By Kristen Taketa
Missouri’s top education officials are recommending that the St. Louis city school district regain full accreditation next week.
The Missouri Board of Education will convene Tuesday in Jefferson City to vote on the district’s accreditation. If the board approves an upgrade, St. Louis Public Schools will be the second district that the board has upgraded this school year based mainly on sustained improvement and stable leadership.
In December, the State Board voted to provisionally re-accredit Riverview Gardens, which is a step below full accreditation.
The provisionally accredited St. Louis Public Schools is among 10 of Missouri’s 517 districts that lack full accreditation, considered the state’s basic seal of approval.
An upgrade would not affect the budget for St. Louis Public Schools as it did for Riverview Gardens, which will no longer lose money under the state’s transfer law. But an upgrade would help remove the stigma that can accompany a lack of full accreditation.
It also would likely increase pressure on state and district leaders to decide how to transition the district’s governance from its current three-member appointed board back to its seven-member elected board.
Margie Vandeven, Missouri commissioner of education, stressed in an interview that the district’s governance situation is not tied to its accreditation status.
“And yet we understand that there is a general interest in seeing that elected board come back into governing the district,” Vandeven said. “What we will continue to do is to figure out a way for a smooth transition.”
She said she doesn’t currently have an opinion on how soon that transition should happen.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education made its recommendation Tuesday even though the city district technically scored just about half a percentage point outside the fully accredited range on the state’s annual report card of schools last year.
When factoring in the difference between last year’s state test results and the previous year’s, St. Louis Public Schools scored well within the fully accredited range for the past two years.
Vandeven commended the combined leadership of the district’s Superintendent Kelvin Adams and the appointed board. The two together have been frequently credited for turning the district around in the past decade despite chronic enrollment declines and other challenges, such as teaching vacancies and high student mobility.
Full accreditation would mean the district has accomplished what the state wanted it to back in 2007. At that time, the state stripped the district of its accreditation because of its poor academic performance and ineffective governance.
Since then, academic performance has improved, but slowly. Last year, 37 percent of district students who took state tests scored at least proficient in English, and 26 percent scored at least proficient in math.
“We all know that accreditation means that they’re meeting minimum state standards. There’s still a lot of work to be done, we recognize that,” Vandeven said. “But at this point, we feel confident with the recommendation.”
The state education department systematically considers several factors in addition to test scores when considering changes in accreditation status. For example, St. Louis Public Schools has raised its four-year graduation rate to 71.5 percent last year from 67.7 percent in 2013, and its attendance rate to 87.9 percent last year from 79.5 percent in 2013.
In 2006, a commission headed by longtime civil rights advocate Frankie Freeman and former Washington University Chancellor William Danforth prescribed a three-member, appointed transitional board to steer the district back to stability. In 2008, that board hired Adams, who is credited with returning the district to provisional accreditation status in 2012.
Even before the appointed board was formed, the commission pressed the state Legislature to give instructions on how to transition back from an appointed board. State law says nothing about how district control should be handed back to the elected board.
Victor Lenz, vice president of the state School Board, has said there’s a general wish among board members to hold off on transition talks until after the April election, when the next mayor and three of seven St. Louis School Board members will be chosen.
The elected board has been meeting for almost a decade without any governing powers or duties. The State Board of Education last voted for the appointed board to continue until at least 2019.