Officials express shame at state of Normandy schools

Normandy High honors student Cameron Hensley (left), a senior, checks his phone as some students sleep away physics class on Thursday, April 30, 2015. Though the teacher was inside the classroom the entire class period, no instruction occurred. Instead, the teacher and many students spent the hour on their phones or practicing for the dance team's upcoming parade. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Normandy High honors student Cameron Hensley (left), a senior, checks his phone as some students sleep away physics class on Thursday, April 30, 2015. Though the teacher was inside the classroom the entire class period, no instruction occurred. Instead, the teacher and many students spent the hour on their phones or practicing for the dance team's upcoming parade. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

By Elisa Crouch

After reading about the high level of dysfunction at Normandy High School, officials from Gov. Jay Nixon to members of the Missouri Board of Education expressed anger and frustration on Monday that students often sit in classrooms with no instruction.

“If you have any sense of decency — shame is all you can feel if you allowed that to happen,” said Mike Jones of St. Louis, state board vice president. “Disappointment is too mild. We all ought to be ashamed. I am. There’s no excuse for it happening. There’s no excuse for not knowing about it. There’s something fundamentally wrong with a place that permits by omission or commission this set of circumstances.”

A story in the Sunday Post-Dispatch profiled Cameron Hensley, 18, a Normandy High honors student whose school no longer offers honors classes. He hasn’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, is taught by an instructor not certified to teach it. His physics teacher is a permanent sub who hasn’t taught a lesson in months.

“I’ve visited the classes, too, and I’ve seen some of the same things you saw,” said Victor Lenz of St. Louis County, a state board member. “I saw classes where the kids were milling around and the teacher was just sitting there. And I had the superintendent and the principal with me. I thought that was atrocious.”

The superintendent has since resigned. Even after Lenz’s visit last fall, the problems have persisted.

Nixon issued this statement: “Every child deserves access to a quality education. The deplorable conditions detailed by the Post-Dispatch are unacceptable and must change.”

A letter from Interim Superintendent Charles Pearson posted on the district’s website said that a restructuring plan would be announced this month. Pearson, in charge since January, called the high school’s dysfunction “unacceptable.”

For months, teachers and parents have described similar problems at Normandy Middle School.

The 3,500 children who attend the Normandy Schools Collaborative are predominantly black and low-income. Their schools have been depleted of resources to cover tuition for the hundreds of students who now attend more successful schools under the school transfer law.

The state board assumed oversight of Normandy last summer after about 20 years of poor academic performance and fragile finances. But Normandy schools received no additional money to offset the financial drain created by the transfer law.

“Now they’re going into the 2015-16 school year on a bread-and-water budget,” said Chris Krehmeyer, executive director of Beyond Housing, a nonprofit group that is heavily involved in the Normandy district. “Do they have the right number of teachers or the best teachers? No. Are there enough social workers? No. Do they have tutors and mentors in place? No, they don’t. If you create such a big hill for these students, their families and district leadership to climb, you’re damning these kids to failure.”

There was plenty of blame being assigned on Monday.

School district officials declined to comment beyond Pearson’s letter, but reportedly have met with the high school administration.

Some parents in the district have said they believe state education officials have set their district up to fail. After the takeover, the district replaced nearly half the teaching staff with more inexperienced teachers who haven’t been able to take control of classrooms.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, blamed former state Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, who was at the helm at the time of the takeover. Chappelle-Nadal also blamed Nixon for vetoing a bill last summer that would have reduced transfer expenses.

Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, whose district includes Normandy, said the school district has a problem with morale. Teachers have no job security, he said, and the children don’t know if their school will be around one year to the next. Pending legislation does nothing to help, he added.

On Monday, the Missouri House and Senate continued to work through the differences between their versions of the school transfer bill. The legislation could reduce the number of children leaving Normandy and other unaccredited districts by giving students other options closer to home, by expanding virtual schools and allowing further expansion of charter schools.

But it does nothing to limit the amount districts can charge Normandy in tuition, which adds up to millions of dollars per year. State and district education officials have expressed doubt that the district will be able to shoulder tuition for the 639 students who have applied to attend other schools in 2015-16.

“What I’ve seen in Normandy, when there is deep uncertainty as to the future of the schools, the leadership, the finances, legislative action or inaction, court rulings — every one of those statements I just made bears on Normandy,” said Peter Herschend, president of the state Board of Education. “It is a huge operational problem for the men and women there who are trying to lead.”

Rumors that Normandy might be merged with another school district are circulating. Interim Superintendent Pearson said he’s not been part of any such discussion. Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said her department is waiting to see what the Legislature does with the transfer bill before any such discussions begin, if they ever do.

The Missouri Board of Education meets May 19 in Jefferson City. Jones said he expects Normandy to be on the agenda. He also wants deep discussion on what must change structurally to help high-poverty, heavily black districts succeed.

“As long as we’re staying inside this construct, we’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to begin to articulate that. That at minimum, these children and their families need to understand that they live in a state and a region that despite some heroic individual efforts, collectively, we have marginalized and dismissed them.”

Alex Stuckey of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.