ST. LOUIS – When the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in June that students from unaccredited districts could transfer to better-performing schools, Cornell and Shonte Young were among thousands of St. Louis County parents who entered a lottery to determine where their children would attend class.
The lottery asked parents to list three choices, but the Youngs left two lines blank and only listed one district — Kirkwood, where 13-year-old Cornell IV hoped to follow his father's footsteps and join the Pioneer football team.
But Kirkwood already had filled its available seats, so the family was content with returning to the Riverview Gardens district, even though it lost its state accreditation six years ago.
"The only other option was to come back here," Shonte Young said. "Other than Kirkwood, we never had any plans to go anywhere else."
Nearly one-fourth of the district's 5,800 students did opt to transfer, new superintendent Scott Spurgeon said Monday, the first day of classes at Riverview Gardens. That includes about 350 students who will be bused to Kirkwood and Mehlville schools — at Riverview Gardens' considerable expense.
Another 475 students from Normandy, the second unaccredited district in St. Louis County, will endure bus rides as far as 30 to 40 miles to the Francis Howell district in St. Charles County.
The Normandy district expects to run out of money this year. Spurgeon said Riverview Gardens has enough cash in its reserves to cover one year of the more than $19 million in added tuition and transportation costs. Beyond those fiscal woes, some Normandy and Riverview Gardens' parents whose children weren't given their preferred choices are threatening legal action, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri, a school choice advocacy group.
There was little talk of those troubles Monday at Westview Middle School, where students wearing the school's standard uniform of blue and white polo shirts and navy blue pants went through the usual first-day routines, from locker assignments and schedule reminders to teacher introductions and reunions with old pals.
"Thank you for coming back," principal Valeska Hill told some students lined up quietly outside her office.
"Our focus is trying to educate our kiddos that have returned," she said later. "It's a normal first day of school. Proud to be an Eagle."
Spurgeon started the job on July 1 after serving as superintendent at Belleville (Ill.) district and most recently training education administrators in urban school districts across the country for a New York-based leadership center. He said he hopes Riverview Gardens can provisionally regain its accreditation over the next year — a lofty goal for a district that met fewer than half of the state's 14 required standards. The district is governed by a Special Administrative Board appointed by the Missouri State Board of Education to stay in place through 2016.
Despite not winning the Kirkwood lottery, Cornell Young IV said he was happy to return to his Westview Middle.
"I love this school," he said. "They help me when I need help...The teachers make you do active things. The atmosphere around here is so nice. Nothing bad happens."
His mother, a Moline Acres alderwoman, said the Riverview Gardens district gets a bad rap from those who can't see beyond the accreditation woes to see individual success stories.
"They do great things here," she said. "But you don't hear that. What you hear is 'failing district. Their test scores are low.' What you don't hear about is the $9 million in college scholarships (for recent high school graduates). Sometimes it's hard, because it makes parents who aren't involved believe they're in a bad neighborhood. They just need to take the time and become involved."
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