A student at Normandy High School listens intently during classroom instruction. After a court ruling this summer that allowed students of the unaccredited Normandy School District to transfer to accredited districts, 25% of Normandy's students transferred to other schools.
Trymaine Lee for MSNBC

Missouri school busing causes ‘crippling’ fallout

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WELLSTON, MO.— Just weeks after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a ruling that would allow students from failing school districts to transfer to better ones, disadvantaged students–mostly poor and black–rushed across county lines to fill seats in far flung, affluent schools.

The law was supposed to give thousands of students from unaccredited school districts an opportunity to attend higher-performing schools, a golden ticket for some of the neediest students in the state. But the law has triggered consequences that few school leaders, parents or politicians were prepared for.

In one unaccredited school district, Normandy, located in the near-suburbs of St. Louis, nearly 25% of the student body chose to transfer. The exodus has financially devastated the already struggling district because the law requires transferring districts to pay for all transfer-related costs–including tuition and transportation for students who leave. Having to subsidize kids who no longer attend the local school means the district has millions of dollars less in resources for the students who remain.

Dr. Tyrone McNichols the superintendent of the beleaguered Normandy School District, sits with students at Washington Elementary in St. Louis, Mo.
Dr. Tyrone McNichols the superintendent of the beleaguered Normandy School District, sits with students at Washington Elementary in St. Louis, Mo.
Photo by Trymaine Lee for MSNBC

Unable to bear the unexpected financial burden, Normandy will likely go bankrupt by the spring. If that happens the state could dissolve or dismantle the district, scattering students to other poorly performing districts or to schools in far away, possibly unwelcoming communities.

Many of the students who opted to transfer landed in places like the well-heeled Francis Howell School district, just west of the Missouri River and about 30 miles from Normandy. In the wake of the court’s ruling in June, parents in the Francis Howell district packed school board meetings and town halls to denounce the decision. They said they feared that students from troubled neighborhoods would bring drugs and violence. They worried about the potential for overcrowded classrooms and lowered academic averages. A few suggested that metal detectors be erected and that drug sniffing dogs and armed guards be deployed to keep Normandy students under control.

The racial element of the battle was inextricable. The Francis Howell School District is more than 90% white and solidly middle-class. The Normandy School District is about 97% black and the vast majority of its students are entrenched in poverty. But the tensions in this busing crisis are less about racial desegration than academic desegregation.

A blueprint  for struggling schools?

The transfer law was written two decades ago when the 25,000-student St. Louis Public Schools teetered on the brink of failure. It was designed to offer students better academic options and also to present underperforming school districts with something akin to a nuclear option: do better at educating the students you have or pay the hefty price of educating them elsewhere.

“The way it was written basically said, ‘Hey, if we ever reach a cliff, here will be the policies that will be in place if we ever fall off,’” said State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose electoral district includes the Normandy School District. “None of these districts were supposed to fall off the cliff. It is completely undefined where we should go and what we should do since we are now off the cliff.”

It’s been a long way down and a hard landing. Months into the school year, it’s clear that busing students from poorly performing schools does little to turn those schools around, and that the program’s funding formula is unfair at best and punitive at worst.

So far about 2,200 students have transferred from the Normandy and nearby Riverview Gardens school districts, both outside of St. Louis and two of the state’s three unaccredited districts.

Normandy’s current tuition rate is $12,000 per student, per year. The costs of tuition among the 14 school districts that accepted Normandy transfers vary widely, climbing as high as $20,000 per student. Normandy school officials expect to pay about $15 million in transfer costs this school year: more than $1 million a month. Normandy chose Francis Howell as its receiving district and so must pay about $425,000 a month to bus nearly 450 students the 30 miles to Francis Howell schools.

Barring a miracle or an unlikely infusion of emergency funds from the state legislature, Normandy officials say the district will be bankrupt by March. That will be an additional blow to local students.

“There’s no failed district in this country that has been taken over by the state and turned into an excellent district,” said Ethan Gray, the executive director of Cities for Educational Excellence Trust, an Indiana-based consulting group hired by the Department of Education to analyze whether the transfer law might work elsewhere in the state. “Unfortunately we don’t have any urban school districts in America that are serving all of its kids well. And that is what we’re trying to grapple with.”

A group of students outside of Normandy High School just moments after the bell rang at the end of school in Wellston, St. Louis County, Mo.
A group of students outside of Normandy High School just moments after the bell rang at the end of school in Wellston, St. Louis County, Mo.
Photo by Photo by Trymaine Lee for MSNBC

Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols said the district’s “crippling” new costs have made it doubly hard to boost the district’s poor academics, which led to the loss of its accreditation  in the first place. As a cost saving measure the school board recently announced the closure of an elementary school, a layoff of 103 employees and a vote to not pay its most recent transfer bills,  totaling $1.3 million. The vote was later partially reversed, but the message it sent was clear.

