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Coming up in Wellston, Missouri, Omarion “Omar” Henry grabbed on tight to his dream. Living in one of the poorest suburbs of St. Louis, he sometimes found it impossible to see beyond limits. One recent spring morning at the O’Fallon Family YMCA, washed in sweat, Omar sprinted up and down an open court, the floor screeching with every line drill, his trainer yelling, “C’mon, one more.” As painful as every squeak sounded, this — playing basketball — was always the dream. When you’re 6’7’’and rangy, it’s hard for it not to be. To afford the $25-an-hour private coaching sessions, he worked nights at FedEx, determined to make it out because not many in St. Louis like him do. They often feel if they fail to become what they’re chasing, the next best option for survival is the drug game or a gang – sometimes, both.

The 19-year-old made a major leap in his quest for a better life when he graduated in May 2021 from Normandy High School, where he was a star athlete. Since then, he’s been prepping for his first year this fall on a full ride to the University of New Orleans, a Division I school, his eyes fixed on the NBA.

Omarion ‘Omar’ Henry, 19

Normandy High School graduate, headed to the University of New Orleans

On Brown’s death: “It bothered me a lot because I’m a kid, I’m trying to have fun. I’m not trying to worry about if people were trying to kill me or pull out a gun on me or anything—police officers especially.”

On growing up near Ferguson: “I’m so used to this kind of environment and being afraid of police. I just know how it is being Black in America.”

In graduating from Normandy High with a plan for college, Omar found himself in rare company. Only about 2 in 3 Normandy students graduate, and fewer still — around 30 percent — go on to college or technical schools. Michael Brown had once been in this company, too, headed for a trade school after graduating from Normandy on Aug. 1, 2014, eight days before he was gunned down in nearby Ferguson by a white police officer.

Monthslong protests followed. “Hands up, don’t shoot” became the grieving chant of onlookers who said the unarmed 18-year-old had raised his hands before being killed. Demonstrations that started in Ferguson spread across the globe, and the city became a symbol of fury and resistance to police violence. Brown’s death renewed the fight for racial justice and helped ignite the national movement for Black lives.

When Brown was killed, Omar was 11. Yet, he recognized a discernible vibe shift in his neighborhood. “It was harder to connect and trust people,” he remembered. “It bothered me a lot because I’m a kid, I’m trying to have fun. I’m not trying to worry about if people were trying to kill me or pull out a gun on me or anything — police officers especially.” And ever since, he’s been “cautious of getting pulled over, talking to police, being around them.”

Omar is part of a generation of young Black Americans who grew up numb to senseless killings. But the threat of police violence is only one burden they maneuver in a district where about half of the families live in poverty. ​​“It’s like you know where you want to be … but it’s gonna take me a process to get there,” Omar said of the resilience he’s had to tap into to survive. That self-awareness has also pushed him even more “to get as far away from St. Louis as possible.

“I gotta make it out of here for my family.”

That’s the goal for many growing up in St. Louis today, especially in chronically segregated areas like Ferguson and Normandy, because there has been little tangible progress since Brown’s igniting death. Young people accustomed to one unjust death after another continue to expect little from systems that have continually let them down: brutal and racist policing; a local economy delivering few good jobs; segregated schools that too often ignore their needs.

“We don’t want them to devalue their lives because they feel like, ‘Well, I’m 18, it’s over for me anyway.’ That’s the last thing I want any of these young males or females in St. Louis to feel because of what they witnessed on Aug. 9.”

Lezley McSpadden-Head, Michael Brown’s mother

Much of the criticism has fallen on Normandy Schools Collaborative district, whose seven schools in a predominantly poverty-stricken area serve students from pre-K to 12th grade, with Normandy High, Brown’s alma mater, the only secondary school option. It ranks in the bottom 50 percent of Missouri’s 599 high schools. The district lost its accreditation in 2012 and, months before Brown died, the state took it over.

Despite attempts at reform, it remains only provisionally accredited, with one of the state’s worst graduation rates, a revolving door of leadership and high rates of suspensions and absenteeism. Students who make it to graduation, like Omar, often do so in spite of the school, not because of it. Yet, at Normandy High, some committed educators still work to help students process the pain of police brutality and, more recently, the pandemic, and young people persevere despite the school’s failure to invest in their education and well-being.

During this past spring semester, students, teachers and administrators at Brown’s alma mater spoke about the lasting impact of his death.

Stephone Cody, 17

A rising senior who plans to transfer out of Normandy High for his final year

On a police raid he witnessed: “I was a little shocked that the police would do something like that because I thought these people were supposed to be our protectors.”

On being Black in America: “We have an advantage because we have scholarships that are specifically for poverty-stricken Black students. … But at the same time, we’re at a disadvantage because of all the stuff that we’ve dealt with for like the last probably bajillion years—we’re not enslaved anymore, but we still are.”

