The two friends were all jitters as they received their class schedules Thursday inside one of the gyms at Oakville High School in the Mehlville school system.
They transferred from the troubled Riverview Gardens schools and wondered about making new friends, signing up for lockers, finding their classes and the cafeteria.
Then Veronica Lewis, a senior, offered to show the girls to their homerooms. Brianna Taylor and Keshyra McKinnies, both freshmen who attended middle school together, clutched their schedules and followed. Veronica had been in their shoes as a sixth-grader, transferring into the south St. Louis County school district from St. Louis as part of the voluntary desegregation program.
“I was excited,” Veronica said, recalling the same moment for her six years ago. “It was a chance at a better education.”
The approximately 220 Riverview Gardens students who began school in the Mehlville district Thursday joined about 450 other children in the district who are part of a decades-old voluntary desegregation program. It allows several thousand children in St. Louis to attend county schools in hopes of receiving a better education. For years, these children also have boarded buses before dawn. They’ve endured long bus rides of more than an hour long. And they’ve formed friendships and graduated from schools dozens of miles away from their own communities.
“A lot of them are scared that we’re going to hate them or judge them,” Veronica said of the Riverview Gardens transfer students. “That’s not the case.”
The buses from Riverview Gardens picked students up at seven schools throughout that district as early as 5:30 a.m. The buses arrived at Mehlville schools on time with no reported snafus. Shortly before the welcome assembly began in the Oakville High School gym, Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost held up his cellphone that showed no texts or calls.
“All is good,” he said.
The Riverview Gardens students who chose to transfer to Mehlville schools did so primarily because transportation is provided. But getting to school each day nevertheless will be a challenge for some. Dozens of Riverview Gardens parents without cars are anxious about their children having to cross busy streets and walk through questionable neighborhoods to catch a school bus. Those with conflicting work schedules wonder how they’ll be able to get their children to and from the bus stops every day.
Rei-Zhana Adams, 14, and Ah-Zhana Adams, 10, will have to walk two miles home after the school bus returns them to north St. Louis County, said their mother, Holly Adams. Adams and her husband have access to his work truck in the morning, allowing them to drive their daughters to catch the bus at Glasgow Elementary School. But not so in the afternoon.
“I’m thinking about sacrificing our mortgage next month to get a car,” Adams said.
Throughout the Mehlville district, Riverview students began their acclimation. At Oakville High, students and Knost greeted them at the door. They joined their new classmates by standing in line to receive class schedules and to get their photos taken for identification badges. Student guides led them to their homerooms.
“As far as quality, they can’t do better than Oakville,” said Joe Keller, a senior. “There are some really nice kids coming.”
About 2,600 students have chosen to transfer from the unaccredited Riverview Gardens and Normandy school systems into 24 other districts in the region, in an unprecedented migration prompted by a state Supreme Court ruling in June. That ruling upheld Missouri’s school transfer law that allows children in failing school districts to transfer to higher performing schools in the same or adjoining county. Their home district must cover tuition and transportation costs.
Rather than provide transportation to all schools, Riverview chose to provide buses to Mehlville and Kirkwood schools. Normandy is sending buses to the Francis Howell district in St. Charles County. School there began on Aug. 8.
More than 300 Riverview students who requested to transfer to Mehlville or Kirkwood didn’t get in based on the districts’ available seats. The Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri threatened to file a lawsuit against Mehlville for not accepting children from five families. Mehlville and Kirkwood officials since have worked to accommodate more transfer requests, as have officials in other districts. Late Thursday afternoon, the organization released a statement that the children successfully had been placed in accredited schools, and no suit would be filed.
Despite the warm welcome at Oakville High, Veronica predicted it will take time for the transfer students to adjust. It did for her, she said. But now, not even the hour-long bus ride to and from school each day fazes her.
“I know that I have to wake up early,” she said. “I know that I have to do it.”
After settling into their homerooms, students at Oakville High School filed into a gymnasium for the welcome assembly.
The band played the school fight song. The cheerleaders and pom squad held center stage on the gym floor. Special tribute was given to seniors, who ran into the gym under yellow, black and white streamers. A’Viana Rucker from Riverview Gardens, now an Oakville senior, ran through the streamers with them.
“It felt good,” she said later.
The transfer students weren’t singled out during the assembly. They were simply identified as new students, along with others who hadn’t attended Oakville High last year.
“All of you are on a journey this year,” Principal Jan Kellerman said over the loudspeaker. “We have a lot of students new to the house. They come from different districts, parochial schools, sister schools. If you’re a new student, stand up!”
The students from Riverview stood. And so did the freshmen and dozens of other students new to the district. The rest of the school cheered.