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Even in changing times, Shawnee Mission aims to remain at the head of the class

Updated: 2013-05-15T04:55:59Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

The curtain to the new Shawnee Mission School District opens on a stage of cowboys and cowgirls rehearsing at Westridge Middle School.

Something they call “positive risk” is in full play.

For a troupe of nervous middle-schoolers learning the musical “Oklahoma!,” it means mustering the commitment and determination to stand before an audience and holler “Yeeeow!”

For a school district navigating social sea change and fighting state policymakers over adequate funding, risk and determination

reaches further, its leaders say.

It means making your next superintendent choice an outsider who is from a district that’s gone through similar significant changes.

It means resolving to fight harder to plug declining enrollment, to thrive with new ethnic populations and master thinning budgets while filling classrooms with signature programs and technology.

Like the biotechnology at Shawnee Mission West High School.

The international baccalaureate program at Northwest.

The legal studies at East.

The biomedical health science and pre-medical health science at North.

The Project Lead the Way engineering program at South.

It means applauding the successes of these and other programs, but acknowledging the challenges at the annual foundation breakfast at the start of the school year.

The theme that day: “Defying Gravity.”

Earnest parents who know Shawnee Mission’s strong history are watching, wondering if the district can continue pushing state performance higher, and continue to drive more students into Advanced Placement courses, international baccalaureate programming and dual-credit college courses.

This goes on even as the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches has more than doubled in 10 years.

Even as the number of English language learners also has doubled.

If the challenge is roping more than 100 students together into a musical production, “You have to commit yourself to it,” says 13-year-old actor Jenna Heng. “You have to love it.”

You’ll find yourself practicing at home, says 12-year-old Jack Anderson. And when rehearsals mount at the end, like most of the crew, you’ll squeeze in homework between stage calls, working your English, math and science.

All this for a chance to be a singing cowboy named Andrew Carnes.

“You have to be willing to take positive risks,” said Jason Coats, the math teacher and theater teacher guiding Westridge’s show. “It’s having a sense of abandon to go, ‘Yeehaw’ and jump and click your boots.”

He was talking about theater, but he could be talking about a district and all its students in its new age.

“They come from many different backgrounds,” he said. “Here, background doesn’t matter. When you give students the room to show and grow on their own … it is amazing the talent you find.”


Retiring Superintendent Gene Johnson walked among the children in the Shawanoe gymnasium after their breakfast, shaking his right hand like he was gently readying to roll dice.

Cupped inside he held two dimes, a nickel and two pennies.

Nine-year-old Taynayia Mitchell had shyly pressed the coins into his fingers then slipped back among her friends at a cafeteria table. It was a donation, she said.

Johnson contemplated the coins now, figuring the school’s principal had put the children up to it. This was 27 cents for the foundation Johnson started for families that struggle to pay the extra cost of full-day kindergarten in Kansas.

That was 27 cents for his 27 years in the district.

The past five years since he became superintendent have been the hardest.

He’s managed $25 million in budget cuts and the closure of four more schools, making it 28 in all since 1975. Hardest of all has been the reduction of some 400 jobs in a district of 3,800 employees.

At the time he came to Shawnee Mission as a principal in 1986, the district served some 31,000 students. Barely 5 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch.

Shawnee Mission had been the heart of Johnson County and its remarkable growth. It was the place to be for schooling — a badge it is striving to keep.

Promotional materials put out by the cities in the district like Merriam’s 1992 brochure touted Shawnee Mission schools as “among the top in the nation … consistently in the Top 20 percent in the nation in tests.”

A host of independent schools and school systems sprung up in Johnson County with the great post-World War II suburban migration of the 1950s. Public school enrollment in the dozen districts that would become Shawnee Mission boomed, with total enrollment leaping from 6,793 in 1950 to 28,217 by 1960.

When the districts unified as Shawnee Mission in 1969, enrollment had passed 45,000.