Stephone Cody, a rising senior and student government vice president at Normandy High, couldn’t wait as Omar did for college to make his move to something better. The 17-year-old, upset with the school’s lackluster performance, said he “decided it was time to go” and petitioned his middle-class parents to take him out after this last school year. He’s deciding among three private schools outside the city that have a predominantly white student population and graduation rates above 99 percent.

Normandy’s dean of students and fine arts teacher (and incoming assistant principal this fall), Duane Foster, has seen this before. He views it as students equating academic excellence with whiteness. “A lot of people in the community have bought into the negativity of us, and they don’t realize it,” he said. “They’re so used to not expecting anything great to be happening here.”

Because there’s no clear road map for the school district’s future, given the constant change in administrators, there’s also no consistency in culture and academics for teachers and students. “When we get new leadership,” Foster said, “they don’t trust that whole idea of building from within.”

The entrance to Normandy High School. Michael Brown had just graduated from the school when he was killed by a Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9, 2014. Credit: Rita Omokha

A 1987 alum of Normandy High, Foster has been with the collaborative since 2006. When he walked into the school that winter for a substitute teaching interview, he remembered having a “Lean on Me” moment — the 1989 movie about an unorthodox principal recruited to restore a failing school: “I saw the stage where I used to perform was turned into a storage facility. And the dressing rooms had all these old, dilapidated books.”

A trained theatrical performer, he began subbing as a middle school fine arts teacher, putting on plays so students felt celebrated. Since joining the high school full time in 2010, he said he’s gone through six superintendents and five principals — typically, a superintendent is in place for about six years, a principal for four — each with a specific agenda that often neglects the community and students.

“It angers me — I don’t know whether or not to be angry towards the school board or towards the leadership,” he said. “We have had moments where we’ve gotten things right, and times we’ve dropped the ball. It frustrates me, but it also challenges me.” As Foster sees it, most recruited for the district’s top job by the state, often through outside groups, have lacked a focus on students’ well-being and a vision rooted in community engagement. “When we bring people in from other cities [with] other ideologies,” he said, “it’s just a formula for failure.”

Related: In the shadows: The orphans Covid left behind

The most recent superintendent, Marcus Robinson, began his tenure in May 2020 with a three-year contract and a $215,000 annual salary, though he had little relevant experience. He was neither certified to teach full-time or be a superintendent in Missouri, let alone run a district with over 2,700 students and 190 teachers in a high-poverty community of more than 34,600 people. Robinson promised the school board he’d get the necessary certification and degree, but never did.

Under Robinson, students’ proficiency in English and math, already the lowest in the state, decreased further. So, “the board voted no confidence,” Anthony Neal, one of seven school board members in the district, said of Robinson, whose last day was June 30. A credentialed superintendent is an important requirement for a district’s accreditation in Missouri, alongside other measures like state scores and academic achievement. “When you shift gears like that, in the middle of trying to create change and raise scores and bring about some reform, it sets you back,” Neal said.

If Robinson had stayed one more year — hitting his three-year mark — without the proper credentials, Missouri would have dropped the district to unaccredited again. As the board continues its search, Phil Pusateri, the district’s chief financial officer, is now the “administrator in charge.”

“We’re doing them a tremendous disservice.”

Tyler Jones, who recently resigned as an English teacher at Normandy High School

Nakia Douglas began as Normandy High School’s principal during the pandemic in July 2020. This past school year was her first time serving students on campus, which was an adjustment for faculty and students. Some teachers and students worry she emphasizes punishing students over supporting them.

One afternoon on campus, an English language arts teacher vented that the bathrooms had been locked during school hours at the beginning of the year after some students were found smoking weed in them. “I’m like, this is a human rights violation,” the teacher told me. “I’m not OK with this.”

“It’s super oppressive,” the teacher said. “[Administrators] focus on policing the kids in a militant way instead of supporting them. They enjoy ‘catching’ the kids. They were suspending kids for 10 days at the beginning of the year for not having the Normandy logo uniform.”

Normandy High’s rate of out-of-school suspensions — it no longer has in-school suspensions — is ten times higher than the state average of 1 percent. Suspensions mean less time learning and contribute to higher absenteeism. Before virtual instruction disrupted school attendance, Normandy’s was more than double the state’s 13 percent average.

“Not one time have I heard them start off the [school’s] announcement: ‘Good morning, everyone,’ or have an assembly —‘Hey, we’re just happy y’all are here,’ ” Meredith Alton, an English teacher, said. “It’s always like, ‘All y’all aren’t going to prom, homecoming, if this, or you’re not going to get this if y’all don’t figure it out. They had an assembly to just yell at them and tell them how horrible they are.”

“Is this normal?” Alton, new to education — this past school year was her first as a teacher and at Normandy — asked another English teacher, Erica Ivy-Kwan, during that same afternoon on campus.

“It’s a sh—show.”

