At Brown’s impoverished high school, students try to make gains against odds

The specter of Michael Brown is inescapable inside his high school.

Hundreds of students, most of them African American, walk the same halls and sit in the same lunchroom as Brown did — before his hard-won graduation and, days later, his death in the middle of Canfield Drive not far away.

The American flag at the entrance of Normandy High School flies at half-staff. Students write and draw in their journals and read essays about police brutality, Brown’s fatal shooting by a white police officer on Aug. 9 considered the most vivid case study at hand.

Teachers rush from class to weep, behind closed doors, in faculty restrooms. They say they are crying not only for Brown, but also for Normandy and the students who remain in their classrooms.

If education is the gateway to a better future, the door here was shut long ago, fueling a mix of resignation and rage.

The school system’s entrenched dysfunction helps explain the street anger that has unfolded in neighboring Ferguson since Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson in what Wilson’s supporters have called an act of self-defense.

Brown’s death came amid one of the most chaotic chapters in this failing school district’s history.

The Normandy district is on the front lines of the national school-choice debate, which at its core asks whether public policy should enable families in poor, low-performing schools to attend higher-performing public and private schools in other communities. Normandy is a test of the public system’s defenders, who say such districts must be fixed, not abandoned.

For years, Normandy High was considered the most dangerous school in the city, with abysmal test scores, underperforming teachers, a student body in which nine in 10 students qualify for subsidized or free lunches, and graduation rate that’s less than 50 percent.

After years of flight that severely depleted the tax base funding the school, the district lost its state accreditation last year. Students could elect to transfer to other districts — many of them predominantly white and wealthy and worried about what parents in those districts called the “crime and chaos” that Normandy students might bring.

Beginning in 2013, Missouri law also mandated that a district stripped of its accreditation had to pay for its students’ tuition and transportation to and from a receiving school. Last year, those costs totaled $1.3 million a month, nearly bankrupting the district.

And this summer, the state took over the district to protect it from bankruptcy, said Chris L. Nicastro, the Missouri education commissioner. The state takeover meant that transfers were no longer deemed necessary, and some students were told they would have to return.

Family, friends and community leaders gathered Monday for the funeral of Michael Brown, the teenager shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. (Reuters)

“There are many, many people in the Normandy community who want to stay and be part of the solution,” Nicastro said. “And it’s very hard to tell parents they can’t transfer their kids to a high-performing school.”

Those families that chose to transfer — about 1,000 students — say their children spent a challenging last year adjusting to new schools. Many are now upset about having to come back to Normandy.

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D), who represents an area that includes Normandy, said Nicastro “is literally playing around with children’s lives.”

“They literally circumvented the law — and got out an eraser — so they don’t have to have transfers anymore,” said Chappelle-Nadal, who as a student benefited by being allowed to transfer from underfunded St. Louis public schools to a wealthier suburban school.

“This is the equivalent of putting these kids on a plantation when a nice condo is available,” she said.

Marva Robinson, the leader of the St. Louis chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists, worries about the emotional impact on students, many of whom live in poor, often unstable households.

“What kind of message does that send to these kids? Stay in your place?” she said. “Long before the shooting of Mike Brown, the message was, ‘You don’t matter.’ This is the atmosphere Michael Brown lived in every day. This is the stress that these kids exist in every day.”

‘Right to a decent education’

Robinson, a clinical psychologist, counsels families affected by the transfer, and her planned 50-minute sessions often run to nearly twice that time.

Carmen Clemons has two teenage sons who were in advanced-placement classes. One wants to be an engineer, the other a firefighter. She describes them as “nerdy, nice kids.”

This year, they were told they had to go to Normandy High. The school didn’t have the same advanced classes they had been taking. And on Day 5 of the academic year, they told their mother they had been “jumped,” or beaten up.

“No one broke the fight up,” Clemons said. “I was never notified. I had to go running in today to talk to the principal. We’ve worked so hard to raise respectful kids. My boys are such good students, but my son came home terrified when another student said, ‘If I see those shoes on your feet, I’m gonna take them.’ ”

Now she’s calling private schools, begging for scholarships. And she and her husband, who barely make enough to pay the bills, are thinking about selling their three-bedroom house.

“It’s a transportation problem, too, because we both work hard and there’s no time to drive them,” she said.

At the same time, about 15 to 20 percent of transfer students also came back to Normandy District mid-year. Some said the bus rides were too long. Others said they experienced racial prejudice.

Barbara Gregory said her daughter, Breonia, a junior at the time, had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and ride a bus an hour and half to Francis Howell Central High School in St. Charles County.

Students told her they would have to apply hand sanitizer after touching her. There were other racist remarks, too. She said when she was walking the crowded halls, “they called me the n-word and b-word.”

“I was basically bullied because they thought they were better than us ,” said Breonia, who wants to study physical therapy in college. “It was like they resented us for wanting a better education.”

She’s now back at Normandy High and on the track team and in the marching band.

“I wanted her to graduate from an accredited school, but the counselors there never did anything to help me,” Gregory said. “Three weeks later, she was back at Normandy. She is much happier now.”

Four families successfully sued to keep their children in transfer schools, but how it will work out for others appears to be complex and conflicting. Based on that recent ruling, two districts have said they will allow hundreds of transfers. But a third district has said no to 300 others, leaving individual cases to go before the court.

‘Stress on top of stress’

Despite the transfer controversy, this year should have been a new beginning, a fresh start.

