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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

St. Louis School Transfers Stir Up Controversy

(MBK (Marjie)/Flickr)

(MBK (Marjie)/Flickr)

In Missouri, under a law recently upheld by the state’s Supreme Court, students attending schools in districts that don’t meet baseline education standards can transfer to another district, at no cost to their parents.

But, the receiving schools have no say about which students will be coming to their schools, and some parents are concerned about an increase in crime and drugs. That concern has prompted accusations of racism.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Tim Lloyd of St. Louis Public Radio has the story.

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW, and we're taking a look today at some of the challenges facing public schools. We just heard about how a long-running fiscal crisis in Philadelphia has led to unprecedented layoffs and school closings.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

That's an issue that many communities around the country are dealing with, and it's a concern in Washington. I spoke with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and asked him about Philadelphia and other school districts facing fiscal challenges. Here's what he said.

SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: There's just no upside, there's no upside, and again, whether it's, you know, Philly or, you know, my hometown of Chicago, when you have declining enrollment, when you're, you know, closing schools, when you're laying off teachers, you know, children lose, teachers lose, neighborhoods lose, you know, communities lose. And so there's nothing there to feel great about.

HOBSON: That's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. You can hear our full conversation tomorrow on HERE AND NOW.

YOUNG: And right now we turn to St. Louis, a city trying to ensure that kids in struggling schools get a fair shot. Under a Missouri law recently upheld by the State Supreme Court, students in school districts that don't meet baseline education standards can transfer to another district at no cost to their parents. But there's a caveat, and it's causing a lot of controversy.

From St. Louis Public Radio and our contributor's network, Tim Lloyd has this story.

TIM LLOYD, BYLINE: Here's the situation: Your kids are in a school district that has lost its state accreditation. It's falling short on a string of standards like graduation rates and test scores. You want the best possible education for your kids, but your resources and options are limited. Then the Missouri Supreme Court upholds a law that says you can send your kids to any public school system, and that often means a better performing school system, in the same or adjoining county, for free.

But there's a catch. You'll only get transportation to one of those better performing districts, the accredited ones, and they're far away. The bus ride could be 30 minutes or more each way. So what happens if your kids get sick at school, and you have to pick them up? Or what if they play sports or have a role in the school play and have to stay long after the bus leaves? How do you get them home?

That's a dilemma facing Marketa Miller(ph) and thousands of other parents in St. Louis.

MARKETA MILLER: I was trying to get her somewhere closer, but I have two kids. I can't take them both to school and pick them up.

LLOYD: Miller stands in the parking lot outside the offices of the Normandy School District. Its student body is more than 80 percent African-American, and many children come from low-income homes. Normandy is one of two St. Louis school districts that have lost their state accreditation, and Miller has a no-nonsense, bound and determined to do what I think is best for my children air about her. She says yeah, it's not a perfect option, but sending her kids to new schools is the right thing to do, even if it means they could spent more than an hour on a bus every day.

MILLER: They are actually teaching the kid the academics, sports, everything. That's what I like.

LLOYD: Holding a manila folder loaded with utility bills, pay stubs and other documents, Miller makes her way into a nondescript room lined with folding tables and administrators. Normandy officials picked a mostly white, mostly affluent suburban district called Francis Howell as the school district that kids could transfer to and receive free transportation.

Under state guidelines, Francis Howell administrators had no say in the matter. As long as they have room, they must accept kids from Normandy, and that has left many Francis Howell parents upset.

Days after the announcement was made, around 3,000 people packed a Francis Howell High School gymnasium for a forum about the transfer process. A number of parents were unhappy about the prospect that kids from Normandy would be showing up in their schools this fall. This is what parent Beth Surami(ph) had to say.

BETH SURAMI: I want to know where the metal detectors are going to be, and I want to know where your drug-sniffing dogs are going to be, and I want, this is what I want, I want the same security that Normandy gets when they walk through their (unintelligible) and I want it here.

(APPLAUSE)

LLOYD: Those kinds of comments and the wild applause that followed them immediately sparked claims that some white parents in Francis Howell were perpetuating a stereotype, that underprivileged African-American children are inherently dangerous. The editorial board of the St. Louis Post Dispatch described the sentiment expressed by some speakers like this - quote: Translation, keep your kids, all of whom we assume are going to be poor, black, violent and underperforming, away from us, end-quote.

Fast forward a little over a week to a packed meeting of the Normandy school board. Lawanda Wallace(ph) was the first to speak, and she said what was on the mind of a lot of parents.

LAWANDA WALLACE: Am I in 2013, or am I in 1954, because it's great that you can choose to go to a school district, but you're going to a school district that don't want you based on stereotypes of prejudice and racism.

LLOYD: Also on hand were some parents who made the long drive in from the Francis Howell School District.

CHRISTINE ONBY: Hi, my name is Christine(ph). I'm a Francis Howell mom. Don't boo me, please.

LLOYD: A nervous Christine Onby(ph) took to the microphone to try and dispel the image that her community has a racial bias.

ONBY: I just wanted to come say hi, and we're not all everything that you see on the Internet and on the news.

(APPLAUSE)

ONBY: And if we're going to get past all the racist crap that's going on in this society, we are all going to have to work together. I mean that's just the way it's going to have to be. That's it.

(APPLAUSE)

LLOYD: Retied St. Louis school administrator John Wright(ph) says he's seen this kind of racial tension before. He spent a career working in a city that through the late '90s was home to one of the largest desegregation busing programs in the country. But when it comes to actually fixing systemic problems in the school system, he says the new transfer program is not a real, long-term solution.

JOHN WRIGHT: Keep taking resources from districts, as well as students, you end up with the districts being less able to meet the demand that they - and the pressure they're been under to bring the school district up to standard.

LLOYD: As for Normandy parent Marketa Miller, things aren't going well. She's back in the parking lot venting after school officials told her she didn't have the right kind of proof of residency to transfer her kids to Francis Howell.

MILLER: I mean, I understand if kids don't go to Normandy, they're going to lose their job, but if you would've been doing your job in the first place, we wouldn't be going through this right now.

LLOYD: The frustration level is pretty high.

MILLER: Yeah, yeah.

LLOYD: An official with Normandy was quick to make an appointment for Miller so she won't have to wait in line when she returns, and Miller says she's definitely coming back.

MILLER: A lot of kids are going. They are trying to get out there. It may be for the best, a better education.

LLOYD: It's estimated that students transferring to other schools will cost both unaccredited districts in St. Louis nearly $23 million, but many experts say their greatest loss with be engaged parents like Miller. New superintendents for the two unaccredited districts in St. Louis are busy telling parents that improvements are on the way, and if you keep your kids here and work with us, we'll turn these schools around together.

They'll know soon enough how well their pitches worked. The deadline to apply for the transfer program is tomorrow, and well over 1,500 kids, or about 16 percent of their combined enrollment, are signed up to go to school somewhere else this fall. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Tim Lloyd in St. Louis.

YOUNG: So what's going on in schools where you are? In Bristol, Tennessee, students head back next week, much earlier than usually because of standardized test schedules. Washoe County, Nevada took nine days off summer vacation so students have less time to forget what they learned last year.

HOBSON: In Iowa there's a proposal for an August start, but organizers of the Iowa State Fair, Robin, want to make sure that students are still on vacation in mid-August. The fair manager, Gary Slater(ph), told the Sioux City Journal, children can have an educational experience in a variety of ways, and one of those is at the state fair.

YOUNG: We agree.

HOBSON: Tell us what is going on where you at hereandnow.org. The news is next. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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