Related: After the pandemic disrupted their high school educations, students are arriving at college unprepared

Ivy-Kwan is a new transplant to Normandy from Arkansas, with 16 years’ teaching experience in a similarly struggling public school system. She said she’s never encountered such behavior from school leaders. In her one year at Normandy, teaching juniors, she’s tried to air her concerns to the administration about everything from lack of teacher support and a voice in the curriculum to undue discipline she’s witnessed.

She’s been sidestepped. “We’ve brought these things to attention in meetings,” she said. “I’ve not talked to Douglas about it because I don’t see her.”

Erica Ivy-Kwan teaches English at Normandy High School. An Arkansas transplant, she has 16 years of teaching experience in similarly struggling high schools. Credit: Rita Omokha

Douglas, who’s also the district’s assistant superintendent, told me the return to in-person school this fall was a “rough go: Fighting, being violent with one another, cybercrime, cyberbullying, sex, drugs — a lot of problems intensified when schools reopened.” She said joining the district and high school during COVID lockdowns had been one of the most challenging experiences of her 25 years in education — she found herself adjusting alongside the students and teachers.

She focused on getting kids back on track with stricter policies. “Do I have standards and high expectations for everyone? Absolutely. Have kids struggled to meet those expectations? Have adults struggled to meet those expectations? Yes. But I’m not going to change my expectation of excellence for everybody in the building,” she said. “I am a different administrator than they had before. [One] of the transitions was to provide kids with a more structured environment.”

That included getting students back in uniforms, strengthening the curriculum and raising graduation rates. Douglas said this last academic year started with about 80 seniors ready to graduate, but 120 out of 127 graduated. (The Missouri State Board of Education’s database does not reflect the most recent school year graduation numbers.) She also said her administration focused on reducing in-school fights and restoring safety because “data showed that 38 percent of teachers and kids didn’t feel safe in the school space.”

Only about 2 in 3 Normandy High students graduate, and fewer still — around 30 percent — go on to college or technical schools.

Despite Douglas’s efforts, Stephone said he hasn’t seen changes materialize. He’s been most infuriated with the barebones curriculum that excludes Advanced Placement classes and recycles outdated materials. “What we are taught, really doesn’t benefit us,” he said. As a result, he hasn’t felt challenged and has been vocal about it at school board meetings. At one of those meetings, he even pitched adding AP courses and cultural outings — so students get “exposure” and don’t feel “trapped in this community alone”— but never heard back. His resolve wasn’t shaken. He’s been more gripped by the prospect of a career in information technology after a teacher encouraged him to pursue cybersecurity at nearby Maryville University.

Between periods one Thursday on campus, a passing girl, giggling, labeled Stephone’s booming articulation and cadenced strut “cocky,” as his hood hung halfway off his head. “It’s because of how I carry myself,” Stephone explained. “Higher standards.”

As he spoke about life in St. Louis, that awareness of the plight before him traced back to when Brown was gunned down. Stephone was 9. After the shooting, his parents sat him down to have “the talk”: When approached by law enforcement, “You do what’s necessary to come home, you say, ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘No, sir.’ ” Afterward, several recent experiences with the police came into focus. He’d witnessed two police home raids as a third grader, months before Brown’s death. “I was a little shocked that the police would do something like that, because I thought these people were supposed to be our protectors,” he recalled. Now, with “the talk” front of mind, he wondered, “What would have happened differently if they would’ve thought that I was somebody else, and I’m just a kid, and they opened fire.”

“A lot of people in the community have bought into the negativity of us, and they don’t realize it.”

Duane Foster, Normandy High School dean of students and incoming assistant principal

Another encounter with police cemented the reality of growing up Black. In eighth grade, he was hanging with friends close to their block in Pasadena Hills, a middle-class neighborhood and one of 24 municipalities served by the Normandy school district. “An officer came over there and was like, ‘I got a call. Do you guys stay around here?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, we stay on the next street.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, what’s the name of the street?’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, OK.’ ”

With such confrontations, he’s learned that to be Black means “we’re at a disadvantage,” he said. “But at the same time, we also do have an advantage. It’s kinda like duality. We have an advantage because we have scholarships that are specifically for poverty-stricken Black students, like for full rides. So we have the resources, we just have to go look for them. But at the same time, we’re at a disadvantage because of all the stuff that we’ve dealt with for like the last probably bajillion years — we’re not enslaved anymore, but we still are.”

Conflicting narratives continue to swirl around Brown’s death. That August day, as he walked with a friend from a convenience store, an officer stopped them. Some say the officer was the aggressor. Others, testifying before the grand jury that ultimately decided not to indict the police officer, said Brown initiated a scuffle. Media coverage at times painted the teen with stereotypes. But that’s not how Foster, who taught Brown in seventh and 11th grades, remembered the “silent leader,” who turned 18 three months before his death. “The kids listened to him,” Foster said. “I don’t think we realized the magnitude of how [his death] affected our students.”

