• 12:10 am on Tue, 08.14.12

    Missouri’s top educator says the St. Louis Public Schools are a success story that have shown marked progress since being taken over by the state, but they aren’t doing well enough to get out from under the control of Jefferson City just yet.

    St. Louis Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams isn’t too happy with that view. He says that the latest state evaluations of school districts, released Tuesday, show that the city schools have the required number of points to progress from being unaccredited to being provisionally accredited, and he thinks the state should make that move.

    Of the 14 points possible in the annual performance report (APR) from the Missouri School Improvement Program, the city school system earned seven, including the one required from a student performance category — in this case, high school math. Asked if he was upset that the point total would not result in provisional accreditation, Adams told the Beacon:

    “I’m not going to describe any emotion. I’m just going to say that seven points equals provisional accreditation. My understanding from reading the policy and the APR guidelines was that seven points equal provisional accreditation — period.”

    Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said that interpretation is not necessarily correct, that her Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has discretion on when and whether to recommend such a change, from unaccredited to provisionally accredited, for individual districts. 

    In the case of St. Louis, she said, despite the progress that has been made so far, she and members of the state board of education want to make sure such growth can be sustained — probably over at least three years — before they restore accreditation and put the special administrative board that has been running the city public schools since 2007 out of business.

    "What we have seen in St. Louis is effective improvement," Nicastro said. "We would certainly take some of the credit for that. I would say that most of the credit for that, as in all of these situations, goes to the local superintendent and the board. We can’t improve schools from Jefferson City, and we certainly acknowledge that.

    "Having said that, it is our responsibility to provide the kind of support that they need to make that kind of progress. St. Louis, at least at this point, appears to be a success story. But I think they still have a way to go."

    St. Louis is one of three districts in the state, along with Riverview Gardens and Kansas City, that is unaccredited, and one of two, with Riverview, under the control of a state-appointed special administrative board (SAB). In the latest Missouri School Improvement Plan numbers released Tuesday, Riverview met four of the 14 standards, up from three last year; Kansas City, which under state law is not eligible for an SAB until 2014, met five standards, also up from three a year ago.

    Another St. Louis area school district in the state spotlight, Normandy, currently is provisionally accredited. In the latest MSIP report, Normandy met five standards, none of them in an academic category. It is one of six districts that Nicastro said her department will be studying over the next several weeks to make a recommendation to the state board about whether its status should change and whether it should lose accreditation altogether.

    In addition to those six districts, 510 other school districts in Missouri are accredited, nine are provisionally accredited and three are unaccredited.

    Another local district that is unaccredited, Jennings, gained a point in its MSIP score, rising to seven.

    Overall, MAP scores show slight improvement

    Statewide, according to the figures released Tuesday, scores for the 600,000 students who took the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests in the spring showed very slight gains. In communication arts, the proportion of students who scored at the proficient or advanced level rose to 55 percent from 54.6 percent last year; in math, the gain was to 55 percent from 54.3 percent. 

    State education officials said notable gains were made by English language learners and by Hispanic students in both subject areas.

    Because the state has earned a waiver from Washington from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind mandates, MAP scores will no longer be used to judge whether the state has made adequate yearly progress as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. Instead, the Missouri School Improvement Program, or MSIP, will be the only program used to gauge the progress of Missouri’s school districts.

    And after this year, MSIP will be moving to a new format that is designed to better measure how well a district and its students are performing and better diagnose where help is needed.

    Test scores for all districts are available on the DESE website.

    Scores are being made available to districts and to the public about a month earlier than usual this year. Nicastro said the new schedule is designed to let school districts analyze the numbers and make whatever adjustments are indicated so they can take effect in the school year that is just beginning.

    Asked how parents and the public should use the statistics, she replied:

    “I think parents need to look at how their individual child is progressing. I would also be looking from a parent perspective at how their school is doing overall. What is the climate like? How do principals and teachers interact with me as a parent? What is the communication like? The parent perspective is something that these numbers don’t necessarily reflect.

    “From our perspective, what we are looking at is that big picture, the overall view. Our responsibility under state law and the constitution is to classify school districts. More importantly, we use this system to apportion our resources and our support systems so we know which districts need the most support from this department.”

    Help from the state

    Providing special help from Jefferson City is one of the goals behind the state takeovers in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens. Nicastro said that such assistance is not only for academic performance but for finance and for governance.

    In the case of St. Louis, she said, "we’re thrilled to see their steady improvement. But we’ve said from the beginning that we are looking for sustained improvement over time. That has generally been at least three years. We would not make a recommendation for change prior to having three years of data."

    That means, she added, that slight improvements in St. Louis or Riverview Gardens would not be enough to prompt a return to governance by a local elected board.

    “One year of fluctuation in a single standard does not long-term improvement necessarily make,” Nicastro said. “We’re far from satisfied with the status of those districts at this point.”

    She understands the impatience from Adams in St. Louis and said if she were superintendent of the city schools, she would also be clamoring for a new classification. In the past, she added, the state was looking for five years of improvement, but now, it needs a minimum of three years.

    "Many things have improved in the St. Louis Public Schools," Nicastro said. "Things have gotten steadily better since they hired and kept and supported a good leader. But the SAB, no matter how good, can’t do it by itself, and neither can a superintendent. It has to be a team, a governing team of a board and a superintendent. In the case of St. Louis, it has proven to be effective. In Riverview Gardens, it is too soon to tell.”

    Superintendents respond

    Asked whether he thought the St. Louis schools still had a distance to go before they should regain accreditation, Adams replied:

    “I think every district in the state has a ways to go, to get to where every kid graduates on time and every kid is proficient.”

