NORMANDY • The principal of Normandy High School is expected to keep his job despite the dysfunction documented in some of the school’s classrooms, the district’s superintendent said in an interview.
Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson said concerns about teachers not teaching or assigning challenging work had been noted in evaluations by the high school’s principal, Derrick Mitchell, and other building administrators. But steps weren’t taken to tighten supervision of the teachers after those observations were made, Pearson said. Nor were those concerns passed along to district administrators.
“The principal took full responsibility as principal of the building, but I call it a systems problem,” Pearson said. “Our central office needs to be in closer communication with principals about when trends begin.”
On May 3, the Post-Dispatch profiled Cameron Hensley, 18, a senior honor student frustrated that Normandy High stopped offering honors classes this year. He hadn’t written an essay, read a book or been assigned much homework since fall.
His AP English class, which is supposed to be college-level, was being taught by an instructor not certified to teach it. His physics teacher was a permanent sub who had been in the position since fall and had not taught a lesson in months. In that particular class, students from other classes regularly came and went, treating the classroom as a student lounge.
Other students said they hadn’t learned much at Normandy High all year, even though the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had taken over the troubled north St. Louis County district last summer, promising to bring more rigor to its schools.
This week, the president of the Missouri Board of Education, Peter Herschend, said it would be out of bounds for him to say whether anyone in the Normandy school system should be fired because of the reported dysfunction. Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said this should be left to Normandy school officials.
“They assured us they are on top of this,” Vandeven said.
Herschend said strong leadership is critical to Normandy, which continues to slide as two neighboring districts with similar student populations — Riverview Gardens and Jennings — are showing improvement.
“It will take a dedicated leadership with real teeth on a 24/7 basis to turn Normandy around,” Herschend said. “That has not been their history in past years, and the record shows it.”
Herschend said he’s optimistic about Pearson. Pearson became superintendent on May 14. He had been serving as interim superintendent since late January, when Ty McNichols resigned from the position. He was part of the administrative team that worked to turn around the Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District a decade ago.
In the past two weeks, Pearson has been in Normandy High School observing classrooms, he said. Students have been moved to other classes if they weren’t being taught, he added. The sub who taught physics this year won’t be returning, he said. Nor will the AP English instructor who regularly misses class. Both told a reporter several weeks ago they didn’t plan to return.
“There’s often more inconsistency from classroom to classroom than from building to building,” Pearson said, noting that strong teaching does exist in pockets throughout the district. “We have to be sure that every classroom has solid people in it. When I talked about that I had seen people having success with teaching — I had. If I had ever walked into a scenario like what you saw it would have ended at that moment.”
Teachers in Normandy no longer have union protection. After the state lapsed the district, the teachers lost representation by the Missouri National Education Association. Their contracts were thrown out and they had to reapply for jobs, resulting in the loss of tenure and collective bargaining rights.
About half of the district’s 425 teachers are new to the district this year, and less experienced. Union leaders are trying to regain footing. Charles Smith, president of the MNEA, has attended public forums and expressed frustration that Normandy teachers are exhausted from bigger classes, less planning time and more requirements from the state, such as 90-minute training sessions.
Normandy officials are trying to hire about 60 new teachers to replace those whose contracts weren’t renewed, or who are leaving the district on their own.
Pearson has proposed adding career pathways at the high school. In addition to core classes, such as English and U.S. history, students could take electives focused on one of four areas — biomedicine, engineering, fine arts and humanities, and entrepreneurship. Advanced Placement classes, such as AP psychology and history, would be restored, with certified instructors.
Pearson also said he plans to listen more to parents and students. He intends to form student advisory boards at the middle and high schools next year so he can hear student concerns.
He also expects more opportunities for interaction between parents and the district’s Joint Executive Governing Board. He’s begun meeting with parents who have chosen to transfer their children to more successful schools next year under the state’s school transfer law.
“Parents want more engagement,” Pearson said. “They want more dialogue. They want more opportunities to meet with the board. Those kind of systems are going to be in place.”