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The sun was barely up this morning as buses went out in Normandy School District neighborhoods picking up students and taking them to Francis Howell schools.

Toni Smith took her daughter to the stop and watched it pull away with three others headed for middle schools a few minutes after 6 a.m. Her son had left on one of the buses headed for Francis Howell Central at 5:37 a.m.

"How did you find out about transportation?" she asked another parent at the stop. Both did not find out the exact pickup time until Wednesday. They said they felt "frantic" trying to nail down details before the first day of school today.

Meanwhile, students and administrators at Francis Howell Central were waiting. They told reporters today they are excited to welcome transfer students from the Normandy school district.

Principal Sonny Arnel said he is confident the new school year, beginning today, will go smoothly for the Normandy students.

"Every year has its challenges; every year has its excitements," he said. "We will work to make them feel like they are Francis Howell students."

But there was already a hiccup. One bus headed for Francis Howell Central went to the wrong school. It arrived about 30 minutes late after being rerouted from Francis Howell High. The students got breakfast and made it to their first hour classes, officials said.

Arnel said the district, as it has in past years, will look at each student's situation and work with them as needed. He said the school monitors data weekly to see which students need help.

"At the high school, the plan is really going to change throughout the year," Arnel added. "The key is flexibility." 

Students at the high school, which has 54 of the 475 transferring Normandy students, said they are excited to welcome their new classmates.  

Nicole Sutton, 17, senior, said she and her friends have no concerns about the Normandy students transferring into the district.

"They want to be here for a reason," she said. "They are passionate to be here and we are passionate that it will work out great."

Sutton, the student council president, said there will be efforts made by the high school to make the transfer students feel welcome.

Sean Earl, 17, a senior, said he is confident the Normandy students will fit in well at the St. Charles County school.

"They are coming from 35 miles away," he said. "It is up to us to be respectful and incorporate them into our school."

Earl said there may be "bumps in the road" initially but those will be smoothed out over time.  He said the key to successful integration is in the hands of the Francis Howell students.

"They are more scared of us than we are of them," he said.

He added that the initial outcry from some parents in the district were not representative of all the parents' opinions of the student transfer plan.

"They were a little ignorant about it," Earl said of parents opposed to the plan.

Parents chosen by Francis Howell officials to talk with reporters also said initial negative comments about the Normandy transfer program weren't representative of the entire Francis Howell district.

Joe Falcomata, who has two children in the district, said he was “initially appalled at the face put on the district by a few parents.” That's why he and his wife decided to help welcome Normandy parents and students to Francis Howell. That included providing gift bags to students at Castlio Elementary School, where his daughter is a third-grader.

The Falcomatas also are participating in a “welcome wagon program” at Saeger Middle School, where his son is in the seventh grade.

Parent Kimberly Thompson said she was concerned at first about class sizes and teachers being overwhelmed by additional students. But after talking with administrators, those initial misgivings are gone, she added.

“The children are going to do just fine,” Thompson said.

Shari Wilson, a parent of three Francis Howell students, said that while there might have been concerns from some district parents, students don't see what all the fuss was about.

“They don't see it as a problem,” she said.

Wilson said the transfer program is an opportunity for Normandy students to get a good education in the Francis Howell district.

Long bus rides from the Normandy district to Francis Howell schools in St. Charles County mean earlier student pickup times at bus stops.

A half dozen transfer students met the bus at 6:11 a.m. at Page and Woodruff avenues instead of at 7:35 a.m. when they attended Normandy schools.

Among the students was Vernon Hampton, headed to his first day as a freshman at Francis Howell Central High School. He said many of his Normandy friends also are transferring to Francis Howell. Vernon, 14, said he is looking forward to a better learning opportunity.

Keisha Hill, a transferring sixth grader at Francis Howell Middle, said she hopes to play violin in the school orchestra. Keisha, 11, said she is relieved to get away from the bad behavior of some Normandy students.

“I'm a great kid and I don't get in trouble,” she said.

Markia Holt and Ymani Wince of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.


Our earlier story:

Hundreds of students from failing schools in Normandy are poised to step into class today for the first time at all 18 schools in the Francis Howell district.

As they do, they will begin an unprecedented migration, triggered by a state Supreme Court ruling in June, of more than 2,600 students within the St. Louis area.

With less than five weeks’ notice, the Francis Howell district has found room for 475 students who requested transfers from failing schools in Normandy. No other district in the area is receiving as many students.