    In a recent meeting with principals after the latest MAP scores were released to districts, Adams reportedly expressed his unhappiness with the district’s scores in a strong fashion that was a bit more intense than his typically quiet demeanor. He didn’t deny that, explaining it this way:

    "I think it’s fair to say that I’m not satisfied, and I wouldn’t have been satisfied no matter what the scores were. I get concerned when we don’t get the results that I think we should have. I wouldn’t say I was testy. I think I was a little more direct."

    He said he would use the information from the latest MSIP report to devise an action plan that would be presented to the SAB later this month. 

    With about 2,000 students who attended the now-closed Imagine charter schools expected to enroll in the city public schools this fall, Adams said he hopes the state would do for the St. Louis Public Schools what it did for Normandy when it absorbed the Wellston school district at the end of the 2009-2010 school year and break out scores from those new students separately. 

    Nicastro said the question about that is whether the Imagine students equal 10 percent of the city’s total enrollment.

    As far as Normandy’s scores, Superintendent Stanton Lawrence took pains to point out how the district’s report card differed depending on whether the former Wellston students were included or not.

    In each case, Normandy met five standards of the 14 possible. With the Wellston students included, it did not meet any of the academic standards but did earn a point for its graduation rate. Without the Wellston students, it earned an academic point for its scores in high school math but lost the graduation point.

    Last year, reacting to Normandy’s MAP scores, Lawrence said using the inclusion of Wellston students to explain poor performance would be "too easy of an excuse for us to grab onto."
    This year, he talked more about the "unique situation" involving Wellston in terms of how the scores came out.

    "For the first time in the history of our nation," he said, "a marginal school district was forced to take a failing school district. We were told if we had not agreed, we would get them anyway. Long story short, the young people from Wellston are wonderful young people. We are glad to have them as part of our school district. They just need to be taught like kids anywhere.

    "But knowing that we were teetering on the brink as far as accreditation is concerned, we knew that it would take a little time. If you look beneath the surface at the data, it shows significant movement. Would I have preferred more movement? Absolutely I would have. But some movement is better than no movement at all."

    Asked about the possibility that the state board of education would remove Normandy’s accreditation, Lawrence said:

    "We are pretty optimistic that is not going to happen. It would not serve the state’s best interests and Normandy’s best interest, and if that would happen, you would have another first. I don’t think Missouri wants that distinction, to have people think that is the way they treat kids in poverty. I think they want to give people the impression that they treat kids in poverty the same way they treat kids in more affluent areas.

    "Normandy took DESE off the hook two years ago. Some folks in our community thought it was going to be done so Normandy would become unaccredited. I did not share that sentiment. I thought DESE was going to get in there with us as a partner to see that we succeed. I’m extremely optimistic."

    In Riverview Gardens, where Clive Coleman hired by the SAB to be superintendent when that board was named in 2010, he said that he has been handicapped in efforts to meet some of the standards because the state uses a five-year rolling average, including years before he arrived and the SAB took over.

    In other areas, including academics, Coleman said Riverview is hampered in its effort to improve in part because of its transient population.
    "One of our problems with attendance is our high mobility rate," he said. "We have 1,800 new students, and our enrollment has not increased. How do we address that academically? We have them coming in all the time, throughout the year, and if they are coming from another school district, they are out of sync with us."

    He said that Riverview schools with special federal School Improvement Grants showed gains, but those are in the upper grades. In elementary schools, he said, where student turnover is the highest, sustained improvement is harder to come by.

    "I am never pleased," he said, "but we didn’t stay stagnant. We didn’t remain the same. We have shown growth, but not at the accelerated rate that I expected."

    Because Riverview is on a sounder financial footing, Coleman added, it is in position to spend money more wisely and more effectively and make progress on the long trip back to accreditation.

    "We’re not just going to throw money out there on a program just to see what’s going to happen," he said. "We had to stop and turn the ship around. Now, we need to put up the sails, turn on the engines and go full speed ahead."

    Charter scores

    Charter schools in the city of St. Louis, on average, scored higher on MAP tests than St. Louis' traditional public schools but lower than the state average, comparing the percentage of students who were rated proficient or above.

    For math, St. Louis charters averaged 32.47 percent, compared with 27.3 for SLPS and 55 percent for the state. For communication arts the numbers were 35.64 for charters, 30.1 for St. Louis Public Schools and 55 percent for the state.

    The only St. Louis charters that scored at or above the state averages were City Garden, which had 55 percent for math and 73 percent for communication arts, and Gateway science, which had 54.7 percent for math and 57.5 percent for communication arts.

    More Kansas City charters exceeded the state averages, a fact that Doug Thaman, head of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, attributed at least in part to the fact that many of the charters there have been in operation longer than the St. Louis charters.

    Asked what the fairest comparison is, charters against the local district public schools or against the state averages, Thaman replied:

    "I think it’s a matter of both. It’s interesting to look at how charter schools compared with the district, but what we strive for is to meet or exceed the state averages and perform with the top schools around the state. Being equal to the district is not the goal."

    In St. Louis, Thaman said, a number of schools have shown improvement in math and communication arts. "It’s just a matter of how much gain can be made each year," he added. "The trajectory shows they are headed in the right direction."

    With many school officials saying that the best way to judge a school’s progress is to gauge how much students have gained from the beginning of the year to the end — a so-called value-added measure — Thaman said that taking stock in that way is often difficult for charters, given their enrollment and their history.

    "We have noted from our own research and by looking at things over a period of time that it generally takes a school three years to get its feet on the ground," he said. "And bringing in students when a majority of them are one and a half to two years below grade level, you have to not only bring them up to grade level but try to move them forward.

    "For some of these schools, this is their first year of scores. We like what we are seeing, but it will be another couple of years before we can draw conclusions."