This morning, Makayla Smith, a senior at Normandy High School, walked through a crowd of alumni and community members cheering on students for the first day of school. Last year, Makayla left the unaccredited Normandy School District to attend North Tech High School in Florissant. But she decided to come back.
“I’ve been here forever, since kindergarten,” said Makayla, who attended Normandy High for her freshman and sophomore years. “It was a big difference for me. I missed my friends and the teachers. We are like a big family here, and I feel more comfortable learning here.”
Makayla is part of the 75 percent of students in Normandy School District who chose to stay in the district – rather than transferring to accredited schools at Normandy’s expense.
Marla Smith, Makayla’s mother and an alderwoman of Pagedale, was one of the alumni waving at school buses and holding up signs that said, “Normandy rocks.”
As a board member on the Normandy High School Alumni Association, Marla said she believes in Normandy’s programs and teachers. When asked why she chose to keep her children in Normandy schools, she said, “Our money needs to stay here in our district. This is our home school, and our kids need to be here in our home school.”
Every month, $1.5 million – or $15 million for the school year – will leave the district because nearly 1,200 students have chosen to transfer to other schools, said William Humphrey, president of Normandy’s Board of Education. The school district will be able to pay its bills for this school year, but after that Normandy will be out of money.
Humphrey said the solution to their financial predicament in the state legislature’s hands.
“At this point we are planning on having a successful school year,” said Humphrey, who was part of the rally in front of Normandy High today. “Right now we are evaluating all our options fiscally, but the more important thing is that the legislature take the time to understand the impact of this decision. There are some things they can clearly do.”
The two unaccredited school districts in St. Louis, Normandy and Riverview Gardens, are both hoping that state legislators will bail them out financially – especially because it was the legislators who passed the law that got them there in the first place, Humphrey said.
In June, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a 1993 state law that gives students living in unaccredited school districts the option to transfer to neighboring districts – and the failing districts must pay for students’ tuition and transportation costs. For both Normandy and Riverview Gardens, about 25 percent of their student populations chose to transfer out of the districts. Last year, Normandy had about 4,100 students, and Riverview Gardens had 6,000. Riverview lost 1,400 students through the transfer program this year.
James McGee, mayor of Vinita Park, also joined the greeters at 6:30 a.m. and held up a sign that said, “Normandy students, we believe in you.”
Last week, several North St. Louis County mayors met with Gov. Jay Nixon about Normandy’s financial crisis and other issues.
“It was very positive,” said McGee, who represents one of the 24 municipalities that make us the Normandy School District and participates in Beyond Housing’s 24-to-1 initiative. “We are looking at all positive for the Normandy School District.”
Not everyone shared that optimism on the first day of school. Delores Anderson, a district mother, said she was forced to leave her son, an incoming freshman, in the district.
“I’m really upset about it because I feel I went through hell and back for two weeks,” she said.
Anderson said her work schedule did not allow her to meet the transfer application deadline, and she rode around to several offices hoping someone would help her – including administrators at McClure South Berkeley High School where her son wanted to enroll. Her son Kenneth wants to go to college, and they both fear that this will affect his chances of getting into a good university.
Now, Kenneth will have to wait until the 2014-15 school year to transfer. The deadline to enroll in the transfer program for next year is February 1, 2014.
“I feel it’s wrong to make us leave our kids here,” she said. “My son’s not feeling good about it today because he knows that this is a failing district.”
Makayla and her younger brother, Bryce, a sophomore, both feel that the challenge of regaining accreditation has made the school more united.
“We believe we can make a difference,” Makayla said. “Why leave when you can change something at our school and make it better? I think if we encourage our friends to do what we do, make good grades, and come to school, I think it will make a big impact.”
Makayla also believes that many of the students who left will have a similar experience she did and will want to come back.
This year, Superintendent Ty McNichols said the school district is putting a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics, which will help in regaining accreditation.
Bryce said the students understand the urgency of earning back the district’s accreditation status, and they want to help.
Bryce decided to stay, “because I’m a true Viking, and I’m not going to let my school down,” he said. “It needs kids like me to get it back on its feet. We need to do our work and have the mentality to work hard.”