In Pluto’s diary on the life of Michael Brown, you might notice one detail that’s both touching and disturbing:
Mike’s graduation photograph was taken in March 2014, still many months ahead of when he would be able to graduate in August. Imagine the “why” of this fact:
The grinding poverty in Mike’s world only allowed Normandy High School to acquire two graduation gowns to be shared by the entire class. The students passed a gown from one to the other. Each put the gown on, in turn, and sat before the camera to have their graduation photographs taken. Until it was Mike’s turn.
What kind of American school would have to share robes across the entire senior class?
The kind that’s been the subject of a lot of attention from the state board of education.
This district was created by merging two of the poorest, most heavily minority districts around St. Louis—Normandy and Wellston. The poverty rate for families sending their kids to Normandy Schools was 92 percent. At Wellston School District, the poverty rate was 98 percent. Every single student in the Wellston district was African American.
Still, the state education board voted to merge the districts in 2010 (the first change to state school district boundaries in thirty-five years). Plagued by white flight, crashing property values that destroyed tax revenues, and a loss of state funds as the better-off residents of the area sent their children to private schools, the resulting district isn’t just short of gowns, it’s short of everything. Residents of the district voted again and again to raise their own property taxes, until their rates were actually the highest in the state, but a higher percentage of nothing was still nothing, and district revenues trended steadily down.
After the merger, the state board proceeded with the next step on their plan. In 2012, they rated Normandy as a failed district, removed its accreditation, and placed it under direct state control. The idea was to reform the district to the state board’s design, only there was one problem: the Missouri State Supreme Court ruled that students in a failed district had the right to go to other districts. Hundreds of Normandy students signed up to do just that, heading for classrooms in surrounding districts, some of which were majority white. At first, this generated tension:
News of the Supreme Court’s upholding of the transfer law initially sparked anger and fear among some white Francis Howell parents.
“I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed,” one mother said during a school board meeting, referring to the prospective arrival of Normandy students.
“We don’t want this here in Francis Howell,” another parent said.
But for the most part that attitude didn’t last. Normandy students settled in at their new districts, and despite a financial drain—Normandy had to cover the cost of transportation and pay tuition to the other districts for those students who transferred—things seemed on an upswing in the district.
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