Just three months before his shooting death made him an icon of racial disunity in America, Michael Brown walked the halls of the worst performing high schoolin Missouri. Fewer than one-quarter of the students at Normandy High School passed state tests in English and math during the 2012-2013 school year. That same year, 27.8 percent of students were involved in disciplinary incidents that resulted in suspension, prompting the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to call Normandy the most dangerous high school in the area.
For years, Missouri politicians have debated urban education from the state capitol in Jefferson City as students in the Normandy School District had to rearrange their lives with each new policy change. The battle over education in Normandy shows not only the challenges of educating the urban poor, but also the difficulties of doing so in a metropolitan area as racially divided as St. Louis.
The Normandy School District is in the North County area of St. Louis, where well-documented “white flight” has accompanied a decline in income, property values, and business prospects. All but one of Normandy High’s graduates in 2013, Michael Brown’s senior class, were African-American. Ninety-two percent of them qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches. The town of Ferguson is also in North County, though most of its students attend school in a different district.
Christy Morey moved to the St. Louis area 22 years ago. She now lives in St. Louis County’s suburban neighbor, St. Charles County, which is home to many former North County residents. Morey said her friends and acquaintances rarely had anything positive to say about North County. They told her it was mostly populated by African-Americans. “You wouldn’t want to go there alone,” they said.
In 2012, after years of sub-par test scores and graduation rates, the state board of education stripped Normandy’s accreditation. That decision activated a state law on school choice. Missouri law only allows charter schools in large urban districts, effectively limiting them to the Kansas City and St. Louis city limits. While Missouri does not have an official school transfer program, students in unaccredited districts can transfer to any higher performing district in the same or a neighboring county. The unaccredited district pays for the students at those schools and chooses one district to which it will provide free bussing.
Just weeks before the start of the 2013-2014 school year, Normandy announced it had chosen Francis Howell School District in neighboring St. Charles County as the free bussing destination for its transfer students. Morey’s three children attend elementary, middle, and high school in that district. While Normandy School District is 97 percent African-American, Francis Howell is 85 percent white. Only 18 percent of students in Francis Howell are eligible for free or reduced lunches. Francis Howell earned 96.8 percent of possible points on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Annual Performance Report this year. Normandy earned 7.1 percent.
The transfer announcement came without warning to Francis administrators or parents. At a school board meeting with more than 2,500 people in the audience, parents pushed back at the unexpected influx of students from Normandy. Their concerns ranged from the practical—how much longer would cafeteria lines get—to the hysterical.
“I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed,” one angry mother said into the microphone as the audience applauded and TV news cameras rolled.
The parents’ reactions didn’t sit right with Morey.
“From the feedback I heard from the meeting, I felt like the Francis Howell parents represented themselves so poorly,” she said. “It sounded lynch mob-ish. … We did nothing to make them feel welcome.”
Morey harbored her own fears, though, based on what she had heard and read about Normandy schools.
“All I could picture, honestly in my head—and this is so closed-minded—was … oh my gosh, she’s going to get slammed into a locker because she looked at someone wrong,” she said of her 12-year-old daughter. “Those kids are just a little bit more defensive because of the culture they’re coming from.”
But Morey said meeting a family from Normandy at parent-teacher conferences opened her eyes. A mother of three approached Morey at a table where she was volunteering.
“She looked scared to death, because that’s how we made her feel,” Morey said. Morey watched as the woman’s children waited in the hall during conferences, quietly working on homework while other children ran around playing. She considered the sacrifice of the mother who had to put her children on the bus early in the morning to travel 20 miles or more to St. Charles County for school, and then drive those miles again in the evening for parent-teacher conferences.
“I thought, you know, she’s a better mom than I am,” Morey recalled. “I didn’t spend that many hours or that much time for my kiddos that day.”
Morey realized her fears came from ignorance, and she changed her attitude toward her children’s new classmates.
The rest of the year in the Francis Howell school district saw no reported clashes between students or parents from the two districts. But the debate about the Normandy students’ education was far from over. The tuition payments the Normandy school district was making for its hundreds of transfer students drained its coffers and pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy. In Missouri’s capital, politicians debated whether it was better to continue supporting school choice or try to keep students—and tax money—in the community to fund the district’s revival.
A series of political maneuvers by the administration of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, a vocal opponent of school vouchers, effectively eliminated the transfer option for Normandy students. The state Board of Education, which the governor appoints, dissolved the Normandy district and re-established it as a state-run cooperative with no accreditation status. That meant no new transfers out of Normandy. Students who transferred the previous year could transfer again if the receiving school would accept them at a reduced tuition rate. The Francis Howell school board announced June 20, that it would not accept Normandy transfers this year, and many St. Louis-area districts followed suit. Francis Howell Superintendent Pam Sloan said the decision was not about money, but rather about supporting the Normandy district’s efforts to rebuild.
“Children have a right and a need to have quality schools in their neighborhood,” Sloan told the Post-Dispatch.
With fewer than two months left before the start of school, families of transfer students had to decide whether to return to Normandy, look for another area school district to accept their children, or try to move to St. Charles County, where the rental costs are out of reach for low-wage earners.
“Now I’m on the opposite end,” Morey said. “I’m so mad they took them away. Why did they do that to those poor families and those poor kids?”
One parent from Normandy had an answer that spoke to the feelings of many North County African-Americans who feel weighed down by circumstances. Lorrine Goodloe’s daughter attended middle school as a transfer student in Francis Howell last year.
“I’ve told her that this is just a political game and you are just a pawn,” Goodloe told the Post-Dispatch.
Those feelings of powerlessness—like the idea that a politician, not parents, can decide to pull children out of a successful school and place them in a failing one—contributed to the anger that exploded in North County after Michael Brown’s death.
“If police tactics were the spark that set off the explosion in Ferguson this week, then poverty and hopelessness were the tinder,” wrote Post-Dispatch columnist David Nicklaus.