Brown had started in the Normandy school district at Pine Lawn Elementary in special education services because “he had some struggles,” his mother, Lezley McSpadden-Head, told me. When she later moved out of the Normandy area, Brown pleaded, “ ‘Mom, I just really want to go back.’ ” McSpadden-Head allowed him to move in with his grandmother, who lived five blocks from Normandy High.

McSpadden-Head didn’t graduate high school, because she had Brown at 16. But the duo “made a pact: you’re going to graduate, and after you graduate, give me a little time and I’ll go back to school and graduate,” she remembered. She pushed him to “do it first because I want you to be better than me.” And she stayed on him.

Foster taught Brown when leading the dance, musical and theater programs. In seventh grade, Brown was in “A Raisin in the Sun.” “He played Bobo and danced in my Broadway musical class,” Foster said. “He had such a jovial personality. [But] he wasn’t the same by his senior year.” Even as Brown’s 6’4” stature could seem intimidating and ooze confidence, Foster remembered he had become withdrawn and shy. He’d struggled academically and had joined the alternative program for low-performing students at Normandy. Though it wasn’t part of Brown’s coursework, Foster still allowed Brown to use the makeshift studio outside his choir room because “one thing that he did have, was life in music and producing music.”

“You didn’t have to be Black or white to see that what happened to him was wrong. He shouldn’t have been killed over something like that.”

Brianna Howard, Normandy High School student

Before McSpadden-Head knew Brown would reach the family milestone, she bought his cap and gown and told him, “Look, I’m already prepared, because I know you gonna graduate.” The day Brown found out he would, in fact, be receiving his diploma — in May 2014 — “he called my sister first and said, ‘Don’t tell my mom, I want to tell her myself,’ ” McSpadden-Head remembered. The then-single mom was so excited when she found out, she left work early to walk Brown home from school. She was prouder watching him walk across the school’s auditorium stage after completing final credits over the summer.

Related: ‘I can’t do this anymore’: How four middle schoolers are struggling through the pandemic

Brown had bested her, as she had hoped. She rewarded him with more time hanging with friends before he was to start at Vatterott College, the now-defunct for-profit school. He planned to try his hand at heating, ventilation and air conditioning, like his dad, before finding his way to music production.

“I had never let my son do anything over the summer as far as being away from home,” McSpadden-Head said. “But why not?” she had reasoned. “He went to school, he graduated. Hey, yeah, you can go hang out in the neighborhood with some guys that you know. What’s wrong with that? Well, little did I know. Little did I know. Never did I think that would be my son. Never. Never ever in a million years… For Aug. 9 to just snatch my dreams away …” she said through tears.

After Brown’s death, Foster said the school, which the state had just taken over, did little to honor Brown or care for students’ mental health. “We had a new principal in charge,” he recalled, “and the directive that went out to us was to not make a discussion out of it.” Foster and some other teachers didn’t follow that mandate when students demanded more from their school. “They’re like, ‘Everybody else is doing something and saying something, except for Normandy,” Foster remembered. “How we not saying anything? He walked these hallways—that ain’t fair.’” He also recalled that it was, coincidentally, the first year the school had more white teachers than Black teachers, and the principal “felt we needed some training [to] help us learn what to say and what not to say, or just to be able to listen. But, technically, that’s what you go to school for — it was very disheartening.”

Tyler Jones was one of those white teachers the principal feared would feel uncomfortable addressing Brown’s death with the school’s 97 percent Black student body. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who had worked in consulting before transitioning to education through Teach for America, Jones was in his fourth year at Normandy. He remembered the tension was all-consuming for students and teachers, especially those who didn’t look like the population they were serving. “I’m a white guy in a majority-Black school, trying to help kids process police violence that I really don’t have as much of an intuitive grasp of,” he said. “I mostly relied on the kids through a lot of writing and conversation.” He figured it out on his own, with no support from the school. Its position, to him, was: “ ‘We’ll just do school.’ And it’s like, No, that’s not really how it works.” An English teacher, he turned — and still does — to authors like Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon.

The first book he had his class read that school year after Brown’s death was Ward’s “Men We Reaped.” The memoir details the author’s experience losing five Black men in her life in rural Mississippi. It gave his students a mirror and a window for their grief. When Jones noticed some students needed another outlet, he’d ask them to write their feelings in a journal. At the end of class, they could rip out the pages or leave them for him to read. “There’s science about writing about trauma,” he said, “that it helps you process trauma and can ultimately boost your mood, or at least help you deal with it. But that does not make me a qualified mental health professional.”

That’s a presence teachers say is still missing at the school. Normandy High has no dedicated programs for students’ well-being and just one school social worker, hired by Douglas this past school year, who dealt with increased levels of anger, aggression, substance abuse and anxiety from students coming out of the pandemic. As a result, many students’ social-emotional issues have gone unaddressed.

