Mehlville board to consider setting class-size policy

DESE’s ‘desirable’ standards for class sizes recommended

By Gloria Lloyd

If the trend among transfer applications holds, about half the students applying to transfer out of unaccredited Riverview Gardens are asking to attend Mehlville schools.

The Mehlville Board of Education will discuss the transfer issue and consider establishing a class-size policy when it meets at 7 p.m. today — July 25 — in the boardroom of the Administration Building, 3120 Lemay Ferry Road.

When the Call went to press, about half of the 500 students who had applied to transfer out of Riverview Gardens chose Mehlville as their top destination over closer school districts. Since parents can apply to Riverview Gardens for a transfer until Aug. 1, no one knows yet how many students will transfer.

The state-appointed school board overseeing Riverview Gardens chose Mehlville as the district it will bus students to following a Missouri Supreme Court decision that upholds a state law mandating that unaccredited school districts must pay tuition for students who want to transfer to an accredited school district.

The timing of the decision so close to the beginning of the new school year and the mystery of how it will be enforced has all affected school districts scrambling to determine how many students they will have attending this fall.

The law itself is broad and does not say that receiving school districts can opt out of taking a transfer student due to space.

Like the other districts affected by the court ruling, Riverview Gardens is trying to balance the requirements of the law with Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, guidelines and the realities of its own district and available space in other districts, said its communications director, Melanie Powell-Robinson.

“We are building this ship as we’re sailing it,” she said.

Mehlville officials conducted a survey in advance of tonight’s meeting to see what spots exist in each classroom. Due to its new full-day kindergarten, Mehlville will not accept any transfer students into kindergarten, Superintendent Eric Knost said.

“Bernard Middle School has been packed to the gills, and we haven’t accepted in-district transfers into Bernard for many years,” he said. “So we’ll have zero transfer space available at Bernard. I expect there will be handfuls of space at the other middle schools and at the high schools.”

Mehlville’s current class sizes are above DESE’s “desirable” standards, Knost noted, but below the maximum standards. The district has never set a preferred policy on class sizes.

In information provided to the board ahead of tonight’s meeting, Knost recommends the board establish a class-size policy of DESE’s desirable standards, which would limit classes to 17 for kindergarten through second grade, 20 for third and fourth grades, 22 for fifth and sixth grades and 25 for seventh through 12th grades, with exceptions or extra staffing made if the board wishes to do so. Knost’s recommended transfer policy states that the district can decline to enroll transfer students from unaccredited districts if class sizes exceed the board’s preferred class-size policy.

Although many Riverview Gardens parents were surprised at the choice of what they felt was a school far across the county, several of the parents filling out transfer applications at the Riverview Gardens Family and Community Resource Center last week said they were happy their district chose Mehlville, because they graduated from its schools.

Mehlville Senior High School graduate Lori Kempff was ecstatic after filling out papers to send her son to the same schools she attended. Her son has attended school in Riverview Gardens since 2009, and she had grown so dissatisfied with his elementary education that she did not want to send him to a middle school in Riverview Gardens.

The scene in her son’s classes has been chaotic, she said, with students cussing and running around during class.

“It’s hard for kids to learn when 75 percent of the class is acting up,” she said. “I just want him to be in a place where the teachers don’t have to spend all their time saying, ‘Please be quiet,’ ‘Sit down.’ With kids that want to learn.”

For years, Mehlville has participated in the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., or VICC, desegregation program, in which minority students from St. Louis city schools can attend suburban schools and non-minority suburban students can attend city magnet schools, with tuition paid for by their per-student state allotment that follows them to the new school.

In anticipation of students from Riverview Gardens, Knost halted accepting any new VICC students for the upcoming school year as of last week.

Riverview Gardens parent Charilyn Curlee, who bused from south St. Louis to Mehlville as part of the VICC program and also graduated from Mehlville Senior High School, said the drive between the two districts is a short trip in exchange for a better education. After she moved from the city in February, she found that her fifth-grader’s school was far behind the magnet school he previously attended.

“My son brought home his homework the first night, and my husband and I looked at each other like, ‘What is this?'” she said. “They don’t do anything with the kids. They’re behind on their work out here.”

Kempff agreed that homework is a problem in the Riverview district, saying that a typical assignment sent home is just a short worksheet.

Riverview Gardens will pay Mehlville its tuition rate of $9,306 per student, which is a “fully burdened” tuition rate that includes all costs of a student attending the district, including teachers, buildings, supplies and debt service. Among Knost’s recommendations to the board for tonight’s meeting, he sets out a monthly payment schedule for the sending school district. If that district fails to pay, its students can no longer attend Mehlville schools.

Powell-Robinson’s district does not want to lose a single student to other districts, she noted, but it is also not discouraging families that want to apply to other districts.

“We’re focused on what we’re doing to restore academic honor to Riverview Gardens,” she said. “We believe in neighborhood schools, and we see the value in that, in the district being a community hub.”

Some parents are calling school districts to get more information about the district or about applying for transfers. As of last week, Mehlville had received at least 80 inquiries from parents hoping to transfer their children.

In contrast, Lindbergh Schools received seven phone calls from residents of Normandy or Riverview Gardens looking to transfer. Those parents must apply through their home district, however.

The Cooperating School Districts, which is helping the unaccredited districts coordinate the process, reported to Lindbergh this week that it has received two official applications for transfer from Riverview Gardens, said Beth Johnston, Lindbergh’s director of communications.

Lindbergh Board of Education members have discussed this summer how enrollment in growth has filled their classrooms to capacity, and this summer they established a task force that will study and propose solutions to the district’s rapidly expanding enrollment, specifically at the elementary level.