• St. Louis Schools relish upgrade, want to achieve more

    St. Louis Post-Dispatch


    BY JESSICA BOCK • jbock@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8228 stltoday.com

    As the Missouri State Board of Education unanimously voted Tuesday to upgrade St. Louis Public Schools from unaccredited status, members made it clear they were far from changing the district's governance back to an elected board.

    Instead, members said the decision to grant the district provisional accreditation recognized the substantial progress city schools have made in finances, overall operations and the gradual change in academics since the district was stripped of accreditation in 2007. That action led to state to soon place the district under a special administrative board. Even with Tuesday's vote, the state would need another vote to put an elected city school board back in place.

    "The local elected board is what got the school district in trouble in the first place," State Board President Peter Herschend said.

    Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro made the recommendation to grant provisional accreditation at the state board's meeting in Jefferson City.

    "The district has not arrived, but clearly, they've started the journey," said Nicastro, who received letters in support of the upgrade from the president of the elected board and Mayor Francis Slay.

    Accreditation of Missouri public schools is based on 14 performance standards. A district must meet nine standards for full accreditation. Five or fewer standards can mean unaccredited status.

    St. Louis met seven standards this year, enough to place it in the provisional accreditation range. The district has shown growth, from a score of five in 2010 and six in 2011. But the number alone doesn't effect change. State Board of Education members vote on each district's status.

    Superintendent Kelvin Adams said he was pleased with the acknowledgement of what has changed in the district.

    "This is not the end line for us. The goal is increased student achievement," he said.

    A spokeswoman for the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri, a program financially supported school choice advocate Rex Sinquefield, said in a statement that while slight progress has taken place, the reclassification is not a victory for St. Louis families. Katie Casas said expectations are still far too low when three out of five high school students fail to graduate in four years and seven out of 10 students are reading below grade level.

    Mike Jones, who represents St. Louis on the state board, said the school district still has a long way to go as far as academic performance.

    "But in relative terms, the progress has been remarkable. This was acknowledging that progress," he said.

    State officials showed data to the board that showed the district is the eighth worst in the state when comparing performance on state tests. But it has moved up from fourth worst when looking at five and three-year averages. Riverview Gardens and Normandy are at the bottom in terms of performance.

    They said that academic rigor and safety had showed some progress in St. Louis Public Schools, but that the most change has been in finances and operations.

    "We've learned that though maintaining local control, local governance by an elected board is always preferable, there are cases where extraordinary measures have be taken in order to stabilize a system and provide the kind of drastic intervention that is necessary," Nicastro said. "We believe that has happened in St. Louis."

    Mary Armstrong, president of the district's teachers union, said the state board's decision was a "giant step" for the district, and is exciting for teachers.

    "But by no means are we satisfied," Armstrong said. "We still have a tough road."

    The restoration to provisional accreditation does change the potential impact on the district of a lawsuit that argues students from unaccredited districts should be allowed to attend better public schools at the cost of the unaccredited district. The matter, known as the Turner case, is pending in the state Supreme Court. St. Louis administrators testified in a trial earlier this year that such transfers had the potential to bankrupt the district.

    A decision in the case is still important to the Clayton School District, which was sued by city parents in the matter.