ST. CHARLES, Mo. — The House Interim Education Committee started their state tour Monday at St. Charles Community College — and later in St. Louis — to discuss education issues from around the state, the two main topics being the transfer student issue and early childhood education.
The meeting consisted of testimonies and discussion. No decisions were made, just promises from the committee to look into the issues and concerns presented.
A major theme of the first meeting in St. Charles was accountability for those involved in education and the legislature.
With the possibility of both Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts going bankrupt, Roger Russell, a retired school administrator, said state lawmakers need to act quickly.
“The process of transfers is killing them financially,” Russell said.
Russell also stated he wants the districts receiving transfers and the funds to help pay for tuition and other costs to be accountable with those millions of dollars.
“The goal is not for these districts to profit,” Russell said, questioning if unused funds could go back to the unaccredited schools.
Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, pointed out that the committee — which he chairs — does not have control over finances and the committee is therefore unable to respond to funding questions.
Pam Sloan, Francis Howell School District superintendent, said problem solving is the one aspect of the situation that has “bonded” all of those involved and interested. She said people need to keep in mind the impact on the districts taking in transfers.
“While we certainly want to do right by all the kids who have come to us and we are, I want to make sure that everyone clearly understands that at Francis Howell and the other receiving school districts who have taken a large number of kids — that our eye has been taken off the ball,” Sloan said. “I spent hours a day working on this so it is constantly smooth and consequently I’m not working on all that I should be in Francis Howell that I was hired to do there.”
Another challenge Sloan discussed was the distance transfers are traveling from their homes and their new school. Because the students are far away from home, Sloan said they are often unable to participate in after school activities.
Katie Casas, State Director at Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, said part of her job was to aid transfer students and families to make the transition “smooth.”
“From this vantage point, I’ve gotten a firsthand look at the successes and excitement surrounding this kind of school choice as well as the failures and pitfalls when a program is hastily designed with seemingly little thought about how decisions impact the day-to-day lives of children across an entire region,” Casas said.
Casas continued to say she didn’t want to “rehash whether school choice is a good idea or not,” but rather wanted to look into how the system could be improved upon.
She made three major points:
- 1. Students in failing districts need an increased amount of high-quality options.
- 2. The number of students entering a non-resident district should be a point of local control for the school districts, “but at the same time we must ensure that there is a high quality seat to all children in unaccredited districts.”
- 3. “No child in a failed district should have to wait for access to a high quality education that should be legally available to them now.”
Sloan spoke again at the end of the meeting, adding that a key to avoiding loss of accreditation is prevention.
She stressed the importance of the legislatures not only taking interest in education issues when it’s time for MAP testing. Sloan also said that accountability is necessary — school boards need to keep superintendents accountable, superintendents keep principals accountable and principals keep teachers accountable.
Early Childhood Education
Art McCoy, Ferguson-Florissant School District superintendent, was asked several questions by committee members after his testimony on how he helped turn around his district.
Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, asked McCoy if he were to receiving more funding, where the money would go first, to which McCoy responded that at the “top of the list” is early childhood education.
“A strong start makes for a strong finish [in education],” McCoy said.
Stream asked if McCoy were given a choice between putting money toward pay raises or early childhood education, which one would he choose. McCoy, again, said early childhood, arguing that “teachers know work quality conditions are better when a child is ready to learn.”
Elena Amirault, director of early childhood education for the Hazelwood School District, said MAP scores of preschoolers eight years later are “significantly higher than their peers.” By age five, the brain is 90 to 95 percent developed, she said.
“There’s windows of opportunity during those first five years for us to bump up the brain architecture,” Amirault said. “They’re developing language, social and emotional skills, trust, impulse control and this is going to set them up for cognitive functioning as well as social and emotional functioning for the rest of their lives. So, it’s essential so we reach these kids in the first five years.”
For more preschoolers to succeed in the future, Amirault said there needs to be more funding.
Hazelwood receives Title I funding from the U.S. Department of Education, and nothing else. The students who cannot afford preschool, she added, are in daycares, which she described as “pretty much babysitting.” She also said early childhood education could help reduce special and remedial education as well as crime and prison rates.
“We are all born with a degree of ignorance, and as an educator, my goal is to reduce that ignorance considerably by the time they’re even in kindergarten to know that that test they take in third grade is used to predict how many jail cells are to be built in at least ten states,” McCoy said.
The committee’s tour will continue the next week and a half around the state, with another portion to take place in October. See all of the tour dates, times and places here.
Photo from the top of the page: The committee listens to testimony from Ferguson-Florissant school district superintendent Art McCoy. (Taken by Brittany Ruess)
Brittany Ruess was a reporter for The Missouri Times and the SEMO Times, and a graduate of Webster University.