Before the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education took over the school, the insecurity inside its six well-kept buildings at times resembled the chaos outside on the streets. The buildings are physically beautiful on the outside, but that beauty is skin deep.

The state insisted on changes before the new year began. Every teacher was dismissed and forced to re-interview for their positions. As the doors open, about 40 percent of the teachers district-wide will be new.

But as the staff arrived this year, they faced a new challenge: rattled students with Brown heavy on their minds. His image — face-down in a pool of blood in the middle of Canfield Drive — was featured on their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages for days and blared on televisions every night.

Lanette Starks, whose 14-year-old son, Cameron, attends Normandy High, said the killing hangs over the school like “some grim reaper.”

“They should be calling it a hate crime,” she said. “It’s like stress on top of stress around here.”

Each day, the bell rings at 3:07 p.m., and hundreds of students depart for a world defined for many of them by poverty, imprisoned brothers and sisters and parents juggling minimum-wage jobs with little time for them.

Melvin Pogue’s father died of cancer last year. He now works an overnight shift helping patients at a nursing home get in and out of bed.

“Bills, they take all your money,” said Pogue, 16, his voice suddenly heavy with a grown man’s burden.

Sometimes he sleeps in class. Or he catches an after-school cat nap.

“If I’m not hooping or playing video games,” he added. “I guess I should quit, but the money.”

For him, school should be a refuge, but he said it’s “the same old thing, depressing.”

“When my class acts up, the teacher just stood back this week and said, ‘Go ahead, I’m gonna get paid regardless,’ ” said Pogue, who was hanging out after school at a McDonald’s with his friend B.J. Lowe, 17, who has dreadlocks and mouth full of gold teeth inserts, a popular trend here.

Tyler Jones, their favorite English teacher at the high school, said Lowe is also a brilliant student who read at 12th-grade level when he was in ninth grade.

“They, I mean society, just thinks we all are thugs,” Lowe said. “Not Mr. Jones, but most people around here.”

A few years ago, as school began, Pogue reached out to Jones, a 28-year-old white English teacher, who was in his first year at the head of a classroom. Pogue and Lowe went to his classroom after school and gave him tips on how to win the kids’ respect.

“I owe them so much thanks,” said Jones, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School who left his consulting job to join Teach for America, which placed him here. The native of Cape Cod, Mass., is heading into this fourth year now.

As a birthday gift last year, Jones gave Lowe copies of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” books about bitter experiences of being black in America.

“These kids are so smart,” Jones said. “I know they are fighting long odds. But I don’t know when society takes the time to see their potential.”

Pogue and Lowe say they have a lot in common: the loss of parents. Lowe’s mother died last year in a car accident, adding to his confusion about what life would deliver next.

He jokes with Jones that no white employer would ever hire him.

“They see my dreads and tattoos and are like, ‘Nope, nope,’ ” he said.

He has two tattoos. One says, “RIP Jarjuna,” a reference to his nephew who was killed. Lowe says he had that one put on his arm when he was 13.

The other shows the St. Louis skyline with its elegant Gateway Arch engulfed in flames, a tattoo he drew himself because, he said, “This city is messed up.”

Rising above it

An hour before school let out on a recent day, Starks, 38, rolled up in a creaky old Honda.

She’d just gotten off work as a cafeteria cashier. She arrived to take her son to a doctor’s appointment for his depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“How are the new teachers?” she asked.

“They’re smarter, I ain’t gonna fake it,” Cameron said, tossing down his backpack.

“What’s your favorite class?” his mom asked.

“My favorite is switching classes — that’s my favorite,” he joked.

The family lives in subsidized housing, the only thing affordable, Starks says, on her $9.25-an-hour salary.

Her 17-year-old son dropped out of high school. “He a rapper,” Cameron said, laughing.

“Nah,” she corrected him, “he does nothing.”

Her 24-year-old son is in jail on an assault charge.

Even before Brown’s death, Starks worried that she would receive that call — the call telling her that one of her three sons was dead. Maybe at the hands of police, she said, or maybe from street violence or maybe after a fight at school.

“Police are always messing with me, being like, ‘You need to go,’ ” Cameron said, especially when he’s hanging out at gas stations or at parks.

“It’s important to have a gun, so you can protect yourself,” he said, adding that he was considering getting one after Brown’s death.

“Yeah,” his mother said, nodding her head in agreement. “He’s right.”

Last week, Jones had his sophomore class read essays about Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in Florida two years ago.

Zimmerman was tried on a second-degree murder and manslaughter charge. He was acquitted, and Jones worried what the reaction might be in his classroom when the students reached that part of the story.

“But at some point, there became this element of feeling resigned to acceptance,” he said. “There was not outrage — the passion is just tapped out.”

There are plenty of teachers and coaches at Normandy High who say they are optimistic about the state takeover and the new energy that an infusion of new staff members has brought. They also say they are trying to use this moment to talk about all that has happened.

On a recent afternoon, Jim Collins, the football coach, talked to students about how to react during a traffic stop: Hands always where the police can see them, he said.

“Listen, guys, I know how frustrating it can be,” he said. “I grew up on these streets. I get it. But there are also steps we can take to be better than that, to rise above it.”

On Saturday, during the season’s opening game, Collins gathered all the players in the locker room and listed the long odds they faced: the threat of the school going bankrupt, last year’s season-ending loss and the emotional loss of Brown.

Normandy won.

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer who covers veteran's affairs and the culture of government. She's an award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade. She also covered immigration, crime and education for the Metro staff.
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