Gateway journalism review - 2016

Lessons from Brown's district

Ferguson-Florissant School District student Constance Reed (center) and other Bermuda Elementary students listen during a discussion as part of a special counseling class where school guidance counselor Tamara Cox addressed bullying in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Normandy, Mo. Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.  Photo © copyright 2014 Sid Hastings.

Ferguson-Florissant School District student Constance Reed (center) and other Bermuda Elementary students listen during a discussion as part of a special counseling class where school guidance counselor Tamara Cox addressed bullying in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Normandy, Mo. Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.  Photo © copyright 2014 Sid Hastings.

Inda Schaenen sends this update: 

August 26, 2016: Beginning of Year 4, end of week 4 in Normandy

Here's something I'm observing from the grassroots as our region's deep structural flaws continue to play out: as Normandy, if Normandy, for example, manages to pull itself somewhat together, or at least away from the brink, families in the community are going to spread the word that things are better and students will start coming back.

But This is happening in the middle school as I write. At this moment, I expect my classes this year to be more than 25% larger than they were last year. Going into last year, my principal and I established a class size in which our students could and would be successful, could and would learn what they needed to learn. I have no idea whether we can repeat the success of last year's enrichment in these larger classes, although I will try my best. In Maplewood-Richmond Heights, for example, classes are no more than 15. Under current conditions, this is the number that should cap every secondary classroom in any subject in Normandy. 
In core classrooms, however, teachers are working in classes of 30, the state limit. This size is simply too big to do the work we need to be doing to benefit students.  Even if we get a whole lot of students back, and our academic trajectory looks promising -- as promising as Jennings or KC does to state officials -- and DESE reclassifies us as accredited and stops the transfer process through which we pay out much needed money to other districts each month, we will still not be in safe waters for the future given the inequities of school finance across the city and county. In fact, with ever more students in our rooms and halls, and student-teacher ratio increased, the improvements we have made are likely to disappear. This is just a guess because I have no way of knowing about these decisions, but to avoid hiring more teachers, I can imagine a bandaid solution that involves current teachers giving up collaborative planning time in order to spread the students out over more hours in the day. If we do that, we are stepping away from best practices, which insist on teachers' having time to collaborate face-to-face every single day.

If financing staffing and hiring good people doesn't keep up with our improvement and enrollment, we are going to be right back where we started, limping along with underprepared, underpaid, inexperienced teachers trying to work in unmangeably overpopulated classrooms with limited material resources in distressed communities. 

In other words, and speaking from my experience on the ground, we-the-people are still trying to use a nearly empty jar of peanut butter to make an ever increasing number of sandwiches expected to feed an ever growing number of people who are hungry for a high quality education. 

At what point will leaders stop hammering on instructional strategies and start focusing on regional school finance? Of course teachers matter, the quality of teachers matters, and curriculum and instruction matter like crazy.  But by focusing on this stuff in isolation, state education officials make it easier for the executive and legislative branch to think it's not about money and who, at the local level, is in charge of seeing that it gets spent appropriately.

My students are bright, curious, and engaged and -- like their parents, families, and other teachers -- I want the world for them. In the big scheme of things, however, I don't feel so optimistic right now.

By William H. Freivogel

Inda Schaenen found herself in the Normandy High School library the week after Michael Brown was killed.  Brown had graduated from Normandy only a few days earlier.   

Schaenen was among a new crop of teachers the state was bringing into the district it had declared unaccredited.  In a way she was lucky.  Most veteran teachers hadn’t been hired back.

But there was a jarring disconnect in the library.  The teacher trainer from Texas was trying to explain to teachers the best way to teach parts of speech.  Meanwhile, many in the library were looking at their cell phones to get the latest news about the protests down the street.  Some of Brown’s relatives were in the room tearfully checking their phones.

There was no mention of the story down the street.  “No, zero,” she recalls.  “The community is, on top of everything else, coping with this tremendous loss that becomes magnified into a world story.… There are these very personal familial relationships and this teacher from Texas is talking about how to teach parts of speech -- with all of the good intentions in the world.”    

Finally, Schaenen went up to the Texan privately.  “You obviously know about English Language Arts, but look around at what the teachers are interested in.  Teachers are checking Twitter.”     

The trainer had no idea she was in the middle of one of the biggest civil rights stories of recent times.

The tone-deaf training session was one illustration of the way the state takeover of the failed school district went right on failing.   

Schaenen, a writer, journalist and professor, had been hired as an instructional coach one year earlier, in 2013, not long after the state had stripped Normandy of its accreditation.

The high school, where Michael Brown was a senior, already was in turmoil.  In a May 2013 story, the Post-Dispatch called it the most dangerous school in the St. Louis area, with the second most discipline incidents in the state.      

There were many fights in the halls and a student died of a freak injury after he was punched in the lunchroom.    

In 2014 the state decided to take over the school district and required teachers to reapply for their jobs.  The state wasn’t hiring instructional coaches, so Schaenen applied to be an eighth grade classroom teacher.  The master teacher with whom she had worked, like many veteran teachers, didn’t even get a call-back.

