BrightSide and I were driving home from a family vacation last week. We stopped for sandwiches close to home, and it was during this last leg of the trip that we stumbled onto a story on NPR.
The ride from Subway to our house is only about 10 minutes, but I was absolutely riveted by this story. I found myself shushing the kids in the backseat.
I’m listening. I need to hear this, I said.
Though what I was hearing made me cry.
It was Ira Glass’ interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones on This American Life called “The Problem We All Live With.” She was reporting on the Normandy School District outside St. Louis. This district is almost completely black, completely poor, and was failing in almost every measurable category with the state. These were some of Normandy’s performance evaluation points in 2014: English – zero, math – zero, social studies – zero, science – zero, college placement – zero. The district earned zero points in 11 of the 13 areas measured. Their score in 2014? 10 out of 140 points.
The Normandy school district spent 15 years on probation before the state pulled their accreditation in January 2013. The school stayed open, but its change in status put into motion a little-known law on the Missouri books called the transfer law. That law gives students in unaccredited districts the right to transfer to a nearby accredited one for free.
This meant any student in Normandy would be allowed to choose a better education.
The only hitch was that while students can enroll in any accredited district for free, Normandy only had to provide transportation to one. Despite having one of the best districts in Missouri only 5 miles away, Normandy officials opted to transport students to a district named Francis Howell. The Francis Howell district was 85% white and approximately 30 miles away in another county.
Some argue that the district was trying to discourage students from leaving by making it extremely inconvenient. Regardless, in the fall there were 1,000 students who wanted to use the state’s evacuation plan, even though it meant getting on a bus at 5:00am to travel to school. One thousand students. This pretty much blew the “black students are underachievers because they’re not motivated” argument out of the water.
Since almost all of the Normandy district’s students are black and most Francis Howell students are white, Missouri had inadvertently initiated a school integration program. Integration hadn’t gone smoothly for Ruby Bridges, but the Normandy decision occurred in 2013. That’s why I was so stunned to hear what happened next.
Francis Howell did not participate in the decision to transfer Normandy students into their district. The law gave Normandy the right to choose any accredited district, so when the announcement was made about the incoming students Francis Howell was left handling public relations. They held a town meeting to discuss the decision.
And this is where things really went downhill.
One of the transferring students and her mother decided to attend the town meeting, held in a gym filled with 3,000 (primarily white) faces. That was where this rising eighth grader – a girl who simply wanted access to the educational opportunities white students in Francis Howell enjoyed – listened while a deluge of white parent panic washed over her.
Saint Louis Public Radio recorded the meeting, and these are just a few of the “concerned parent” comments this young woman had to hear:
Woman 2: So I’m hoping their discipline records come with them, like their health records come with them.
Woman 3: Years ago, when the MetroLink was being very popular, Saint Charles County put to a vote whether or not we wanted the MetroLink to come across into our community. And we said no. And the reason we said no is because we don’t want the different areas – I’m going to be very kind – coming across on our side of the bridge, bringing with it everything that we’re fighting today against.
Beth Cirami: …We are talking about violent behavior that is coming in with my first grader, my third grader, and my middle schooler that I’m very worried about…And I want to know…where the metal detectors are going to be. And I want to know where your drug sniffing dogs are going to be…I deserve not to have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed…
Apparently everyone there was very careful not to talk about race, except when they were busy insisting it wasn’t about race:
Woman 4: My husband and I have both worked and lived in underprivileged areas in our jobs. This is not a race issue. And I just want to say to…the first woman who came up here and cried that it was a race issue, I’m sorry. That’s her prejudice, calling me a racist because my skin is white, and I’m concerned about my children’s education and safety.
Oh lawd…are there any six words in the English language that scream “race” as loudly as “This is not a race issue”? If you’re working that diligently to declare that race has absolutely nothing to do with the conversation, I’m pretty sure you need to look a little harder at the subject.
Because if this wasn’t a race issue, if this wasn’t about the subconscious beliefs that people hold, you wouldn’t have parents assuming that their precious white children were about to be descended upon by a violent mob of drug addicted, knife wielding black thugs with long discipline records. Why didn’t Woman #4 consider the possibility that the first woman’s skin may have been black, but that she too was concerned about her children’s education and safety? Because it’s hard to hurtle the racist card back at someone if you’re genuinely trying to see things from their point of view.
As horrifying as this process had been so far, it actually managed to get worse.
During the 2013-2014 school year the Normandy school district paid to educate those 1,000 students in other accredited districts. The education and transportation fees came to $10.4 million dollars that year, swiftly driving the Normandy district toward bankruptcy. In a desperate move to sidestep disaster – “disaster” being the absorption of the rest of Normandy’s students into the surrounding schools – the state stepped in to take over the Normandy district.
They gave it a fancy new name – the Normandy Schools Collaborative – along with a new status as a non-accredited school. Suddenly Normandy wasn’t accredited or unaccredited; its new status was brand new in the state’s history. And with that new non-accredited status, the transfer law no longer applied to students in the Normandy district.
The 1,000 students would have to return.
This was heartbreaking news for the students who had fought to escape and transitioned successfully into their new schools. Despite requests, Francis Howell refused to make any exceptions or take any Normandy Collaborative transfers.
In the fall of 2014, a group of parents filed a lawsuit against the state, hoping a judge would step in to help their children. Eventually the judge sided with the parents, stating students suffered irreparable harm for every day they spent in an unaccredited school. He said the Normandy students should be allowed to leave, but even then the Francis Howell district forced every student wishing to return to get a personal injunction from the judge.
The Normandy schools are now being led by their third superintendent in three years. It’s Charles Pearson’s first assignment as the head of a struggling school district, and he’s been tasked with creating a “New Normandy.” The reporter asked him if, knowing that students in high poverty segregated districts aren’t doing well, Pearson believes if it’s possible for a black child in Missouri to get an equal education. His response? “Wow. What a great question. The answer right now, I really don’t know.”
Conditions in Normandy continue to be dismal, but successful education remains the status quo at Francis Howell. They’ve maintained their test scores despite the influx of Normandy students, and they haven’t experienced a wave of “white flight” in spite of implicit threats of decreased interest in the area.
Nikole Hannah-Jones notes that this forced integration in Francis Howell has been successful, but the state is trying a multitude of interventions to keep the remaining Normandy students in their home district. They’re going to great lengths to bump Normandy’s scores enough to justify keeping the district intact, rather than looking at ways to use what’s been a successful model of integration at Francis Howell to improve the educational opportunities for all of the St. Louis area students.
I have a hard time understanding educators who aren’t willing to take ideas from a successful school district and apply them to a failing one. Unless they’re simply trying to avoid more horrific (but certainly “not racist”) backlash from public school parents.
** Please visit This American Life to find #562: “The Problem We All Live With.” In it Ira Glass interviews Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter at The New York Times. You can listen to the story there; it also has links if you’d like to download it or read the transcript.