KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The Missouri Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to let the St. Louis public school district shed its “unaccredited” label, a move that makes it no longer subject to a state law allowing students to transfer to better-performing districts.
Under the vote during the board’s meeting in Jefferson City, St. Louis schools will now be considered provisionally accredited. A state-appointed special administrative board is authorized to remain in place through at least June 2014.
“Everyone must acknowledge the need for continued improvement and the stakes involved,” Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said. “There is nothing less than the lives of 25,000 children at stake.”
The district, with just under 28,000 students in preschool through 12th grade, was one of four unaccredited districts in the state. It had lost its accreditation in 2007 because of leadership concerns, low academic performance and financial problems so severe that its operating budget repeatedly had shown a negative balance.
Amid the problems, several lawsuits were filed by families seeking to take advantage of a Missouri law requiring unaccredited districts to pay tuition and transportation to send students living within their boundaries to accredited districts nearby. Schools, however, claimed the law was unworkable, setting up a protracted legal battle. While the litigation continued, students haven’t been allowed to use the law to transfer.
Now it’s unclear what will happen to the St. Louis litigation, which had the potential to set legal precedence and was being closely watched by families living in the unaccredited Kansas City school district.
“The lawsuits were initiated because the district was deemed unaccredited,” said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the state-appointed board running the district. “I don’t know what will happen to those lawsuits after today, but the basis of the lawsuits has been eliminated due to the accreditation of the school district.”
Before the board voted, Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials reported that the district is in fiscal compliance and has been removed from financially stressed list of public schools.
A focus on literacy also helped the district show improvement in the state’s Annual Performance Reports, which are used to make accreditation decisions. The reports show how many academic performance standards have been met by districts in such areas as test scores, graduation rates and attendance.
The St. Louis district went from meeting three of 14 performance standards in 2009 to meeting six last year and seven this year. One of the performance standards the district met was tied to test scores.
Nicastro initially said she wanted one more year of data before considering an accreditation upgrade. But with several changes taking place this academic year that would have complicated regaining accreditation, the district pushed to have the review sooner.
Among the changes is a switch to a tougher state evaluation system. The new version will require higher test scores in some subjects. Also, schools will have to track such things as how many students succeed in higher-level courses rather than just how many enroll in them.
Also, the district this year absorbed most of the 3,500 students displaced by the closure of six charter schools run by Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc. The Imagine students’ test scores were among the lowest in the state, and the district asked the state to exclude their test scores for the next three years. The state hasn’t yet ruled on the request.
“Those all created uncertainties,” Sullivan acknowledged.
Mary Armstrong, president of American Federation of Teachers Local 420, which represents St. Louis public school teachers and support staff, praised the accreditation decision in a written statement.
“It demonstrates that dedication, hard work and perseverance pay off,” Armstrong said. “All of the stakeholders pulled together for the good of our students and our community. We are committed to working with the district to keep making positive progress. We all work better together.”
Gov. Jay Nixon urged the district’s leadership, teachers, students and families to keep up the hard work.
“It is vital,” he said in a written statement, “that this progress continues because the children of St. Louis need and deserve an outstanding education and a district that has earned full accreditation.”