Last week, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) was in the St. Louis region for two public hearings in the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts — two districts that have recently gained provisional accreditation and effectively ended a transfer program which provided access to high-quality education to hundreds of students.
Ostensibly, the hearings were designed to hear updates from the districts about their progress and to give the community a chance to engage with both local and state education leaders, but in practice, the hearings ended up being a pep rally for district leaders while concerned parents had to fight for the right to voice their concerns — concerns that seemed to fall largely on deaf ears.
DESE’s Director of School Improvement, Kevin Freemen, even told one parent: “I’m not here to answer your questions.”
In Normandy, student performances and glitzy presentations prepared by the district ran over their allotted time resulting in the cutting of a question and answer session and reducing parent comments to a short segment at the end where only one parent from each table was allowed to talk.
But those who had a chance to talk to had a lot to say about the ending of the transfer program.One parent talked about how her son had made major gains in the district he was allowed to transfer to through the program and had made plans to graduate from that district and study abroad.
“But now you are saying he is going to have to come back to Normandy High School after all the gains he has made,” she said. “It is totally impacting him where he is not sleeping at night. He is worried about what is going to happen in August. We are looking for answers from DESE and the school board and we are not getting them.
“You are talking about dollar signs and how this school district needs the $5 million back,” she added. “Nothing about how the high school, academically, is going to make my son truly progress.”Another parent, who graduated from Normandy herself, said when she was a student her counselor asked her if she even wanted to go to college.
She used that slight as a motivation to go to college and graduate on the Dean’s List and now works at a maximum security facility in the area.
“I see the impact of not having a good education,” she said, noting that despite her bad experiences with the district she had tried to give them a second chance when her child entered school. “The first day my baby was here an hour and a half and we stood in a hallway with 50 children who were crying because their parents had left them. My child had not been assigned a teacher or a room. We eventually walked out and no one stopped us, no one asked us any questions, no even knew if that was my child.
“I want this school district to thrive, but not at the expense of my son receiving a quality education,” she said. “The district is not where it needs to be for me as a parent. I don’t need to feel vilified for wanting my child to get a good education. If you are parents, how do you not feel my pain.”
“We have a population of kids who cannot sleep at night,” said another speaker. “How do you sleep at night? It impacts the kids, it impacts the family, it impacts the community.”
Parents told the local leaders and representatives from DESE that that kind of treatment was par for the course in Riverview Garden schools.
“Riverview has not done its job at all,” said one parent. “I live in the district and I see what is going on. This is hurting my family and my child’s education.”
“I have lived in this district since 1981,” said another parent. “I have been listening every year about how wonderful they are.”
But she said her experiences with both her daughter and her granddaughter, who started school this year, paint a very different picture — one where schools cannot operate because they do not have enough paper, one where kindergarten classes are packed with over 30 children per room, one where schools do not return parent phones calls or notify them of PTA meetings, one where the school year suddenly ends a week earlier than scheduled and parents are not notified.
“I could make a book of all the problems this year,” she said. “Who is doing anything about this district? No one. They don’t want us here.”Another parent, whose child was locked in the school during a fire drill and assaulted in a bathroom before they were able to escape to another district during the transfer program, shared her experiences with trying to get involved with the school as a parent.
“They do not want parents in this school,” she said. “I was a very involved parent and they falsified documents and had me banned. You know all about having parents falsely banned from this district.
“I call on DESE to listen to the governor’s executive order for all state agencies to review their rules and make sure they work for all Missourians,” she added. “Because, DESE, Riverview falsified too many records on many levels they do not need provisional accreditation. What this district needs is change.”