• State Board considers provisional accreditation for St. Louis Public Schools


    ST. LOUIS • When state education officials consider upgrading the accreditation of St. Louis Public Schools today, their decision could validate five years of transformation for the struggling district.

    But no one is saying the city schools have reached their end goal.

    Critics will agree this is not the same district it was in 2007, the year the state stripped St. Louis schools of accreditation, revoked the governing authority of the elected board and turned control over to a special administrative board. That district was facing chaos in leadership, declining enrollment, a budget deficit, academic failure and a revolving door of superintendents.

    Today’s district has a balanced budget, gradually improving academics and consistency in top leadership. Superintendent Kelvin Adams and the Special Administrative Board have worked together for the past four years.

    If the state board elevates the district’s status to provisionally accredited from unaccredited, the move would not hand the district back to the elected school board members, attorneys said. But it could provide the affirmation that might help keep Adams and other top leaders at the helm to continue a transformation.

    “There is not a person in this district who believes the district has arrived at some point, and that this is the final frontier,” Adams said. “This is simply, look at the scores, validate the work that has taken place. This is an interim step.”

    Missouri education officials will discuss the district’s academic progress at a meeting today in Jefferson City.

    Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro and her staff will make a recommendation on the district’s status. Nicastro had said in August she had no immediate plans to do so, but Special Administrative Board President Rick Sullivan asked her to consider the progress the district has made in the last five years.

    “The hope is that there’ll be some different thinking about it,” Adams said.

    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 5 in 2010 and 6 in 2011. But the number alone doesn’t effect change. State Board of Education members vote on each district’s status.

    Provisional accreditation would provide parents and residents a more accurate picture of the school system, Sullivan says.

    William Tate, an education and urban studies expert at Washington University, said validation for those working toward accreditation is important:

    “The way you have to think of it is, it’s not pretty yet, but it’s moving in the direction of where there is possibly hope.”

    Provisional accreditation puts them on that bubble, he said.

    According to state statute, if the school district regains accreditation, the State Board of Education would have to take another vote to dissolve the transitional school district before governance would revert to the elected board, said Jeffrey St. Omer, an attorney representing the district. An attorney for the state department of education agreed.

    In November 2010, the state board decided the Special Administrative Board should continue leading the district until at least 2014.

    An elected St. Louis School Board remains in place, though with virtually no authority. President Katie Wessling wrote Nicastro this week asking her to recommend provisional accreditation.

    “The data supports such a decision, and the district should be given the status it has earned,” she wrote.

    When the district lost accreditation, fewer than 20 percent of students were testing at grade level in reading or math. The district has since improved its test scores, attendance and graduation rates.

    Even so, just 30 percent of students who took state exams last spring passed communication arts and 27 percent passed math — far below the state average of 55 percent. That was a decline from the previous year, when 33.1 percent of students passed reading and 30.9 percent passed math.

    And the district’s academic gains have not been without controversy. Cheating allegations at three elementary schools led to a crackdown this year and a dramatic drop in some test scores.

    Gains in Algebra I test scores — one of the state’s performance standards — could be attributed to the district’s strategy of testing only those who are likely to pass. Other students wait to take the test until they receive extra help in the subject. Although the state requires the district to administer the test before a student graduates, the district’s dropout rate is high.

    One city parent of three children has urged Nicastro and board members to stand firm on the issue of accreditation. Andrew Hesse is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to allow students in unaccredited districts to attend better public schools without paying tuition. The matter is stalled while the state Supreme Court considers a ruling in a similar case in St. Louis County Circuit Court.

    If the state board were to award St. Louis provisional accreditation, parents and the public would be misled about the quality of the district, he wrote in a letter posted on the website of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, a program financially supported by school choice advocate Rex Sinquefield.

    Adams, whose contract is up in 2014, said he is committed to the district, but a rejection from the state board could cause him and others to reassess.

    “The validation for this community is extremely important to me,” Adams said. If the board voted against accreditation, he added, “I think people would kind of go back and say, ‘Wow, what do we really need to do then? What does it take?’