NORMANDY • Charles Pearson, who was instrumental in turning around the Maplewood-Richmond Heights School Districts a decade ago, became superintendent of the Normandy Schools Collaborative Thursday night.
Pearson had been serving as interim superintendent of the troubled school system since January and was among 17 finalists found through a national search, according to a district news release. He’s worked as a middle school principal and district administrator in Maplewood-Richmond Heights. He’s also taught in the Clayton and Normandy school districts.
The national search confirmed that Pearson was the right fit for the job, said Richard Ryffel, vice chairman of the board.
Pearson’s salary will be $150,000 through June 30. He will begin a new contract on July 1.
Pearson lives in the district and served on its appointed board in the fall. He said he’s committed to ensuring Normandy students get the resources they need to succeed.
“We have some serious work to do and that work has already started,” Pearson said.
Hours earlier, Pearson told about 50 district staff and residents gathered for the board meeting at Lucas Crossing Elementary School that he intends to press area superintendents for help. More than a dozen districts are receiving thousands of dollars each month from Normandy to cover tuition of students who have transferred under a controversial state law.
“What if we were to come to them and say, ‘OK, we give you money, now how can we get access to some of your people to come in and help us? What else can you do?’” Pearson said.
Pearson laid out several strategies intended to improve the state of his schools, which have been beset by ongoing financial instability, and behavior and academic problems that intensified this school year.
The proposals include moving sixth-graders from Normandy Middle School to the district’s four elementary buildings. Bel-Nor Elementary School, which closed midyear in 2013, would reopen to become a districtwide kindergarten center. Students at Normandy High School would select electives from four career pathways: biomedicine; engineering; fine arts and humanities; and entrepreneurship.
“We need to begin doing things differently,” Pearson told the four-member governing board.
Pearson, who has been interim superintendent since January, is also working on a partnership agreement with the University of Missouri-St. Louis so university staff could work with students at the middle school using space freed up by moving sixth-graders to the elementary buildings.
“We have the opportunity to do some amazing things there,” he said. “This particular age group needs something different.”
The past school year has been challenging for the 425 teachers and 3,500 students in Normandy. After the Missouri Board of Education restarted the school system last July, the district replaced nearly half of its teaching staff with a less-experienced workforce. They received no training in how to manage high-poverty classrooms, where many students are at least one or two grade levels behind.
Earlier this month, a story in the Post-Dispatch chronicled the dysfunction at Normandy High School as experienced by an honors student, Cameron Hensley.
His Advanced Placement English class is taught by an instructor not certified to teach it. His physics teacher is a permanent substitute who hadn’t taught a lesson in months.
“We’re all familiar with the article that was written,” Board President Andrea Terhune told Pearson. “What is your level of confidence that these things will produce different outcomes?”
Pearson said execution is key. It’s what was lacking most this past school year.
He added that Advanced Placement courses will be returning to the high school next year.
“With someone who can teach it?” Terhune asked.
“Yes,” Pearson said.
Pearson said teachers certified to teach the AP courses are being hired or trained.
His proposals also include setting up a standard system for recording student attendance, which has been unstable this year, Pearson said. He would also like to implement a districtwide behavior management system that would involve lessons in what expectations are in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, buses.
“I want us to develop a culture of respectful behavior,” said Reginald Dickson, a board member. “I’m talking about simple basic things here. It should be a mantra. It should be throughout. I’m not talking about just the children. I’m talking about teachers, janitors, everybody.”
The board has no timetable to vote on the proposals. But next month, it must approve a budget. Finance Director Mick Willis said the district is projected to have a balanced budget, despite $7.5 million in expected transfer tuition and transportation costs.
When the state took over, Normandy was in frail financial condition after losing more than $10 million last year to student transfer costs. A state law allows children in unaccredited districts such as Normandy to enroll in more successful schools at their home district’s expense.
In the 2015-16 school year, Normandy will be moving from what the finance director called a “survival budget” to an “instructional budget,” reinstating 11 of the 30 positions eliminated after the state education department began overseeing the district.