Erica Ivy-Kwan, an English teacher at Normandy High School who hails from Arkansas, with some of her students after class. Credit: Rita Omokha

Another change Douglas put into place at the beginning of her tenure in 2020 was finding a way to honor Brown, and so she decided to create a program in his name for current students. She tapped Isaiah Melendez, the school’s assistant principal at the time, to take the reins. With the triggering killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd that year, he and Jones decided to create the Michael Brown Program for Social Justice and Leadership to center students’ psychological and invisible wounds, giving them space to speak up and heal.

McSpadden-Head, Brown’s mother, immediately gave her blessing to the program. “I didn’t want them to think their life is supposed to be that way for them by 18,” she told me. “We don’t want them to devalue their lives because they feel like, ‘Well, I’m 18, it’s over for me anyway.’ That’s the last thing I want any of these young males or females in St. Louis to feel because of what they witnessed on Aug. 9. It has grown with them. … I just don’t want them to lose hope and lose faith.”

Bobby Reed II, 17 

Normandy High School incoming senior with college plans and artistic ambitions 

On Brown’s death: “He actually was gonna do something. I was like, man, he didn’t finish; it wasn’t his time to go.” 

On attending Normandy High: “People look at us, they like, ‘Oh, he a thug, like he thuggish or he a menace.’ And you just be like, ‘No, I’m just a regular dude.’ ” 

Bobby Reed II, a rising senior at Normandy, participated in the program last year and said it boosted his sense of identity. McSpadden-Head selected his design for the program’s logo after seeing his soul-searing artwork: The emblem had overlaying sketched images of Brown, Floyd and Taylor. The 17-year-old titled it “The Masks We Wear.”

“I have black eyes on there because we are those people,” Bobby said of his creation. “We experience what they went through. And they will want us to continue the legacy. To keep fighting harder.” During the program’s culminating event, the students trekked to Brown’s gravesite, less than a mile from his alma mater. The reality of Brown became tangible for Bobby. “They talked about his academics and what he actually wanted to do,” he remembered. “And that’s what really struck me because I’m like, he actually was gonna do something. I was like, man, he didn’t finish; it wasn’t his time to go.”

Talking about schoolwork brightens Bobby. He’s fascinated by gang politics, but he’s most eager to become an illustrator when he heads to college next fall. He doesn’t know where he’ll go yet, only saying, “I’m going away.” It’s a goal he feels is within reach: He’s in the top 10 percent of his class, with a 3.8 GPA. But strikingly, his growing awareness has sparked concern that his achievements at school may mean little outside the building’s white-and-red-tiled walls. Even his friends and cousins who attend better public or private schools clown on him for attending Normandy High. “It’s embarrassing,” he said, “They like, ‘Oh, you from Normandy, you one of those.’ They stereotype me. People look at us, they like, ‘Oh, he a thug, like he thuggish or he a menace.’

Bobby Reed II, a student at Normandy High School, sketched this logo for the Michael Brown Program for Social Justice and Leadership. Credit: Rita Omokha

“And you just be like, ‘No, I’m just a regular dude.’ ”

Jones shared a similar worry: “If a kid has a 3.9 at Normandy and they score 19”— out of 36 — “on the ACT, that’s a problem.” (The school’s average is actually 16, with more students — 90 percent this past year — opting out of the exam.)

Earlier that Tuesday, Bobby had ACT prep, algebra, English and multimedia before we met in the cafeteria. His multimedia class had no teacher, so he browsed his iPhone the entire period. This is common at Normandy High. Melendez, the former assistant principal, and current teachers attribute it to staff shortages, which are worsening at the school as more teachers planned to quit after this last year, joining half of teachers nationwide thinking about resigning. This frustrates Bobby and adds to his already fragile identity. Most enraging, though, was discovering from friends that the school was passing students en masse, even those with failing GPAs. It didn’t surprise him because he’s seen many classes go an entire term without teachers, yet those students still end up with a passing grade.

English teachers Ivy-Kwan and Alton said Bobby’s claims ring true. “At the beginning of the school year, there was so much absenteeism” with teachers, Alton said. When one ELA teacher didn’t return this last school year, the students “literally sat in a room the entire semester and just did nothing,” she remembered, and the school “basically just passed all those kids for the first semester.

“We have an advantage because we have scholarships that are specifically for poverty-stricken Black students. … But at the same time, we’re at a disadvantage because of all the stuff that we’ve dealt with for like the last probably bajillion years — we’re not enslaved anymore, but we still are.”

Stephone Cody, former Normandy High School student

“Part of it was Covid, but most of it was not being able to get subs functioning. So you’d just hear in the morning [announcement], ‘If you have XYZ teacher’— and they’d like list five teachers —‘go to Viking Hall.’ It was almost a running joke. Like it was just the dumping ground.”

Douglas, the school’s principal and district’s assistant superintendent, acknowledged that the national teacher shortage had affected Normandy. She felt it’s been “worse in high poverty urban districts where you have a lot of discipline issues, a lot of crimes happening in schools.” To fill the widening gaps, she sometimes had her deans and assistant principals cover classes, but still, “we’ve been short staffed all year,” she said. “We’ve increased the pay, we’ve increased some of those things to try to recruit and try to retain people, but people are leaving left and right.”

