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Students 'were the victims’: End of the transfer program highlights inequality in St. Louis area schools

Students 'were the victims’: End of the transfer program highlights inequality in St. Louis area schools


NORMANDY — Tyler Ratlif-Woods is not going to Normandy High School.

The 14-year-old plans to enroll this month at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, where he toured with his Ladue Middle School classmates last spring, where he met with the orchestra teacher, where his aunt and big brother graduated.

But Tyler lives in the Normandy school district which lost its state accreditation in 2013. Under state law, students living in unaccredited school districts can transfer to accredited districts. That year, Tyler transferred from Normandy to Spoede Elementary in the Ladue district.

When Normandy achieved provisional accreditation in 2017, most school districts, including Ladue, decided the transfer students could stay until they finished elementary or middle school.

After five years in Ladue schools, Tyler would have to return to Normandy High School.

His mother and grandmother are now searching for an affordable studio apartment around Ladue in a desperate attempt to keep Tyler in the highly rated school district. They also have considered sending him to Florida to live with relatives. They’ve looked into home-schooling and online learning. Anything to keep the quiet, sensitive boy in a familiar learning environment.

“He cannot go to the district that we live in,” said Trinis Ratlif, Tyler’s mother. “It would be devastating to him. He’s been gone for so long — he does not fit in. I just want to make sure my son stays on the right track.”

Transfer program winds down

The 2015 Ferguson Commission report called on the state to overhaul the school accreditation system to address racial and income inequity. It said the transfer system “fail(s) to fix the schools that have lost accreditation or to address the core issues that led to losing accreditation” because it sends “motivated students and money away.”

The transfer law required Normandy and the neighboring Riverview Gardens School District to pay up to $20,000 in tuition a year for each student attending outside districts. In many districts, that tuition was more than the Normandy or Riverview Gardens received in tax revenue per student. Both districts serve an almost entirely African American and low-income student population. The transfer law threatened to bankrupt them.

More than 2,000 students transferred.

After state takeovers and lawsuits and court orders, Normandy and Riverview regained provisional accreditation. The districts’ test scores and other academic measures remain among the worst in the state.

But students can no longer transfer out. That means more than 200 families like Tyler’s — those with students still enrolled in other districts — must again disrupt their children’s education.

“There’s no evidence that sending that child back to Normandy is going to make Normandy any better,” said James Shuls, an assistant professor of education policy at University of Missouri-St. Louis. “But if this child is doing well in Ladue, there’s all kinds of evidence that it’s improving his life, and not harming a single student back in his district.”

Meanwhile, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is working to revise the state’s accreditation and testing system.

‘Moving does not solve the problem’

Jadyn Jones entered Reed Elementary in Ladue in the second grade after transferring from Riverview Gardens. Jadyn joined the Girl Scouts and Girls on the Run. Last year at Ladue’s Fifth Grade Center, she loved having her own locker and learning new recipes in her after-school cooking classes. She and her best friend bonded over their love of animals. She won “Best Dancer” last spring at the school.

“She is thriving and has found a place where she fits in. She feels safe in her school environment and as her mother, I don’t worry about her safety while she’s at school,” Renita Jones told Ladue School Board members last spring after learning Jadyn would have to return to Riverview Gardens for middle school.

“She is your student, she is your child, she is Ladue,” Jones said.

But Ladue said Jadyn and four other Riverview Gardens and Normandy students from the Fifth Grade Center would have to attend middle school in their home districts.

Jones decided to sell her house of 15 years in Bellefontaine Neighbors and move to a condominium in Creve Coeur, in the Ladue district. Her new rent will cost more than her previous mortgage.

“Moving does not solve the problem,” Jones said, “… and not everybody has that option. Why can’t all schools offer a good education?”

Jadyn has been packing up her room in the only house she’s ever known. Her rock collection, doll clothes and a bouquet of artificial flowers that she once caught at a wedding all go into the box.

Inequality in schools

In Normandy, 26% of third graders were proficient in English and 3% of seventh graders were proficient in math in 2018. In the same grades in Riverview Gardens, 18% were proficient in English and 4% in math.

