South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Mehlville board members embrace new philosophy on decision-making

Residents look for longevity in next district head’s tenure

In a sea change from the way the Mehlville School District has historically operated, administrators and Board of Education members pledge that starting now, decisions about the district will be made with long-term planning and the voice of the community in mind.

Board members have embraced the new philosophy since approving the development of a $41,000 strategic plan, which Superintendent Norm Ridder presented to them at a Jan. 5 retreat.

Although the hundreds of district teachers, residents and parents who took the strategic-plan surveys diverged on key aspects of governance of the district, especially money, district residents and parents overwhelmingly agreed that they are positive about Mehlville.

Younger teachers are more likely than older teachers to concur with that sentiment, and another takeaway is that residents and parents agree Mehlville’s teachers are outstanding.

“We’re seeing a very positive, exciting feeling toward Mehlville School District, all around,” Ridder told the board. “What’s really kind of overwhelming from all the surveys is the confidence the parents have, and the community has, in their teachers.

“That’s very powerful.”

Using questions developed from focus groups and human-centered design, hundreds of residents and parents took phone surveys that are scientifically accurate as representative of the district within five percentage points in either direction, a 95-percent confidence interval.

One of the key areas for improvement that all those groups shared with interviewers is that past district and board decisions have often seemed random or disjointed, like they came out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason. That’s a perception Ridder said will be turned around once the board starts making decisions based on the strategic plan, which is a road map to future decisions that anyone will be able to see and use to measure the district’s progress.

“You’ve got to plan five, 10, 15, 20 years ahead and really keep in mind what the community’s will is, and you plan within that will,” Ridder told the board. “I guarantee you the closer the alignment between what the will of the community is and what the board does, the smarter the board looks. You’ll always hit the ball out of the park with that, every time.”

With a search for interim Superintendent Ridder’s permanent replacement underway, the company that conducted the strategic plan, Opinion Research Specialists, sought feedback from residents not just about the district’s governance but what they hope to see in the future superintendent.

Residents’ thoughts on that subject can be summed up in one word: longevity.

“It’s pretty obvious through the community feedback that the community wants consistency in its governance — it wants board members that are going to be there, and they’re there for kids, and it wants a superintendent that’s going to be there five, 10 years,” Ridder said. “The community’s telling us that, so that’s a key piece.”

Some of the survey results surprised Ridder, who has spent four decades as a teacher and administrator, in three states.

First, teachers did not make a single complaint about their principals, which in his experience is unprecedented.

“I have never, ever had that before,” Ridder said. “And that is very positive and very powerful.”

In another anomaly, teachers and principals in turn had no complaints about the administrators in Central Office.

“That’s very unusual, because usually Central Office is a problem,” Ridder said.

Those results are indicators of the strong relationships that have been built across the district, Ridder said, from teachers with their students to students with their families to residents who have no direct connection but still want Mehlville students to succeed.

As far as how the community receives its information, teachers and parents said they rely on school emails.

District residents, however, primarily rely on the Call and the district’s print newsletter, the Mehlville Messenger, for information about the district, with 90 percent of residents surveyed saying they get district news from the Call and 86 percent reporting they get news from the Messenger.

Of the residents who took the surveys for the strategic plan, the demographics closely mirrored the district’s composition, with 58 percent coming from the Mehlville High School attendance area and 42 percent from the Oakville High School attendance area.

Only 18 percent of respondents to the resident survey said they have a child in the district, which is at least 7 percentage points lower than Ridder has seen in other districts, a fact he attributes to the many private and parochial schools in the district.

As part of the strategic plan, district administrators gathered comparative data from six surrounding or similar school districts to compare every aspect of how Mehlville operates with how other districts operate. Some of the differences — such as the actual time teachers and students spend together — are glaring. The data sets a baseline the district can use to measure improvement in the years to come, instead of just guessing whether things have gotten better, Ridder noted.

“There’s positives and negatives as we look at our data and really, we needed to do that,” he told the Call about setting the baseline. “The data becomes a reality.”

Using comparative data from Lindbergh Schools and from the Affton, Bayless, Hancock Place, Fox and Wentzville school districts, Mehlville comes out better on some indicators and lower on others compared to other districts.

For example, Mehlville’s graduation rate and percentage of students who go on to higher education are higher than Lindbergh’s, but Mehlville’s test scores are lower and it only has 6.5 reading and math coaches, whereas Lindbergh, which is half Mehlville’s size, has 44 coaches.

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