Related: Nearly all the seniors at this charter school went to college. Only 6 out of 52 finished on time

Another sign to Bobby that his school is troubled is the seven armed officers he regularly sees. He admits Normandy High has been the site of fights, shootings and deaths. But he isn’t comfortable with law enforcement patrolling the school grounds. “They’re like, strapped. The first time I seen it, I was like, ‘You got a real gun?’ ” he said. “I’m like, ‘What do you need a gun for?’ ”

Darryl Overall, one of the school resource officers, said they are armed because “we are having more active shooters in schools than we have fires in schools. We want parents to know that when their child gets dropped off, they’re safe.” He voiced the conviction solemnly, given that Normandy was once dubbed the most dangerous high school in northern St. Louis, and with guns now the leading national cause of death among children. This year alone, there have been more mass shootings than days passed — another sign of this increasing, uniquely American path to death. So, protecting Normandy students is personal for Overall.

A Normandy graduate, Class of 1986, the grandfather of two and a school resource officer since 2003, Overall said he also relishes the opportunity to develop relationships with students. He sees them as his kids. They’ve taken to him, too, inviting him to hang at homecoming, prom and graduation. Overall shows up when he can, because he wants them to see promising possibilities in the community he’s always called home.

Darryl Overall is a school resource officer at Normandy High. He said he and other officers are armed because “We want parents to know that when their child gets dropped off, they’re safe.” Credit: Rita Omokha

After serving in the Navy and National Guard, Overall returned to Normandy and worked as a corrections officer. At the juvenile center, he “saw so many young youths coming into the prison getting seven to 10 years of their lives thrown away because of a mistake they made,” he told me. “I remember an inmate saying, ‘You know, Officer Overall, if I had someone like you around growing up, that don’t judge us, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at today.’ ” He took that seriously and joined the police academy.

Overall believes his presence on campus helps students see a way forward, to stop being accustomed to becoming stereotypes and statistics.

The Normandy school district has a painful history with American segregation and redlining that still affects how children are educated today.

In the 30s, during the Great Depression, when the New Deal program promoted homeownership, maps were redrawn to include literal red lines. They demarcated neighborhoods with mostly African Americans, considered poor investments, from areas with mostly white people, who ended up being the only ones given home loans. This led to massive suburbanization: Whites moved to the suburbs, while Blacks were confined to cities. Another spike in suburbanization followed the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that found separate schools for Black and white students were unequal. More white Americans fled metropolitan areas because they did not want to integrate schools. Public schools remain highly segregated along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge, a Missouri State Board of Education member, said from her time examining the state’s school districts and their evolution, it wasn’t until the ‘80s that the Normandy Schools Collaborative became predominantly Black. “Today’s lingering business disinvestment and low property values”— and higher property taxes —“are the result of our historic challenges with discrimination, segregation, redlining and white flight,” she said.

Inside Normandy High School. The return to in-person school this fall was a “rough go,” said Nakia Douglas, the principal. “Fighting, being violent with one another, cybercrime, cyberbullying, sex, drugs — a lot of problems intensified when schools reopened.” Credit: Rita Omokha

At Normandy Schools Collaborative, the local and state costs per pupil are about $14,000, about the same as in nearby Ladue, an upper-middle-class neighborhood. But because the Normandy district’s property tax rate is 40 percent higher than the 4.2 percent statewide rate, it costs residents more as a percentage of their income to come up with the money needed to educate their children — property values are lower and families make substantially less.

Westbrooks-Hodge said one critical lesson she took from her time on the Normandy school board from 2015 to 2020 was that “the executive leadership team needs people with school turnaround experience in a context similar to Normandy’s.” Melendez, the high school’s former assistant principal, found those qualities absent in Douglas’ and Robinson’s leadership. During the pandemic and the switch to remote learning, for example, “when we needed to have more compassion, we came off as less compassionate,” he remembered. “Adults felt that, young people felt that. We were making drastic curricular changes as people were trying to figure out how to drive virtual instruction. …There’s a saturation point before people go uncared for. They feel unheard, they’re frustrated, and then you just keep driving it. So it becomes oppressive.”

Related: Traveling to the African diaspora to prepare Black students for college

Discouraged, Melendez left last year and now serves as the director of the restoration and wellness center of the fully accredited Ferguson-Florissant School District.

Anthony Neal is one of seven school board members in the Normandy Schools Collaborative district, which has struggled with superintendent turnover. “When you shift gears like that, in the middle of trying to create change and raise scores and bring about some reform, it sets you back,” said Neal. Credit: Image provided by Anthony Neal

But Neal, one of the seven Normandy school board members, remains optimistic. He said though slow, things in the school district and city are moving in the right direction. He first pointed to the public Department of Justice investigations in 2015 of the Brown shooting and of the Ferguson Police Department. The findings concluded the city’s policing practices were unlawful and harmful. He also noted the changes in Ferguson’s top political leadership — it now has a Black police chief, mayor and prosecutor — though he admitted that hasn’t reduced tensions between police and the community or high crime rates in some neighborhoods.