Parents of transfer students said their children went from the honor roll in their home districts to playing catch-up in their new schools. After transferring to Ladue, Tyler attended schools where 70% of students are proficient in math and English. Tyler’s older brother Trenton, 19, also transferred to Ladue and graduated in 2018. He now attends St. Louis Community College. Their aunt went to Ladue in the 1990s under an earlier desegregation program.

Tyler learned to play the violin at Spoede Elementary, where a before-school program allows any fourth grader to play the instrument. He planned to play in Ladue’s high school orchestra, and met with its director.

Ratlif wants her younger son to go to college. Fewer than 40% of 2017 Normandy graduates enrolled in college, compared to 90% of Ladue graduates, according to state statistics. Ladue offers 24 Advanced Placement classes for possible college credit; Normandy offers six.

Ratlif works for the state as a probation officer. She makes home visits in Normandy when her coworkers are scared to. She fears for her son’s physical and mental health if he has to go back to Normandy High School.

She graduated from Normandy in 1986.

“The education was sub-par,” Ratlif said. “And it hasn’t changed.”

Ratlif and her mother, Erma Ratlif, a former member of the Normandy City Council, have contacted state education officials, their elected leaders and attended numerous school board meetings on Tyler’s behalf. An attorney wrote a hardship letter to Ladue explaining the boy’s situation.

Tyler’s family, worried about his reaction, kept the news from him for months.

Last week, as the summer wound down, they told him. He was crushed.

His mother did not want him interviewed or photographed for this story.

‘It got us out’

Some school districts, including Pattonville and Ferguson-Florissant, allowed the transfer students they took in to stay only until the end of the school year in which their home districts received provisional accreditation. Maplewood-Richmond Heights allowed two transfer students to stay through graduation by approving hardship waivers.

In July, the Clayton and Normandy districts agreed to allow 11 students at transition points to remain in Clayton schools. Instead of paying tuition for the remaining transfer students, Normandy agreed to provide professional development services for Clayton teachers.

Normandy’s superintendent Charles Pearson said the agreement with Clayton is “a creative solution that did not further impact our students.”

Ladue school officials said they tried to keep their 49 remaining transfer students, including 19 like Tyler who finished elementary or middle school this year. They were advised by attorneys that creating any exemption for those transfer students would open the district to legal challenges based on discrimination from other students living outside the district. Discussions on the issue are ongoing with the Ladue School Board, according to district spokeswoman Susan Downing.

“Students all the while were the victims in this,” Downing said. “They came here, the families chose to do that, we chose to embrace them, and now as the program unwinds it’s a mess again.”

Advocates for school choice point to success stories like Robert Davis, who graduated from Francis Howell High School in St. Charles after transferring from Normandy in 2013. Davis is now a junior at Washington University and spent the summer on an archaeological dig in the Mississippi Delta.

“When they came up with the transfer program it was like a gift from God,” said his father, Paul Davis. “It got us out right at the right time.”

Normandy wants the students back

The years after Normandy lost accreditation were chaotic. The district was in survival mode, said superintendent Charles Pearson. Violent incidents and student discipline rates were the highest in the region. High school honors classes were dropped from the schedule. The district has sent $35 million in tuition to other districts and came close to bankruptcy. By 2015, more than 60% of Normandy teachers were in their first or second year on the job, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Imagine trying to recruit teachers while it’s playing out in the press that you might not exist,” Pearson said.

But the transfer program also inspired the district to turn things around. Administrators felt more accountable to the parents who kept their students in the district by choice, Pearson said.

“We knew we had to do something different,” he said.

The district passed a $23 million bond issue in 2017 that allowed for construction and improvements to schools. The graduation rate at Normandy High rose from 53% in 2013 to 72% in 2018. Fewer teachers are leaving, Pearson said.

The district still has major problems, not least a 40% mobility rate — the percentage of students who don’t finish the year in the same school where they started it.

Pearson said he understands why parents sought a better education for their children, but he wants them to give Normandy another chance.

“I believe we are building a program that is going to serve children at every level,” he said. “We’re like a startup company. It’s just getting built.”

Normandy students return to class Aug. 19. One freshman will not be joining them.

Tyler Ratlif-Woods is not going to Normandy High School.

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