The new students will board buses as early as 6 a.m. today, some traveling more than 22 miles to get to their new schools, part of an exodus that could drain Normandy of nearly one-fourth of its students.

The students are enrolling over the objections of some residents of Francis Howell, whose complaints at a recent town hall meeting have attracted national attention to age-old issues of educational inequities, poverty and race.

The sheer scale of the effort to transfer students, coupled with a short timeline to plan for them, has many across the country paying attention.

“To have this amount of students potentially crossing district lines at this scale is pretty unique and certainly going to be watched,” said Michael Petrilli executive vice president of Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

The Fordham Institute advocates for school choice, such as charter schools or options that would allow students in failing schools to attend private ones with public money. But Petrilli said what’s happening in St. Louis places the schools in untested waters.

“When we think of school choice, this is not necessarily what we have in mind,” he said. “I do wonder how this is going to be play out.”

The answer to that question could depend largely on how well school districts like Francis Howell are able to execute plans to accommodate hundreds of students added to their rolls just days ago.

In the next two weeks, more than 20 districts throughout the region will follow Francis Howell’s lead, trying to resolve logistical headaches as they take in students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

Francis Howell leaders believe they’ve made all necessary preparations. But as the first day of school neared this week, some parents reported hang-ups.

To start with, some families still were unsure of what time buses, paid for by the Normandy district, would arrive to pick them up. Others worried about their classes, and meeting new people.

Even so, many were embracing the opportunity.

“She’s excited,” said Lorrine Goodloe, whose daughter visited Saeger Middle School for a transition day on Tuesday. “She’s already made two friends.”

Some Francis Howell students and teachers say they are starting this school year like any other — ready to welcome new students.

North High School senior Matt Schneider said he met some of the Normandy students as they began enrolling in the schools.

“It’s clear to me and all my friends the transfer students are no different than us. They have the same goals in life,” he said.

Ken Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Education Options in Washington, said the student transfers in the St. Louis region have the potential to put to rest the idea that parents are to blame for poor schools, and to bring a sense of urgency to failing districts.

“A lot of parents are grabbing something as imperfect as this transfer because they see it as vital to the future for their children,” he said.

Nearly 2,500 people in the Francis Howell district attended a town hall meeting last month, and those who spoke peppered administrators with questions about academics and safety. They wanted to know what would happen if Normandy failed to pay tuition to Francis Howell, as it is supposed to according to the state statute.

“Some of their statements may have come across as racist, but all they know is what they’ve seen on the news,” said Stephanie Schuler, a Francis Howell parent who attended the meeting. “We hear the bad stuff and we think the bad stuff will come out there, too.”

Anita Miller, president of the Francis Howell teacher’s union, said the comments at the meeting were not a representation of the entire district.

“I think it’s unfortunate, that that’s the perception that the rest of the country will have of Francis Howell,” Miller said.

Elizabeth Tappmeyer was one of those who spoke at the meeting. She worried about her children’s education suffering if Normandy students came in behind in reading and math. She also worried about safety.

In the weeks since, she says her concerns have mellowed. At the meeting nearly a month ago, administrators had no idea how many students would sign up to transfer and what schools they would attend. Friday, after weeks of speculation and anxiety, they had answers.

There are 475 Normandy students given seats at schools across the district. Some classes had none, others had a few or as many as 20. In Tappenmeyer’s twin daughters’ class, there are two transfer students.

“I wouldn’t have sent my kids here from Normandy. Those kids were automatically judged before they walked into that classroom,” she said. “I’m hoping that things have settled down and things have changed. Most of us are seeing these kids coming and are not nearly as worried.”

Kate Casas, of the Children’s Education Alliance, said she’s heard positive comments in recent days from parents who are sending their children to Francis Howell.

“If they can keep that up, then the parents and students have the chance to fit in,” she said.

But Normandy’s Lakeelah Whitefield is instead enrolling her son in the Hazelwood district. She said most of the Normandy parents she knows opted not to send their children to Francis Howell.

“I know with the parent backlash and the things parents out there were saying about the students, they didn’t want to,” she said.

Campbell, of the Black Alliance for Education Options, fears that some parents may face problems transitioning their children to new schools. That may lead some to give up and return their children to their home districts. And that worries him.

“I hope that them going back doesn’t lead their home district to just say, ‘They’re coming back anyway, we don’t have to change anything,’’ Campbell said. “That, in my mind, would be the biggest disappointment of all.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Matt Schneider is a student at Francis Howell North. An earlier version of this story had the incorrect school.