He also recalled steps taken right after the shooting. Most prominently, the state put together a first-of-its-kind Ferguson Commission. The group, which included local activists such as Rebeccah Bennett and David Dwight IV, examined how to better promote racial equity in the community. It later led to the creation of Forward Through Ferguson, a nonprofit helmed by Dwight IV.

One of the commission’s signature priorities was “Youth at the Center,” which called for more state investment in education, “because when we invest in children when they are young,” Bennett said, “we net the best outcomes for them in their lives.” (Bennett said her two young daughters attend private school, “because I wanted them to have more choices than they do in public school.”) But Dwight, executive director of Forward Through Ferguson, said that if you ask young people today, they’d say focusing on funding alone is “not sufficient.” So, the group now focuses on “the population of outcomes: the unemployment rate, graduation rates, infant mortality, experiences of kids in schools,” he said, because it gets to the heart of “what is the actual lived experience of people?”

Brianna Howard, 17

Rising senior at Normandy High who hopes to attend the University of Kentucky

On Brown’s death: “You didn’t have to be Black or white to see that what happened to him was wrong. He shouldn’t have been killed over something like that.”

On Normandy High: “Even if you don’t have that feeling of comfort at home, you can get that here from teachers.”

Last spring, when Bobby and other students walked to Brown’s resting place as part of his namesake program, Brianna Howard stared at his headstone and thought, “I don’t want this to happen to anyone I love.”

In the stillness of that moment, the 17-year-old panned the circle around his grave and looked at the faces of everyone around her. Teachers, too. She saw varying expressions of sorrow. “You didn’t have to be Black or white to see that what happened to him was wrong,” she said. “He shouldn’t have been killed over something like that.”

She was 9 when Brown died. Her parents gave her and her siblings their version of the all-too-familiar “talk” about living while Black. The family has kept up the conversations by watching programs like “When They See Us.” That 2019 miniseries about the wrongful convictions of the Central Park Five particularly stirred Brianna. “Their whole life was thrown away,” she said. “Being accused because of the color of your skin? A lot of people would accuse the person of color in a room over the one that’s not the same color — I don’t want to say white.”

Inspired by the Brown program at her school and those continuing talks with her parents, she now wants to become a lawyer, joining the fight against injustices. That motivates her to keep up her grades: mostly A’s and B’s. She wants to attend the University of Kentucky for college and law school, crediting some of her teachers for keeping her on track.

Jones is one of the teachers Brianna said makes her feel seen. “Even if you don’t have that feeling of comfort at home,” Brianna said, “you can get that here from teachers.”

Walking around campus, it’s easy to see why Jones is popular with students. He effortlessly clicks with them and speaks with a tender empathy that bolsters their self-esteem. When he started at Normandy, some students would tell him not to be too nice. It’s his style, he’d tell them. Jones, who attended Massachusetts public schools before finding his way to Wharton, said he has wrestled with how to help kids “realize their own greatness,” he said. “We’re doing them a tremendous disservice.”

Related: Why we could soon lose even more Black teachers

This past school year was Jones’s last at Normandy. He grew fed up with the bureaucracy that he said doesn’t elevate students’ education. It crushed him to leave because “the students deserve better.” But so does he. Since joining Teach for America and Normandy 11 years ago, he has endured inefficiencies for the sake of his students. But his goals — like rising in a school district that prioritizes students and teachers — seem suspended. With each change in school management, he and other teachers had to reapply for their jobs. He was the district’s ELA coordinator for a time, but new leadership eliminated the position.

“It’s really frustrating,” he told me. “One of the things I wanted to do when I first got into education was, ‘Oh, I want to get into policy in three years,’ and three years in, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I have more questions than when I started.’ And like every year you’re in education, you just get more questions.” He quipped that his goal was to now “go get those credentials, get that experience, and then come back and take someone’s job.” He’ll be teaching at a charter school.

“Even if you don’t have that feeling of comfort at home, you can get that here from teachers.”

Brianna Howard, Normandy High School student

Ivy-Kwan and Alton plan to stick it out at Normandy. It’s more than allyship for the two white educators.In their first year at the school, they’ve become so close and invested in students’ lives. They hope a new superintendent will find a way to center kids’ needs. Ivy-Kwan half-jokingly compared their struggles for resources and a voice at the table to those depicted in the fictional TV showAbbott Elementary,” with constant pleas that go ignored.

Yet, in her class, detecting any hint of frustration was hard. Ivy-Kwan’s maternal mannerisms and sweeping spirit reverberated. When the bell buzzed at the end of a discussion she led on the Black self-hatred of World War I veteran Shadrack in Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” students remained in their seats, choosing to spend their lunch period in her classroom. She had even baked them focaccia bread.