Nor was the state interested in advice from teachers.  “There was no real assessment on the ground before (the state) took over.” Schaenen recalls.  “I had been there a year working hand-in-hand with teachers for a year.  You would have thought that if the state wanted to be successful they would have touched base with the people on the ground who could give them some sort of insight on the strengths and challenges.    But nobody did this.  We were just sent beyond the pale.”

Schaenen had originally been hired to review curriculum and instruction.  But that was long forgotten as the state tried to reinvent the school district.

Rubber bullets - ‘But I’m OK”

School began nine days after Brown’s death.  Demonstrations were continuing and the students brought their experiences into the classroom.     

Schaenen teaches from a social justice perspective.  She figures she can teach parts of speech just as well from Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail as from a textbook. Unlike some teachers who didn’t want to talk about Brown’s death, Schaenen was prepared to talk to students.       

“Some of the teachers were very uncomfortable and thought it was just not their place.  I always feel I have a moral obligation to connect with a student in a way that takes their real life into account….  I had a student who told the same story three or four times of a cop who one time told him he was not going to be a doctor.”    

Students wrote in their journals about how Brown had his hands up when he was shot.  At the time, the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” mantra dominated the protest scene.  It was only later that investigations discounted it.

Some students wrote in their journals about what they were seeing at protests in the evenings after school. One wrote about being struck by a rubber bullet at a protest. “But I’m OK,” he wrote.  

Schaenen wrote about watching “a group of my students —all boys, unprompted — wordlessly re-enact the shooting from beginning to end, using a fistful of my newly sharpened pencils as the cigarillos Michael allegedly stole before he was gunned down.  My students were highly engaged in a standards-based, collaborative group activity that turned into the kind of play that processes pain.

“The boy playing Michael lay on the floor for a few minutes with his eyes closed, pencils in hand. Watching him, I wondered what was going through his mind.”    

Not all students wanted to talk about what had happened. “Students told me we don’t want to talk about this any more. That is not going to bring him back….  Other students were angry.  They’re going to shut this school down anyway.  It was really hard work because there was a lot of emotion; there was a lot of fatalistic acceptance…’that’s how God wanted him to come home.’”     

Schaenen recalled it felt like “crack climbing” -- locating available seams, trying any grip, using all of who I am to gain purchase during my ascent.  I am working 18 hours a day.”


No ‘next year’

For the students there were a lot of new faces.  Friendly faces from the past were missing.  And some of the new faces disappeared quickly after the year began in the fall of 2014.      

“There were teachers that given the challenge of that year just left.  We lost two English Language Arts teachers, two science teachers.  One we lost within the first week.” More professional development sessions were scheduled for evenings and mothers with children couldn’t make things work.

Class sizes of about 30 quickly grew to 40 and more with people sitting in windowsills. 

Another professional development expert stopped by to train the teachers about the use of data in assessing achievement. “I remember saying we do want to think about these data….  But you can see in this building that the data we really need to be thinking about are cultural, are behaviors…are relationships, are how is trust being built around here.  We could be data teaming about that.  She looked right at me and said I hear what you’re saying….  It’s not going to happen….  These numbers, these scores, it has to get done.”  

For Schaenen it became hard to talk about “next year.”  Teachers and students always are talking about “next year.  But we couldn’t talk about next year.”   

Students didn’t know if they could count on teachers to be back the next year and teachers didn’t know if they could count on colleagues to be back.    

The departures continued.  The assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction left in October. The superintendent left in December.  The principal announced in April that she’d be leaving at the end of the school year.  

The Post-Dispatch’s Elisa Crouch was back at Normandy and her report was bleak. Here’s how it began:

“Cameron Hensley is an honors student at Normandy High School with plans for college.  But this year his school quit offering honors courses.  His physics teacher hasn’t planned a lesson since January.  His AP English class is taught by an instructor not certified to teach it. 

The first-period English class is held in a science lab because the room across the hall smells like mildew and lacks adequate air conditioning. Stools sit upside down on the lab tables.”                 

Hensley said he had no essays assigned during the spring semester.  He also didn’t have textbooks and seldom was assigned homework.


An apology

Schaenen remembers Mike Jones, vice president of the Missouri Board of Education, showing up at the promotion of eighth graders to the high school that spring.  Jones apologized.  As Dale Singer at St. Louis Public Radio reported,  Jones told parents and students the state owed them “a collective apology for failing to provide you with the education experience you should have.”

In some way the most recent school year was better for Schaenen.  She insisted on a manageable number of students.  Her school newspaper, the Viking Times, is going strong, even if she had to pay to get it printed at Kinko’s at first.  And her Normandy Project Lab is raising $10,000 from outside sources for technology, chess, the school newspaper, books snacks and the like.

But this spring, “Nobody other than the principals came to our promotion to high school.  No one from the local board and no one from the State of Missouri.  There is this moment when they addressed the school board to present the class of 2020 and there is no one there.”

Schaenen says the school needs a “community-centered design that builds on strengths in the community -- the relationship with seasoned teachers is strong.  Relationships with family and friends is strong.  Relationships with community are strong.  Moral purpose is strong. So how do you take all that strength and empower it.  It requires some care and thought.  Public funding is not sufficient. It is going to have to be public and private.”      

It’s a future Schaenen is ready to pursue.  At least now she can talk about next year and know she’s going to be there.


The muni court shuffle

For the sake of all