The last thing Mercedes Washington wanted to do when her family moved last spring was spend her senior year at Riverview Gardens High School.
Since kindergarten, she had attended schools in the Ferguson-Florissant district. At McCluer High, she has played on the volleyball and soccer teams and took honors classes. Athletically, Riverview was a rival. Academically, she was worried about going to school there. She knew the district had lost its accreditation.
She didn’t want to move, but she understood why her mother had to make that choice.
“It just wasn’t affordable anymore,” Mercedes said.
That was May. Then in June, the Missouri Supreme Court handed down a decision that offered an opportunity for Mercedes and her siblings — students in unaccredited school districts, such as Riverview Gardens and Normandy, had the right to attend higher achieving schools at the expense of their home district.
“I was ecstatic,” she said. “I really thought I was going to be stuck.”
Now, Mercedes is able to continue attending Ferguson-Florissant thanks, in part, to free transportation services paid for with $22,000 the district has gathered from private donors.
As 2,300 children from the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts have migrated to better schools, much of the focus has been on the hundreds of students who have boarded buses for long early morning commutes to the far suburbs.
But attendance figures released earlier this month reinforce the fact that many students like Mercedes are instead choosing shorter transfers, even if doing so requires them to resolve transportation issues.
In all, nearly 1,000 of the transfer students are attending school districts that border either the Riverview Gardens or Normandy districts. More than 250 of the students attend Hazelwood schools, while 114 are at Ritenour, according to recently released figures.
But by far the most common destination for transfer students in north St. Louis County has been Ferguson-Florissant, which had 430 kids as of last week. Francis Howell is the only district in the region that has enrolled more.
The popularity of nearby districts may have as much to do with proximity as with the openness of those districts to receive them.
Throughout the summer, as other districts in the region were counting seats and limiting access, Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Art McCoy was inviting the students to visit the district’s schools during the transfer registration process and apply.
Now that the students have arrived, he said, the district has spent $400,000 to add 15 teachers and teacher assistants to keep class sizes at desired levels. District leaders identified the students most in need of participating in the district’s mentor program. Each administrator acts as a “life coach” to five students this year, meeting with them weekly. The district also has used already established programs to find help for students who need food, or money to keep the utilities on at their home.
Other neighboring districts say they are also seeking to accommodate the new students.
“We’ve taken the students in as our own, basically, as any new students who come into the district, and making sure they feel comfortable,” said Doug Bray, spokesman for the Ritenour School District.
DeAun Blumberg, spokeswoman for the University City School District, which has 101 transfer students, said this year the district decided to survey all of its new families a few months into the school year. All new students get a buddy to help them adjust, but this year, their family gets paired up to with another from the district.
“We realize that’s a need,” Blumberg said.
At Ferguson-Florissant, the support is also focused on transportation.
McCoy knew getting the transfer students to school was going to be an issue. During the first few weeks of school, area churches helped pick up and drop off kids.
That’s because of the 2,300 students who transferred and remain in two dozen accredited districts this year, only the 845 in the Francis Howell, Kirkwood and Mehlville districts are provided with transportation to school. The law says that the unaccredited districts must pay for tuition and transportation — Normandy decided to send buses to one district (Francis Howell), while Riverview Gardens picked Mehlville and later, Kirkwood.
And even though Ferguson-Florissant is a neighbor to both districts, students who transferred there must find their own way.
In September, McCoy set a goal, asking the community to help the district raise $22,000 to provide money to help the students with bus or cab fare. They did so within two weeks.
Even though Ferguson-Florissant is supposed to be paid tuition by the unaccredited districts, McCoy doesn’t expect the first payment until the end of this month. So the district had to act at the beginning of the school year.
The district bought Metro transit bus semester passes for high school transfer students to help get them to and from school. Metro now offers all high school students the same deal as college students — $150 for a semester pass. For younger students, the money is available for cab fares when needed.
For those like Mercedes and her siblings, getting to school can be difficult. They stayed the night at their grandmother or aunt’s homes to make it easier to get to school in the morning, but still got tardies. Administrators noticed.
“She’s an outstanding student,” McCluer High Principal Gary Spiller said. “She not a student who has issues.”
That’s why they called her mother LaShunda Green about being late, and learned about the problems getting to school. Green, who is a manager at Walmart, said her shifts change frequently, making it difficult to reliably get her children to Ferguson-Florissant on her own.
The district was able to offer her the bus passes for her two high-schoolers at no cost.
“It’s helped. I’m not running as much. But it’s still hard with the two little ones,” Green said.