New York Times
July 31, 2013
In Missouri, Race Complicates a Transfer to Better Schools
By JOHN ELIGON
ST. CHARLES, Mo. — When the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a law in June allowing students from failing school districts to transfer to good ones, Harriett Gladney saw a path to a better education for her 9-year-old daughter.
But then she watched television news clips from a town hall meeting for the Francis Howell School District, the predominantly white district here that her daughter’s mostly black district, Normandy, had chosen as a transfer site. Normandy, in neighboring St. Louis County, has one of the worst disciplinary rates in the state, and Francis Howell parents angrily protested the transfer of Normandy students across the county line, some yelling that their children could be stabbed and that the district’s academic standards would slip.
“When I saw them screaming and hollering like they were crazy, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is back in Martin Luther King days,’ ” said Ms. Gladney, 45. “ ‘They’re going to get the hoses out. They’re going to be beating our kids and making sure they don’t get off the school bus.’ ”
Public schools here in the St. Louis region, as in many other metropolitan areas across the country, have struggled for decades to bridge a wide achievement gap between school districts — a divide that often runs along racial and socioeconomic lines. By affirming the right to transfer students out of failing school districts, the State Supreme Court opened the doors for hundreds of families to cross the lines and move their children into better schools.
But the ensuing contention has shown that the process remains a tricky one, complicated by class, race, geography and social perceptions.
“Most folks are for having equal opportunity, having good schools for everyone,” said Patrick J. Flavin, an assistant professor of political science at Baylor University who recently wrote a report on the black-white achievement gap in schools. “We’re all about that in the abstract. You start to see support levels drop when it turns into a real-life thing.”
In 2010, nearly three out of four black students and four out of five Latino students in the United States attended schools made up mostly of minority students, according to a report published last year by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.
More than half of the 28 public school districts — excluding charter and specialty districts — in the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County combined are at least 75 percent black or white. Of the nine districts that are at least three-quarters white, all but one scored a perfect 14 on the state’s performance rating scale. The six mostly black districts scored an average of 7.
Racial segregation has lingered in this region, the result of generations of discriminatory zoning and real estate practices. Efforts to reverse it have included a court-ordered program that has been busing thousands of black St. Louis students to mostly white suburban schools since the early 1980s.
The separate transfer law, which the Legislature passed two decades ago, did not directly target segregation, but it addresses the issue in practice. Unaccredited districts, so classified based on a state performance formula, must designate a district to which they will send students wishing to transfer. Parents may choose to send their children to a different accredited district, but then they will be responsible for their own transportation.
The transfer law was invoked several years back when Normandy, which is 97 percent black, took in students from another predominantly black district that eventually dissolved. Supporters of the law noted that there was no outcry when students from that mostly black district were transferring to Normandy, which at that time had been accredited.
Normandy, Riverview Gardens and the Kansas City Public Schools are currently the state’s only unaccredited districts. Those districts will remain responsible for paying for students who have transferred.
“I think they’re already killing schools like ours indirectly because they’re taking the resources,” Ty McNichols, the Normandy superintendent, said of the law. “It’s going to negatively impact us because of the financial side.”
Educators and parents also argue that the law could leave students facing instability because they would have to return to their home district if schools regained their accreditation.
Many administrators and parents raised concerns of crowded classes and of teachers having to slow down to allow students from struggling districts to catch up. Some school districts are setting class-size policies, but it is unclear whether they would legally be able to refuse transfer students even if they reach the capacity they set.
Normandy and Riverview Gardens, also in St. Louis County, have each received transfer requests from about 1,000 students. Riverview Gardens administrators chose a second district, Kirkwood, to bus their students to, because their first choice, Mehlville, said it could not accommodate all of the transfers.
Some parents have criticized the law for not giving taxpayers a say in what happens in their own districts and accused the state of abandoning the unaccredited districts instead of working to improve them.
“We have been made like we’re going to stand on the steps the first day of school and spit on them,” said Andrea Stopke, 35, who has three children at Francis Howell and started an online petition to change the transfer law. “That’s not the case. We are going to welcome these kids and we’re going to help them. But because we’re doing that it doesn’t mean that something doesn’t need to be done to fix it.”
For decades, St. Louis’s urban population has been dwindling, often because parents seek better schools for their children in the suburbs. That was the case for many parents in the Francis Howell district, who insisted that their opposition had nothing to do with race, but with school performance data and news reports that painted Normandy as the state’s most dangerous district.
“I think that any time you disturb a culture — you’re bringing in a variable that is unknown — I think it has the ability to create some unrest because you don’t know how the variable’s going to play out in the culture you already have,” said Pam Sloan, the Francis Howell superintendent.
But some Francis Howell parents have said that the transfer students could bring much-needed diversity to their district, and some argued that concerns were overblown because the transfer program would attract mostly good students.
“I don’t really see gang-related kids busing themselves an hour to go to St. Charles to sell drugs and pick fights,” Chris Mellor, 45, who has three children in the Francis Howell district, said as he stood on the deck of a pool in his subdivision of multistory brick-and-siding houses.
But Joseph Zakrzewski, 51, who has one child in the Francis Howell district and another who recently graduated, said he thought that some “troublemakers” would be among the transfers, and that Normandy students might struggle to keep pace academically.
“Their A and B kids are probably going to be our C and D kids,” he said.
For Patrice McHaskell, who is black, the decision to transfer four of her children from the Normandy district to the Francis Howell district was personal. From fifth grade through high school, she rode about an hour on a bus each morning from her north St. Louis home to a mostly white suburban district.
The experience, she explained, was life-changing. Ms. McHaskell, 39, said she even became friends with a boy who was part of a racist group called the Skullheads. They bonded in shop class, collaborating on a project to build a bench and a birdhouse.
“Having that, being able to have the diversity, being around different cultures and everything,” she said, “has taught me how to handle the world.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 1, 2013
An earlier version of the caption for a photo in this article incorrectly stated that an audience member at a school board meeting was indicating his approval for the superintendent’s plan to allow students to transfer to an accredited district. He was indicating his approval for the superintendent’s proposal to improve the Normandy district.