith they have classes with 30 or more students.
“It’s really rough,” said Judy Davis-Edwards, a science teacher at Normandy Middle School. “You’ve got more kids and too many of the same behavior problems.”
Normandy’s fragile financial situation is a result of Missouri’s controversial school transfer law. Last year, Normandy drew down its savings by spending $1.3 million a month on tuition and transportation for students who left for higher performing schools under the transfer law.
A state Supreme Court ruling in 2013 gave the district no choice. The court upheld the transfer law, opening doors to better schools for about 2,200 children in Normandy and the neighboring Riverview Gardens School District, both of which were unaccredited. But that opportunity came at the expense of students who stayed behind and faced fewer resources.
Normandy could face insolvency this school year as the district continues to pay transfer expenses, though for a smaller number of students.
“These children deserve a quality education no matter what happens,” said Charles Pearson, president of the appointed board that runs the district.
Pearson, a former school administrator in Maplewood-Richmond Heights when that district was turning around, said the work of transforming a failing district is more difficult than most people understand.
Normandy’s four elementary schools perform at a level that would be considered provisionally or fully accredited, but the middle school and high school don’t come close. Districtwide, just 19 percent of students tested proficient or better in reading or math last year.
“Burnout doesn’t come from working hard,” Pearson said. “Burnout can come from feeling like you’re not making progress.”
Many teachers say they can’t make progress without more support, and they feel like district and state leaders spend more time talking at them than listening to them.
Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said the reports from Normandy have her attention. The district and the education department must be nimble enough to adapt and refocus training and requirements to help teachers succeed, she said.
Superintendent Ty McNichols was on the phone with Nicastro on Thursday morning. He had just taken reporters into two classrooms at the middle school. In one, students in a social studies class were discussing the fallout from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. In another, students were engaged in multiplying integers.
McNichols later said that several of the students who had been sent home Tuesday had returned to those two classrooms. If a school’s system of response doesn’t work, he said, the next step is the parents. As he spoke, parents continued to stream in and out of the building to talk with administrators and to sign behavior contracts.
“I saw a few of those kids when I walked into class,” McNichols said. “It was a whole different attitude from when I was here last week. … We’ve got to get these parents in now. Not six weeks from now — now.”