Getting To The Root Of The Problems In School Districts

Host Michel Martin continues the conversation surrounding Missouri's controversial school transfer policy with Don Marsh of St. Louis Public Radio; Ty McNichols, who leads the city's Normandy School District; and Eric Knost, Superintendent of Mehlville School District.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are broadcasting today from St. Louis Public Radio. In a minute, we will talk about a game that's put St. Louis on the map - and, no, it's not baseball. We'll hear why some consider St. Louis the chess capital of the world. But first, we want to continue our conversation about education. We've been talking about a ruling upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court that says that if a school district does not meet certain baseline requirements, students in that district can transfer to another at no cost to their parents. In St. Louis, the issue is raising some important questions about race, about achievement, about equity and the best way to help struggling schools. We're talking about this with Ty McNichols, the superintendent of Normandy School District here in St. Louis.

That district lost its accreditation and is sending some of its students to another suburban school district. Eric Knost is the superintendent of Mehlville School District here in St. Louis. His district is receiving transfer students from another district - not Normandy - in the St. Louis area. Also with us, Don Marsh - a familiar voice to many public radio listeners here. He's the host of St. Louis on the Air. He's with us to provide additional context. Thanks so much for staying with us. And I should mention that if you weren't able to join us in person, you can follow @TellMeMoreNPR on Twitter. You can join this conversation using the hashtag #TMMStLouis. Before we took a break, Eric Knost, you were going to - you were making a point about...

ERIC KNOST: I was.

MARTIN: ...This isn't really - you're saying just focusing on transfers alone really isn't the best way to think about this issue overall.

KNOST: We have to get to the root of the problem. And the problem with public schools in our area, in our state, in our country is our ability to be successful in poverty-stricken communities. And that is the issue. That's what we need to focus on. Show me a flourishing ZIP code, and I'm going to show you a flourishing school district. Show me a ZIP code that's struggling, and we'll show you a struggling school district. And we just don't want to talk about that.

And there's ways that we can talk about that - the achievement, the high expectations. Should Ty's students have any lower expectations than my students in Mehlville or students in the Clayton area? Absolutely not, but we're foolish to think that the path to get to those expectations is the same for all. And that's what our system suggests.

MARTIN: You're suggesting that - I think one of things that you're all suggesting - this is a short-term solution. It's very dramatic. It's very eye-catching. But it's a short-term solution. And, Ty McNichols, I'm wondering about how the cost of this is sustained in a school district which, by definition, is struggling.

TY MCNICHOLS: Well, it doesn't sustain. We're on the path of going out of money if we don't make any significant changes. And as a result of that, our district is in the process of reducing staff. We're looking at 103 staff members or employees that will have to be reduced in force because of this, along with the 30 percent of resources on top of what we originally budgeted leaving our district. And so there are a lot of different scenarios out there.

And I agree with Eric in regards to - the plight of poverty does play an impact. It's not that we expect that our kids shouldn't have high expectations. But the test doesn't take in consideration - as I said in another meeting a couple days ago - you know, if my kids are coming in two years behind from wherever they're coming from and the test is still in March and if they're not on grade level, they're still not passing the test. And the test doesn't accommodate for that. That doesn't mean my kids shouldn't have to do well. They need to get better. But do they have nine months to try to make up three years of deficits and be compared to other districts with kids who sometimes come in above the norm on day one?

MARTIN: In the time that we have left, I would love to hear you all reflect on what you think other schools should learn from this experience. And, Don, do you want to start?

DON MARSH: Boy, I'm not sure that I have the expertise to answer that question adequately. Certainly, they should be looking, and they should be - I think one of the big lessons to come out of this is kids dealing with kids and learning that, even though this thing got off to a messy start with some racial innuendo that was very unpleasant to listen to - as we listened to it earlier - that the kids are coming out of this better than their parents are in some cases.