Since high school, Omar has tried to figure out the recipe necessary to navigate America as a Black man. During a yearlong basketball program he attended after graduation, he identified one essential ingredient: confidence.

He’d already been tapping into that trait during his junior and senior years, at the height of the pandemic. Melendez used to bring Omar to community and school board meetings to air concerns, teaching him to advocate for himself and others. The former assistant principal saw Omar as a calm leader whom students looked up to.

Omarion ‘Omar’ Henry with his private basketball coach, Chris Weaver, at the O’Fallon Family YMCA in Missouri. He hopes to make it to the NBA. Credit: Rita Omokha

One time, Omar lobbied for students to return to campus. He argued to the board that students needed to be social again, that if people could practice social distancing at work every day — those who had to — why couldn’t students follow a similar protocol? “We were at home every day — it was a lot,” he said. Omar saw his rallying as “trying to make the school better, trying to make the community better.”

As he petitioned and got students and parents to sign forms agreeing with his proposal, he realized he’d been a role model for many, especially kids on his block. Not because he got good grades or was a star athlete, but because he had passed through the same streets and lived in the same areas as they did, where he would walk home and hear or see gunfire. “My type of neighborhood, and in my school, is known for a lot of kids who just give up,” he said. “Kids don’t really understand that they have time to pick a choice for their life, pick a path for life, so they just like, ‘OK, if I’m not getting it in high school, there’s only one way for me after that.’ ”

Related: How the federal government abandoned the Brown v. Board decision

Street life was never an option for Omar or his five siblings, though. He lost his dad 12 years ago, and his mom has kept “10 toes behind him,” staying on him to get him through. He also credits basketball and former Normandy High coaches, faculty and administrators like Melendez for helping him “really grow myself.” He and his friends banded together and kept each other accountable, too. “Just stay in school, finish school, and do our best,” they told each other. “We were just trying to make it better on our end.”

That morning after his basketball session, as we talked about his future and all the possibilities — maybe the NBA would come calling, maybe he’d become a millionaire game developer, another dream of his — Omar smiled big, almost as if realizing he always had the essential element he’d been in search of to help steer his next chapter.

In 2017, at 37, McSpadden-Head made good on her pact with Brown and received her diploma. But justice still eludes her.

She celebrated her son’s 26th birthday on May 20, still pushing for accountability. She worries what the lack of consequences for his death signals to the city’s young. The 2019 swearing-in of a new prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County, Wesley Bell, gave her and other community members hope, but it faded quickly. “Wesley Bell protested with me, he marched with me,” she remembered. She had worked to get the former city council member elected in his new position “because he gave the hope that he will reopen Mike’s case and allow Mike the due process he deserved,” she said. “He let me down.”

Bell told me he wished he could do more, but he’s limited by the law. “The Department of Justice under Eric Holder and President Obama did a very detailed and thorough investigation,” he said. “And we don’t have any new evidence since then. … [and] years later, we can’t go back and recreate a crime scene.”

In the absence of accountability, McSpadden-Head leans on mothers like her on days where “it’s like, did I even want to wake up this morning?” she said. “I want to be with my son. I want him back with me, but I don’t want to leave my other kids. You’re conflicted, you’re confused, it’s everything that PTSD describes.” Once a year, she throws a gathering called “Rainbow of Mothers” for those like her who’ve lost a child. “We have a therapist there, and we work on mental health,” she said. “I try to remind them that you do still have a pulse.”

Michael Brown and his mother on his first birthday. Credit: Image provided by Lezley McSpadden-Head

She also clings to etched memories of Brown. His love of fishing with his baby brother. The way he would protect his three sisters. And the way he’d be so laser-focused when making beats on his computer. She laughed remembering her shock when 3-year-old Brown ran around the house holding his 2-day-old sister like a football, yelling, “I got her! I got her!”

McSpadden-Head has also turned her sights to the city’s youth, establishing a foundation in Brown’s name to educate and advocate for them, dreaming still about who he could have been. “My son never even had a job,” she said. “He didn’t even have his driver’s license.” In the same way she pushed Brown to be better, she wants the same for all St. Louis’s children.

Omar’s older sister lives in the same building McSpadden-Head did before moving out of Normandy, near where Brown’s body lay in the simmering summer sun for hours after he was shot. Memorials remain in the street in remembrance of him, and the abiding vibe is “kind of sad,” Omar told me. “A lot of that community over there now, it’s just like, it’s abandoned.” Present still are the young, like him, wrestling with a failing system and facing grim prospects that “any day you can go, no matter what it is,” he said. “And it’s not even because I’m a criminal or nothing, it’s just, I’m so used to this kind of environment and being afraid of police. I just know how it is being Black in America.”

*Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Stephone Cody’s first name.

This story about Normandy High School was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Rita Omokha is an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she graduated top of her 2020 class, receiving some of the institution's highest awards, including the...

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