• Missouri auditor praises progress at St. Louis Public Schools

    State Auditor Tom Schweich announces his office's findings in an audit of the St. Louis Public Schools on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in the Wainwright Building in downtown St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

    February 20, 2014 9:15 pm • By Elisa Crouch ecrouch@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8119

    ST. LOUIS • St. Louis Public Schools received praise Thursday from Missouri Auditor Thomas Schweich months after a stinging audit found shortcomings in 18 areas, such as the promotion of children to the next grade despite weak reading skills.

    “We are very pleased,” Schweich said at a downtown news conference. “We are very confident that virtually everything we asked to be done will be done in the next few months.”

    Schweich read a list of items that district officials have addressed since September, when he gave St. Louis schools a “fair” rating and recommended more than a dozen changes in areas such as finance, purchasing and educational programs.

    At the time, what troubled Schweich the most was the district’s practice of moving children to the next grade level even though their reading skills were subpar. The practice is common statewide.

    Passing fourth-graders who read at or below a second-grade level is a violation of state law.

    More than 2,000 students in St. Louis district schools tested at the “below basic” level — the lowest performance category — in the reading section of the 2011 and 2012 Missouri Assessment Program tests. Yet just 158 students and 128 students were held back those years, respectively. Holding back each child who is behind in reading, as mandated by state law, would be too costly, administrators told Schweich’s staff last fall.

    But after the audit, the district put a process in place to hold back children after various interventions — including tutoring and summer school — fail. An additional law that applies only to St. Louis Public Schools prohibits passing any child through eighth grade to the next level with weak reading skills.

    Don’t expect hundreds of children to be held back next year, Superintendent Kelvin Adams said.

    “What you could be looking at is us identifying students who need help and providing help to those students in a documented way,” he said.

    Adams watched from the third row as Schweich summarized the follow-up report. He complimented Adams and his staff several times for their cooperation. Tension between auditors and the district that erupted at the start of the audit process has evaporated, Schweich said.

    “It started off a little rough,” Schweich said. “We’re confident that as a result of this painful process everybody has improved.”

    Those improvements, he said, include a new district policy that would trigger action whenever general fund reserves dip below 3 percent.

    There’s a new plan to evaluate the effectiveness of 540 programs in St. Louis schools. The district is working to hire an internal auditor — another recommendation. There’s a new process to identify abnormal swings in standardized test scores that could indicate a teacher or administrator is committing fraud.

    The district is not moving on Schweich’s recommendation to initiate its own investigation after suspicious performance swings are found. Instead, the district will report them to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

    “We would prefer that they investigate those on site,” Schweich said.

    The auditor lauded the district’s Special Administrative Board for authorizing the repayment of $145,000 to the state education department after a principal was found in 2011 to have inflated student attendance records at Patrick Henry Downtown Academy.

    Altering the records helped the school meet standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Law. It also resulted in additional state aid to the district.

    After becoming auditor in 2011, Schweich set a goal of auditing four of the state’s largest school districts. He has audited Rockwood, Kansas City and Springfield schools, among others, and has a review under way of the Hickman Mills district in suburban Kansas City.

    “Education is front and center,” Schweich said.