• Educators consider what Missouri needs in its next commissioner

    September 17, 2014 12:15 am  •  By Elisa Crouch ecrouch@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8119 and Jessica Bock jbock@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8228

    Since 2009, the person setting the direction of Missouri’s public schools has been a woman with 40 years of experience in urban and suburban districts in the St. Louis area.

    Her predecessors have all been men from outstate Missouri.

    As the Missouri Board of Education begins to search for someone to follow Chris Nicastro, who announced her retirement on Monday, it will undoubtedly consider a number of skill sets, such as the ability to navigate Jefferson City with its divergent interests.

    But there’s also the factor of experience, and whether spending time in challenged school systems is essential to the job.

    About 62,000 children in Missouri attend school in districts that don’t meet the state’s academic standards — meaning they are unaccredited or provisionally accredited, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

    More than three out of four of those students are enrolled in urban districts, where high poverty creates layers of complicating barriers to education. These are the districts needing the most help improving.

    “If you are hiring a doctor, and your biggest problem is people with cancer, you don’t hire a general practitioner,” said Don Senti, executive director of EducationPlus, a group that represents school districts in the St. Louis region.

    Urban districts struggled during Nicastro’s time as commissioner. Some, such as the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts, rose from unaccredited to provisionally accredited but still face varying degrees of challenges. Nicastro helped craft tougher accountability standards for charter schools in both cities, which led to closure of failing ones. Charter schools — tuition-free public schools that aren’t affiliated with school districts — have improved overall as a result.

    “Regardless of the type of public school, it is the quality of the school that is the most important thing,” said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Public Charter School Association.

    Meanwhile, the situation in Normandy became more dire. The academic decline of the north St. Louis County district was exacerbated by the school transfer law, which depleted Normandy’s budget.

    Over the summer, the education department took the unprecedented step of restarting the Normandy School District under state oversight. Nicastro suddenly found herself more involved in the day-to-day operations of a school system than any commissioner before her.

    That work will continue after Nicastro, 63, retires Dec. 31. To what degree “depends on who they select” as commissioner, Nicastro said Monday.

    “Our board is committed to making this transition and this state oversight district work,” Nicastro said. “I think the commitment of the department and the state board will remain.”

    The hiring of the next education commissioner falls to the eight-member Board of Education, a group of men that includes two from the St. Louis area and one from Kansas City. Nicastro’s successor will not require approval from the governor, nor a confirmation vote from the Legislature.

    The board gave no time frame for selecting the new commissioner. Some said she will be difficult to replace.

    “She brought a level of energy and commitment to urban education that I would argue had not historically been associated with the department,” said Mike Jones of St. Louis, vice president of the Missouri Board of Education.

    During a visit to Bryan Hill Elementary in St. Louis on Tuesday, Gov. Jay Nixon said the next education commissioner needs to be “tough and smart.”

    “It’s a hard job,” Nixon said. His father-in-law, Hubert Wheeler, was the first to hold the job in 1947.

    Nicastro arrived in Jefferson City as the first woman to fill the post. She also was the first with experience in an urban area, having led the Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood school districts, two neighboring North County school systems where poverty rates were on the rise.

    Superintendent Kelvin Adams said this background was critical to helping him improve St. Louis Public Schools.

    Nicastro “brought understanding to the work prior to me having the conversation,” Adams said. “She understood the work. I didn’t have to educate her. She knew.”

    Adams and many others said they hope the new commissioner comes with experience in challenged districts — whether they be urban or rural.

    Either would be helpful, Senti said, given that poverty is a similar characteristic of both.

    “And that means white kids in the Bootheel and kids in north St. Louis. It’s how you teach kids in dense poverty,” Senti said.

    Many say they hope Nicastro’s successor knows how to build consensus. Nicastro struggled with this in the Legislature, where lawmakers frequently called for her resignation.

    “Your style of leadership, your interactions with people, the policies you put in place have to be able to meet the needs of a broad constituency of people,” Nicastro said. “So your actions are never as clear-cut.”

    Whoever the next commissioner is, he or she must pull the right people together, said Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

    “I don’t think any one individual has an answer to the problems we’re facing in education right now,” he said. “It’s broader than that.”

    Norm Ridder is the interim superintendent of the Mehlville district and previously worked as a superintendent in Springfield, Mo. He said the job in Jefferson City needs someone who is ready to listen and is humble to the point where their own personality and ideas don’t get in the way.

    “It’s not easy to do,” Ridder said. “I really think it’s more about leadership than managing. (Nicastro) really worked hard with limited resources to be able to do that.

    Virginia Young of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.