“We are all determined to turn this around,” McNichols said on a crisp afternoon this fall. “But if we do nothing, we’ll be out of money by March.”

Education policymakers are watching the Normandy crisis closely, as larger metropolitan school districts across the state face the loss of accreditation. Eleven other districts, including the approximately 25,000-student St. Louis Public Schools, are provisionally accredited, a kind of limbo that puts them at risk if their academic achievement slips even slightly in the coming years.

“There may be other districts in five to 10 years that could find themselves in the same category,” said Ron Lankford, a deputy commissioner for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “The real problem for the school districts is how they maintain their programs for the students they currently have and maintain the tuition payments to the receiving districts. That just can’t be sustainable in the long term.”

Transfers from Kansas City public schools, on the west side of the state and the largest of the three unaccredited districts with nearly 17,000 students, are being held up by a lawsuit brought by taxpayers in neighboring school districts. The case is currently being decided by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The 3,000 students who chose to stay in the Normandy district  feel the uncertaintly.  “It’s not simply about what happens inside those four walls of a school building,” said Chris Krehmeyer, the executive director of Beyond Housing, a non-profit organization that provides housing and other services in the district. “But we believe the core of a community is a quality public education. The kids that left and went to other schools, we still want to support them and we clearly understand a parent’s desire to get the best education possible. But the transfer issue and possible insolvency of our local school district is very problematic in both emotional and psychological ways for those that stayed.”

We Don’t Want This Here

Weeks before the start of the school year, 17-year-old Samone Smith and her family wrestled with the biggest decision of her academic life. Should she stay at Normandy High School with its bad reputation and poor academic performance, or transfer to a good school across county lines?

“I was just so sick and tired of how things were at Normandy,” Smith, a 12th grade honor student, said on a recent afternoon between classes. “I kind of just wanted better for myself.”

While Smith debated the virtues of leaving her best friends and favorite coaches for brighter academic prospects, a much angrier debate was raging about 30 miles away.

“I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed,” one mother said during a school board meeting in the Francis Howell School District, referring to the prospect of Normandy students arriving in St. Charles County.

“We don’t want this here in Francis Howell,” another parent said.

Francis Howell is one of a patch of counties where white families headed a generation ago in flight from St. Louis and its inner suburbs. Many of the 24, mostly black municipalities in the Normandy district are desperately poor. The district has the second highest rate of poverty in the state: about 92% of district students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. In Wellston, where Normandy High School is located, side streets are pocked with the overgrown yards and crumbling buildings of abandoned homes.

The racial dynamic of the transfer law hasn’t been lost on those who’ve been associated with these communities. The school crisis “feels racial because people didn’t pay attention to us until it started to affect non-African-American people,” said McNichols, the superintendent. “It hadn’t been an issue when people felt that it was a Normandy issue and not their issue. One of the unintended consequences of the decision is that it became a regional issue.”

Romalus Tabb, 17, a senior at Normandy High School and a member of the school's basketball team, said the schools athletics have suffered since a number of athletes have transferred to other schools following a ruling that allowed students from failing sc
Romalus Tabb, 17, a senior at Normandy High School and a member of the school’s basketball team, said the schools athletics have suffered since a number of athletes have transferred to other schools following a ruling that allowed students from failing school districts to transfer to accredited schools.
Photo by Trymaine Lee for MSNBC

So although the financial costs of busing have been devastating, choosing to send students to the wealthier district succeeded in drawing attention to Normandy’s plight. Selecting Francis Howell as Normandy’s receiving school of choice was “the best strategic move” the district made, says Kathleen Sullivan Brown, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri St. Louis.  “What it did was, it grabbed the attention of all the people who had been thinking this was a St. Louis problem or ‘those urban people’ and their problem,” Brown said. “By doing this they brought in St. Charles County, people who wanted to get far away from the city. Legislators in St. Charles absolutely threw a fit now that they are in the middle of this.”

The Francis Howell parents’ worries have largely dissipated. The transfer students have acclimated well to their new schools and been mostly welcomed by their classmates.

But back at Normandy, Samone Smith, a wispy high school senior, said the hurtful words spewed by Francis Howell parents last summer still play on an endless loop in her head, very much the way they’d been played over and over on the local news.

Smith lamented the “cliches of the hood” that spilled from newspaper stories and the nightly newscasts. She said she resented the hate she felt people harbored for Normandy students without even knowing them.

As she toyed with the idea of staying at Normandy or transferring, she said she got a call from one of her track coaches who told her, “We got your back here, don’t leave.”

A group of Normandy High School students and a parent tour Normandy High School, where hundreds of students transferred from over the summer.
A group of Normandy High School students and a parent tour Normandy High School, where hundreds of students transferred from over the summer.
Photo by Trymaine Lee for MSNBC
“I decided to stay,” Smith said. “Although we are at our lowest point, I know we can turn it around. I know we can get stronger and prove to everybody that Normandy isn’t what they think we are or what they hear on the news.”

