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Gov. Jay Nixon visits Moline Elementary

Gov. Jay Nixon visits a class of fourth graders at Riverview Gardens School District's Moline Elementary to congratulate them for performing as well as a fully accredited district on Nov. 7, 2016. Photo by Kristen Taketa, ktaketa@post-dispatch.com

KANSAS CITY • The Riverview Gardens School District will be provisionally reaccredited on Jan. 4 after almost a decade without the basic seal of approval from the state.

The milestone vote Friday of the state board of education marks the beginning of the end of the migration out of millions of dollars and hundreds of students from Riverview under the state’s controversial transfer law.

The law, which allows students in unaccredited districts to attend schools in accredited districts at the cost of the home district, has cost Riverview more than $23 million before this school year, district officials estimate.

Despite that drain of dollars, the district has managed to improve test scores, graduation rates, attendance rates and overall school climate. It has proved that its leadership is stable and dedicated.

“We could’ve just thrown in the towel for any number of reasons. But that’s not who we are,” said Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon at Friday’s board meeting.

Families and education leaders agree that the overall climate of the district is better, and school pride is high. At a state-mandated district hearing last month, the vast majority of the dozens of parents, staffers and community members who spoke expressed hope about Riverview schools.

“You can just feel the difference in the community and walking the halls,” said state Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven.

A shadowed history

Friday represented redemption for the impoverished district, which has for years languished in a shadow cast by a history of corruption and financial mismanagement.

Riverview Gardens had just achieved full accreditation in 2002 when its superintendent Chris Nicastro, who had been credited with improving the district, left for Hazelwood.

That’s when Henry Williams, who had already been run out of school districts across the country, was handed the reins and steered Riverview Gardens into disaster.

Williams was accused of traveling on the district’s dime and taking more than $100,000 in district money for personal use. His actions and those of other school leaders plunged the district into an era of academic and financial woes.

The state revoked the district’s accreditation in 2007, the year Williams was fired and the year before he pleaded no contest to counts of felony theft and tax fraud. The state took over the district in 2010, replacing the elected school board with a state-appointed one.

Things started turning around after Spurgeon was hired as superintendent in 2013. He set provisional accreditation as his goal from Day One.

He put a focus on reading, requiring daily reading time for students and setting quotas for the numbers of library books checked out by students.

He had teachers in each school align their curricula so high-mobility students could have an easier transition when switching schools within the district.

Spurgeon expanded an early childhood program, which currently has a waiting list.

There are now five times more Advanced Placement courses than there were three years ago at the high school. Graduation and attendance rates have risen to about 85 percent and 84 percent respectively, according to district figures.

In 2014, Riverview earned a 45.4 percent score on the state’s annual report cards for school districts. Last year, it earned a 79.3 percent score, making the district eligible for full accreditation. This year, it earned 74.6 percent, a slightly lower score but still enough to qualify for full accreditation.

That’s what the state board wanted to see: consecutive years of sustained, higher performance.

End of transfers

While students will lose the right to transfer starting Jan. 4, every district and charter school that receives transfers from Riverview has agreed to keep those students at least until the end of the school year. Those receiving schools will charge Riverview a reduced tuition rate.

The number of Riverview transfer students has more than halved since the program began here in 2013. In the first year, 1,063 students participated, while only 436 participate now.

Riverview transfer students currently attend school districts in St. Louis and St. Charles counties, as well as St. Louis charter schools.

Some districts, including Kirkwood and Webster Groves, have also agreed to let transfer students stay until 2021 or until they reach a natural transition point — at the end of middle or high school, for instance.

But some officials at receiving districts expect the transfer program to essentially end next year anyway, because the agreements say that Riverview will no longer be required to provide bus transportation for transfers.

Transportation — which Riverview provides to Kirkwood and Mehlville, the districts with the most Riverview transfers — has drained about half a million dollars from Riverview schools each year. But without it, most parents wouldn’t be able to make that drive themselves, said John Wolff, spokesman for the Mehlville School District.

“Here’s the reality of the situation: If transportation goes away, they’re not going to come,” Wolff said. “That will in essence kill the program. It’s unfortunate. We’ve loved having the kids here. They have thrived, we have thrived. We love the diversity.”

District divide

Meanwhile, transfer parents are looking for any way to keep their students from having to attend Riverview Gardens schools.

“You do what you got to do for your kids,” said Lloyd Garner, whose sixth-grade daughter attends Parkway through the transfer program.

Transfer parents are still not impressed with the district. They mainly point to Riverview’s test scores.

Only about 14 percent of student test-takers passed state math tests this year, and 25 percent did so for English. The district has received ratings worthy of full accreditation for the past two years under a state grading system that rewards progress and other factors such as attendance and college readiness, not just academic performance.

Some transfer parents say they will look at other school options, such as private school or home schooling, before sending their children to district schools.

Garner said he didn’t think his family could afford private school for his daughter. He and his wife are considering selling their house and moving to an apartment in the Parkway School District just so his daughter can stay in those schools.

“Our baby girl … we got nothing. It’s our last hope. I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Garner said.