Tom Gannam / AP

Mike Brown and St. Louis education: Symptomatic of a failing system

School district from which slain Ferguson teenager graduated is at center of firestorm over access to good schooling

Before his death at the hands of a white police officer, Michael Brown had graduated from Normandy High School – a school whose academic standards and finances were so poor that it had been declared "unaccredited" by Missouri state education authorities.

Inequality in education – and efforts to block students transferring from impoverished, predominantly black school districts into those wealthier white ones – were a focus of local resentment even before Brown’s killing.

Missouri law allows students in failing districts to transfer to better districts, but at the expense of the unaccredited district. The Francis Howell school district, for example, charged Normandy $11,034 for each transfer student. Tuition expenses included, Normandy’s transfer students have faced an uphill battle in the face of decisions made by the Missouri Board of Education and parents wary of Normandy’s horrible safety record.

"Is there going to be metal detectors? We're not talking about the Normandy school district losing accreditation because of their buildings, their structures, or their teachers," said Beth Cirami, a parent who spoke at a forum held by Francis Howell last July. "We are talking about violent behavior that is going to be coming in with my first-grader, my third-grader and my middle-schooler."

The stain of Normandy’s reputation is also borne by many transfer students. When Diamond Latchison transferred from a predominantly black high school in north St. Louis County to a predominantly white high school in O'Fallon, Ill., she felt confused and lost in all of her classes.

Latchison, now 21, remembers the O'Fallon Township High School teachers asking, "How did you get so far behind?" But those teachers understood immediately once Latchison told them she had come from Hazelwood East High School.

"Predominantly white schools have better access to education, and we get the scraps," she said.

Twenty-one miles west of Normandy, almost 3,000 parents showed up to express concern over the influx of transfer students at a Francis Howell forum in July 2013 that lasted nearly three hours. The parents' chief concern, according to recordings of the event published by St. Louis Public Radio, was security.

"I deserve to not worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed," Cirami said, applause echoing in the background. "I care about safety and [my children] getting back in one piece."

I deserve to not worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed. I care about safety and [my children] getting back in one piece.

Beth Cirami

Concerned parent

That sort of language exacerbates the problem by making black children feel "unwanted," said Julia Davis, a lifetime resident of north St. Louis city and county. Davis currently lives in Normandy and attended the Ferguson protests on Saturday.

"First our schools get shut down in our neighborhood, then our kids get sent to schools where they’re not wanted to begin with, and where the teachers are not prepared to educate them," she said.

Her two sons, now 27 and 28, had been bused from Normandy to the predominantly white Ladue High School, in whose community the median income is $160,270.

Getting her kids through high school at Ladue was "a fight every step of the way," Davis said.

"There are teachers who do not know how to educate black children. They need to understand their plights," she said.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that in 2013 about 1,000 Normandy transfer students attended schools in more successful districts, some of them predominantly white. While those students fared better, the $1.5 million in tuition and transportation payments began to cripple the unaccredited Normandy district. As a result, one elementary school was shuttered and teachers were laid off, the Post-Dispatch reported. To avoid insolvency, the Missouri Board of Education took over Normandy's finances, dissolved the district, then restarted it as a new district.

In June 2014, the board voted not to classify the district as either accredited or unaccredited, the Post-Dispatch reported, leading state officials to say that Normandy was exempt from Missouri's school transfer law. That allowed four districts, including Francis Howell, to turn away hundreds of transfer students. That prompted Normandy parents to sue, and a St. Louis County Circuit Court judge ruled in their favor last Friday, allowing students to return to higher-performing districts.

"Every child in this community has a right to a decent education," wrote Judge Michael Burton.

Classes in the Normandy school system, which now has about 3,000 students, started on Monday, while protests continued about six miles away in Ferguson.

There are teachers who do not know how to educate black children. They need to understand their plights.

Julia Davis

Normandy resident

Nicole Carr sat on a cement block near the gutted QuickTrip gas station on Sunday before authorities locked it down on Monday. The site had served as a major gathering point for protesters. In St. Louis, Carr said the first question asked in most new conversations is, "What high school did you go to?"

"It’s classism," she said. "St. Louis is the only city where people ask that question, because your high school is a symbol of class."

State programs that transfer students out of low-performing districts can be harmful, since it results in the money leaving along with the students, she said. "The kids that stay are left with nothing," Carr added, saying they feel "disenfranchised."

She asked, "If you were told you couldn’t go back to Francis Howell, how would you feel?"

Monica, who did not give her last name, fanned herself while sitting next to Carr on the cement block. Monica said that kids internalize the anger then act out because they don’t know how to express themselves.

That anger is reinforced by issues kids see in their own communities, Carr said. Education isn’t a priority because social problems aren’t addressed, she said.

For example, she noted, close to two-thirds of Ferguson residents are black, but more than 90 percent of the local police force is white. Data released by the Missouri attorney general show that in 2013, 483 black people were arrested, compared to 36 white people. Data also revealed that 92 percent of searches and 86 percent of car stops involved blacks, even though one out of every three white people stopped and searched were carrying contraband, compared to one out of every five black men.

"Kids in Ferguson won’t be able to focus on education until this is addressed," Carr said. "It’s like, 'I know your cousin got arrested, but 1 + 1 = 2'."

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