With nearly a quarter of the student body gone, the halls at Normandy High School are a bit less crowded these days. The marching band is down several members from last year. A few of the star athletes are playing for different teams this season. Buddies from last school year have been separated by long bus rides in different directions to different schools. And students who’ve been around long enough to recall the days of constant fighting and disciplinary problems, the kind that had made Normandy High one of the most violent in the state, say even that seems to have been swept away with transfers and attrition.

Still, despite the spirit of students like Smith who chose to stay, for the school district to stop the financial bleeding, it must regain its provisional or full accreditation. That process will require hitting key benchmarks and at least a few years of steady gains.

The district has struggled academically for decades. In 1996 it was dropped from accredited to provisionally accredited. Since 2006 the district’s rating was low enough for the department of education to revoke its accreditation completely, which happened formally last January.

In the most recent state annual performance report the district achieved just 11% of the 141 possible points. The score was the lowest in the state and far from the 50% required to gain even provisional accreditation. The vast majority of the students in the district are reading and doing math below grade level. Student attendance is a nagging issue. And with families constantly moving in and out of the district, school officials say it’s difficult to create a stable school culture.

“We do everything we can to make sure that a child is fed and warm. But we have to raise the academic bar for our babies,” McNichols said. “Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you can’t learn.”

Short Term Fixes, Long Term Goals

Superintendent McNichols said he came into the job with his eyes open—but still wasn’t prepared for the transfer crisis.  “We didn’t know what was going to happen. It had been litigated before and they always ruled in favor of the surrounding districts in the past,” McNichols, said. “But I’m an optimist so I’m hopeful. The fact that 75% of our kids stayed tells me something.”

Each week McNichols’s makes unannounced visits to district schools, where he takes stock of teacher instruction, student comprehension and school leadership. “We’re doing targeted walkthroughs looking at specific things, not just to get hearsay, but to visually observe what is working and what is not,” McNichols said. “We want to see what pockets of excellence exist to see if we can replicate them, but also to identify if there are patterns that need to be addressed.”

Students walk the halls of Normandy High School, where hundreds of students transferred over the summer.
Students walk the halls of Normandy High School in St. Louis, where hundreds of students transferred over the summer.
Photo by Trymaine Lee for MSNBC

The district has partnered with the University of Missouri St. Louis in a pilot literacy program that gives second and third graders access to additional teaching aides and iPads. Boeing, the aeronautics company, has also teamed up with the district to bolster its STEM program. “None of this was going on when we got here,” McNichol’s said.

While school district administrators have focused much of their attention on the budget and academics, area lawmakers have turned to the legislative issues ahead of the session that begins in January. The lawmakers are hoping to craft rules that would be fair to both the sending and receiving school districts.

State Sen. Chappelle-Nadal said that perhaps the law should be tweaked to allow individual school accreditation rather than district accreditation. That would allow students to leave failing schools while keeping them, and the funding that follows them, in the districts.

“What is incumbent upon us is to create policy that takes us into the next 20 years,” said Chappelle-Nadal. “There is not going to be one legislative approach or policy that is going to fix this situation that we are in.”

The state Department of Education has asked the legislature to provide Normandy with $6.8 million in emergency funding, a request that many lawmakers have not supported. Chappelle-Nadal called the funding a Band-aid.

“I want to ensure that we are looking at the full picture,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “$6 million is a short term fix but it’s not helping us in the long run.”

Faith and Family

As teachers, administrators, and lawmakers grapple with the larger issues, the kids are rallying in their own way. Normandy High students have started tutoring groups to help peers who are behind in their studies. Teachers say that classmates who “get it” are working more closely with those who don’t. Administrators say that students have even begun to regulate disruptive peer behavior.

“Last year I could have been vain and bourgeoisie,” Smith said. “I looked at students who weren’t doing as well as me and said they’re just being dumb. But now it feels like we’re all family and we’re just trying to help everyone make it.”

The enthusiasm is shared by many of their parents as well. “The teachers are trying to do their part, the students are doing their part, so we as parents need to do our part, too,” said Aleshia Vaughn, the mother of a 10th grader. On the first day of school, parents and alumni held a pep rally to welcome back returning students. They lined the sidewalks leading up to the school, chanting and waving signs. The emotional charge still lingers, students said.

On a chilly Tuesday morning last month, a group of students including Samone Smith walked the halls of Normandy High School trumpeting their love for their beleaguered school. They popped their heads into various classrooms to wave at their favorite teachers and called out to the lunch ladies who shooed them away with waving arms and smiles.

“The average student can no longer hide behind ignorance or an attitude. We have to push things to a higher level,” Smith said. “For the first time I can honestly say that I have faith in the students of Normandy.”

Economic Inequality and Education Policy

Missouri school busing causes 'crippling' fallout

Updated