And think there are lessons for all of us in that. I think it's remarkable given the conditions under which all of this got underway that the kids are the ones that are performing - maybe not so well academically, but they're performing very well socially with each other. You know, there's an advantage to that, I think. But there are many disadvantages, too, with regard to the way it's being carried out. The threat of bankruptcy for a school district - what happens then? The Clayton District, which is the one that triggered this whole initial flurry of suits, is one of the best districts in the state of Missouri. What are they going to learn from this? They're not facing bankruptcy. They're not facing financial challenges. But they can learn, I think, what the kids are learning. And that is a kind of togetherness that's important.

MARTIN: Ty McNichols, what do you think other people should learn from the experience you are now having?

MCNICHOLS: Well, there's two pieces. First, as a district, we believe that we can turn it around. We are focusing more on a constructivist pedagogy and how to help our kids be more successful. That hasn't been the norm in urban areas. It's been more didactic, more tell-kids-what-to-do, prescribe, do this, do that. This is how how you're doing it. We're taking a different approach to how we instruct kids. That takes time to develop staff and people to be able to do that.

So one of the things we need is time - time to be able to put those systems in place, to support our teachers, to support our families and support our kids. And so one way to do that - because it's not just about the instruction. If you listen to the discourse, we're not talking about instruction. We're talking about resources. We're talking about money. We're talking about where kids get to go, but it's really about money.

MARTIN: Well, isn't that the same thing though? Where kids get to go does have something to do with money, doesn't it?

MCNICHOLS: No, what I'm saying is the conversation about the accreditation process is not talking about what is effective instruction the classroom. We're talking about where kids get to go and where the money gets to go with that kid. And...

MARTIN: Not about what's going on in the classroom.

MCNICHOLS: Absolutely. And so the assumption is 'cause they didn't do well on a test, somehow the instruction is poor in and of itself, not taking into consideration what Eric just said, that there are other factors that impact instruction. You know, I've had the fortune of working some of those districts that we've talked about. You know, I worked - my kids go in a district where 30 percent of the families send their kids to Kumon.

MARTIN: Which is what? Oh, afterschool tutoring.

MCNICHOLS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Afterschool tutoring. I see.

MCNICHOLS: So the parents have the resources to send their kids to Kumon, but those test scores in that district - people will say, well, they have great teachers. But the families are sending their kids to Kumon. Is it Kumon, or is it the instruction? My families don't have those kind of resources. So we have to get better instructing. We have to get better instruction. The quick fix, though, for us financially is simple - there needs to be a regional financial fix amount, a rate, so that districts don't go bankrupt and districts such as Eric's has some factors to be able to control the numbers so they can plan. We both have to be able to plan.

MARTIN: Do you agree with that, Eric?

KNOST: I don't have a problem with that all. I actually come from a school district where we're very fiscally conservative. We only spend about $8,300 per student, and we're one of the higher achieving districts in the state. So we're proud of that. But again, we need to back it way up. We need to back it way up. We need to talk about what poverty-stricken communities need. They need full-day kindergarten. They need preschool at an early age - age three.

They need home visit programs. We need to hit this early to get kids resources that they just don't have. They don't come to the table. We - recently there's been a conversation about the fact that kids that come to kindergarten in poverty-stricken communities, the vocabulary that they're exposed to prior to coming to kindergarten is significant - like 20 million words less than kids in more affluent areas. That's significant. We have to own that. We have to understand that we have to hit that head-on and do something with it.

MARTIN: Do you think anybody's listening to you, Eric Knost, very briefly? I mean, has this been an opportunity to get people to listen?

KNOST: Every time I say something, a commercial comes. I get cut off. So I think people are starting to listen, and I think that what's frustrating to the educators in Missouri - the state of Missouri, for instance, is we are in lockstep on a lot of this. And we agree with this. But it's difficult when politics gets rooted within, special interests gets rooted within and the conversation takes a sidestep. And that's a shame.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for joining us today to share your views. Eric Knost is superintendent of Mehlville School District. Ty McNichols is superintendent of Normandy School District. And Don Marsh is host of St. Louis on the Air, heard on member station KWMU St. Louis Public Radio here in St. Louis. Thank you all so much for taking the time out of your very busy schedules to join us and offer some insights.

KNOST: Thank you.

MCNICHOLS: My pleasure.

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