Before Michael Brown became a symbol of racially charged unrest, he was a recent high school graduate days away from starting college.
That high school diploma was hard-earned, his mourning mother has said. "Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?" she told news station KMOV. "You know how many black men graduate? Not many."
For 12 days now, protesters in Ferguson and across the country have been chanting Brown's name as they rail against racial profiling and unequal treatment at the hands of law enforcement. It has meant a jolting start to the fall semester this week for students at Normandy High, a school of about 1,000 in Wellston, St. Louis county.
“Everyone is going to be talking about Mike. What's going to happen to the one who shot him? Why did they shoot him?” one student, Zaria Trotter, told NBC about the new school year.
Brown intended to attend Vatterott College, a trade school, where he would learn how to become a heating and air conditioner technician. But a deeper look at his alma mater, where about 83 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and dropout and suspension rates are well above state averages, highlights the inequities he faced while growing up, what he overcame to graduate, the uneven playing field his peers are left to navigate -- and how the school is emblematic of a system that's failing low-income kids.
1. Graduation Rates At Normandy Are LowAccording to Missouri data from 2013, the four-year graduation rate for Normandy High School was 53 percent, compared to 86 percent in the state as a whole. For context, the national high school graduation rate reached a historic high of 80 percent in 2012.
2. Suspension Rates Are Soaring
About 60 percent of students in the mostly black school had at least one in-school or out-of-school suspension in 2011, according to data collected by the Office of Civil Rights. This is far greater than average nationwide rates of suspension. What's more, there's a clear racial element to who is being punished and who isn't: A nationwide OCR report found that black students were suspended around the country at a rate of 16 percent during the 2011-2012 school year, while white students were suspended at a rate of just 5 percent.
Civil rights advocates often advertise the negative impact of suspensions on students, saying they have a "push out" effect and make students more likely to drop out before attaining a high school degree -- a factor that could contribute to Normandy’s low graduation rates.
Daphne Dorsey, spokeswoman for Normandy School District, said the numbers listed in the Office of Civil Rights report weren't accurate, even though they were provided by the district. "The people who were here when that report was done –- they’re no longer here," she said. Dorsey also noted that the district has made an effort to offer students more support and curb suspensions.
"The administration in place at the high school and middle school really didn’t address what resulted in those suspensions [in 2011]," she said. "If a student was out of uniform, they were suspended instead of finding out why they were out of uniform."
3. Normandy High School Has Been Noted For High Rates Of Violence
In 2013, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote an article dubbing Normandy "the most dangerous school in the area." According to the article, in 2012 the school reported 285 discipline incidents that resulted in suspensions of 10 days or more. Only one other high school in the state had a higher rate of incidents that year, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Dorsey said a zero-tolerance policy in place that year inflated the numbers, misrepresenting the school.
In a newsletter to parents that October, the school explained the situation. “Infractions such as insubordination, uniform violation, horseplay, truancy, and tardiness would have warranted a one-, two-, three-day suspension in many school districts; however, in Normandy, those students were given an automatic 10-day suspension,” Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Dr. Trish Adkins said in the newsletter.
Indeed, the number of 10-day suspensions significantly decreased in 2013, according to state data.
4. The State Has Labeled Normandy A “Failed District”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Normandy School District lost accreditation in 2012 after it was labeled a "failed district" due to low standardized test scores. Out of over 500 school districts in Missouri, only three are without accreditation, according to Sarah Potter, the communications coordinator for the Missouri Department of Education. Since then, the district has been renamed the Normandy Schools Collaborative and was taken over by the state.
After Normandy's district lost its accreditation, students there were allowed to transfer to better districts under Missouri state law. But the transfers stirred up controversy. MSNBC reported in 2013 that nearly 25 percent of students in the district opted to leave for better options.
Additionally, parents at the high-performing schools that Normandy students were to attend were not thrilled about the arrival of the new teens:
"I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed," one mother said at a school board meeting at the time in response to the pending arrival of Normandy students, according to MSNBC.
Chris Krehmayer, president and CEO of Beyond Housing, a St. Louis organization that works to improve the communities surrounding Normandy schools, said he attributes Normandy’s poor test scores to the tough circumstances faced by the district’s children, rather than poor classroom instruction.
“Right now the schools have lost their accreditation, which clearly is not a good thing,” Krehmayer told The Huffington Post. “The dynamics of the population is not unlike many places across the country. Over 90 percent of children receive free and reduced lunch, and the school has an annual mobility rate of over 50 percent. [Academic] challenges are not always about teaching and learning in the classroom, but about what’s happening in the life of the child.”
5. It Is Located In A State Where Poor Schools Often Get The Least Funding
Missouri received a D on a 2014 school funding report card that measures how states distribute funds to low- and high-poverty schools in the state. School funding in Missouri is slightly regressive, so that the poorest schools often receive the least funding, even though those students may need the most support. Overall, the report found that only 14 other states had school funding distribution systems that were more unfair than Missouri's.
A 2012 report from the Center for American Progress reiterates this point. According to the report, Missouri is a state where "children attending school in higher-poverty districts still have substantially less access to state and local revenue than children attending school in lower-poverty districts."
Unfortunately, Missouri is not alone. Across the country, places like Pennsylvania and Illinois also have unequal school funding systems that often leave the poorest students with the least resources.
6. Few Students Participate In Competitive Classes
According to 2011 data from the Office of Civil Rights, of the 1,064 students attending Normandy High School at the time, only 4 students were enrolled in a calculus class -- less than 1 percent of the school -- and 33 students were enrolled in physics class -- about 3 percent of the school. By comparison, according to 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 16 percent of graduates nationwide had taken calculus in high school and 36 percent of graduates had taken physics.
Standardized test scores at Normandy High are also low. About 50 percent of the graduating 2013 class from Normandy took the ACT, with an average score of 16.8, according to data from the Missouri Department of Education. By comparison, students in the state received an average score of 21.6.
Finally, significantly fewer Normandy students went on to attend four-year universities than in the rest of the state in 2013. While nearly 37 percent of Missouri high school graduates went to a four-year school, about 20 percent of Normandy graduates did, according to state data.
...But Things Could Get Better
Dorsey told HuffPost that students were greeted at school on Monday by clergy members and parents holding supportive signs. Even though she said there was a "sense of loss" in the school community, students came ready to learn. The school made counselors available to students if they wanted to chat, although Dorsey said that by Tuesday she did not think counselors had been utilized much so far.
"We have great students in our district. We emphasize learning, academics; our students are caring. They're involved. ... They do a lot of different things," said Dorsey. "There is a negative perception ... but ... the students who came to school today, they were upbeat, they were enthusiastic, and they were excited to be back at school."
Krehmayer of Beyond Housing was one of said supporters who came to Normandy to cheer kids on during their first day.
“It was full of enthusiasm and excitement,” said Krehmayer. “There was no sense of ‘wow this is a bad place to be.’”
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