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St. Louis schools

Toting a backpack nearly as large as she is, 5-year-old Solana Miller grasps the hand of her aunt Patrice Liddell while leaving a back-to-school festival in St. Louis on Aug. 4, 2012. Photo by Sid Hastings

Long before the Normandy School District lost its state accreditation, it had been grappling with a fundamental problem that can doom student success: kindergartners starting school unprepared to learn.

Now, after years of turmoil, the reorganized state-controlled school district is addressing at least part of the issue by rebooting its dormant Parents as Teachers program.

The program will target parents of children younger than 5, sending three parent educators and an early-childhood screener to conduct free, twice-monthly home visits districtwide.

This fall, the district signed an $812,000 contract with the Maryland Heights-based Parents as Teachers International to run the program.

The visits will provide information about child development, parenting tips and learning exercises for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

The new program aims to serve 100 families by next school year. It also will screen more than 400 children in homes, child care centers and other settings to catch developmental delays, speech and hearing issues. About 2,500 children under age 5 live in the Normandy district’s 24 communities.

Educators say young children from financially stressed areas may lack basic social and emotional skills to handle kindergarten. Some have undetected hearing or speech issues.

Research also indicates children from low-income families hear millions of fewer words by age 3 than their peers in wealthier families. As much as teachers try to catch students up, the deficits make it hard for children to read at grade level by third grade, an important academic milestone.

In Normandy, testing revealed most children are entering preschool and kindergarten with below-average vocabulary and other learning skills.

“They are generally coming in on the low end of the spectrum of being ready,” said Normandy Assistant Superintendent Candice Carter-Oliver. “With Parents as Teachers providing service and supports from birth, it is going to help us in the long term.”

Jodi Townson, of Hanley Hills, said she and her two children were lucky last year to be a part of Normandy’s few remaining home visits through its then-declining Parents as Teachers program.

Because of those visits, her youngest son, a 2-year-old who shows signs of autism, is participating in a state-funded program. Now Townson is looking forward to getting her parent educator back.

“She was very supportive with being a counsel to me and giving me resources as far as taking care of myself and my kids,” she said.

Normandy once served hundreds of students a year through Parents as Teachers, but the program had fallen apart in the past five years amid budget cuts and broader problems in the troubled school district.

Missouri school districts typically administer the Parents as Teachers program on their own. But Normandy has opted to hand that oversight to Parents as Teachers International.

“Things had been kind of falling apart, but we wanted to be there to be part of the rebuilding,” said Parents as Teachers Executive Vice President Cheryle Dyle-Palmer.

The international organization has delivered similar oversight on U.S. military bases and Native American reservations, she said.

The early-childhood issue has always been in the debate regarding Normandy school performance. But it has been overshadowed by the K-12 district’s struggle to survive.

Last year, the district laid off teachers and staff, closed a school and cut programs as it fought off bankruptcy when hundreds of students transferred under a Missouri Supreme Court-approved law. That enabled students to attend better performing schools but also required Normandy to pay tuition to the receiving schools.

The school district reorganized in July as the Normandy Schools Collaborative, under the oversight of the state.

The district had and continues to operate an accredited early-childhood program for preschoolers, ages 3 to 5. This year, the district added about 60 spaces to serve a total of 162 students. But that is just a portion of the roughly 550 children who enroll in kindergarten in Normandy each year, Carter-Oliver said.

Four years ago, then Normandy Superintendent Stanton Lawrence sounded an alarm after touring numerous child care centers within the school district.

He found child cares serving infants, toddlers and preschoolers without curriculum, toys, books or playgrounds. And he found well-meaning caregivers with no training working in facilities as impoverished as the homes the children came from. One of the worst sat within yards of a district elementary school, he said.

Community conversations led to an anonymous donation to the organization Beyond Housing to pay for consultants from United 4 Children to help improve the quality of day cares within the Normandy district.

The effort was launched even as the district’s Parents as Teachers program spiraled into decline.

In 2009, the Missouri Legislature cut funding to school districts statewide for Parents as Teachers. Prior to those cuts, Normandy’s program was serving about 450 families with home visits, but most were getting about one visit a year.

After the cuts, the program served 115 families annually — about a quarter of what it had been reaching — but it increased visits to those families to four a year. But amid budget problems, the program had dwindled to 50 families last year and then went dormant.

Christopher Krehmeyer, CEO of Beyond Housing, said Parents as Teachers is critical for Normandy’s 24 mostly impoverished communities.

Previously, Parents as Teachers “coverage was so small it didn’t even come close to what the needs were,” Krehmeyer said. The retooled program will bring health and developmental screenings to the day cares that are currently getting consulting services to improve, he said.

The success of these early-childhood initiatives one day will be measured in higher standardized test scores, starting in the third grade, he said. But he cautioned that the district is recovering from years of turmoil, and it will be several years before that progress can be measured.