Johnson’s turn at superintendent followed the legacy-heavy chain of Howard McEachen, Arzell Ball, Raj Chopra and the 16-year tenure of Marjorie Kaplan.

“The mission has not changed,” Johnson said. “It’s no secret there have been demographic changes. But we still make sure all students have equitable opportunities. When you have a wide range of diversity, some students need extra attention. You allocate to greatest need.”

He volunteers at Shawanoe, spending a couple of hours a week outside of his duties as superintendent. Children call and wave to “Dr. Johnson” on the gym floor as he steps over the students’ collections of coats and backpacks on an unusually cold spring morning.

His district long ago was fully built out, no room for expansion. Many parts of the district have predominantly aging populations. The growth of the past three decades has gone to Olathe, Blue Valley and De Soto.

Enrollment has fallen to 27,443. The percentage of children on free or reduced-price lunches has risen to 37 percent from 14 percent in 2004. The percentage enrollment that is white has changed from 83 to 66 percent.

Along the way, while public education advocates fight in the Legislature and the courts over adequate funding, the financial stress on class sizes and other school functions has complicated the task.

“The mission has never changed,” Johnson said. “We’re still the really strong district we’ve always been.”

Urgency laces the message of how Shawnee Mission has carried on.

The percentage of students meeting or exceeding the achievement goal on state tests since 2004 has risen from 82 percent to 92 percent in reading and from 76 percent to 91.5 percent in math.

The average composite score on the ACT college entrance exam was 24 in 2012, up from 23.5 in 2004, above the state and national average, and the second highest among Johnson County districts.

More students are taking Advanced Placement courses, state records show, with 606 graduates in 2011 having taken AP courses compared with 329 in 2007.

South, West, East and Northwest all made the Washington Post’s 2013 list of most challenging high schools in the nation, which emphasizes AP course success. They were four of nine Johnson County high schools to make the list.

The students at a recent Project Lead the Way showcase of engineering projects at Union Station have seen the AP rush firsthand at Shawnee Mission South High School.

Many students have taken five or six by the end of their senior year, said Jon Prueter and Ian Roberts, engineering students bound for the University of Arkansas.

“A majority of kids are joining hard classes and other kids feel they want to keep up,” Ian said.

“You’re surrounded by kids who want to learn,” said Jon.

They have some concerns. The district’s signature program format requires hard decisions for students who have to contemplate changing schools or making time to travel school to school, they said.

And a slip in enrollment saw their school — South — moved down a classification level in sports.

But they see strong academic performance all around them.

“Our school district produces kids with pretty amazing test scores, AP scores and resumes,” Ian said. “Tons of college coursework. Tons of community service.”


This is why Heather Ousley walked to Topeka.

For her dream house. For her dream neighborhood and school district.

The South graduate with three children couldn’t stand by at what she believes is a critical point for the district.

She spent several days of spring break in March walking to the state capital to send a message that this funding stress is suffocating.

She has seen class sizes creeping up, she said. Her second-grader’s class happens to be toward the extreme end at 28. The other class in the school has 29, she said.

The average elementary class size, district records show, is 21. But budget strain makes it harder, Johnson said, if a school has between 50 and 60 children in a grade level, to add a third teacher and make three classes instead of two.

The dilemma has put Ousley into two states of mind. One has her thinking about private school. She knows others pondering the same decision.

Her other side is still enamored with her child’s school and teachers. They are “phenomenal,” she said. She and others are working and lobbying to help hold it all together.

“We believe in public schools,” she said. But she also fears some families may leave.

“I’m afraid we’ll lose people who have the opportunity to volunteer, who can be in the classrooms,” she said. “It would be a heartbreak for any of us to lose a family. This is our community. We’ve known the people our whole lives. We’ve gone to school carnivals together, the talent shows.

“This is our idea of who we are as Kansans,” she said. “At the Shawnee Mission School District we have good schools.”

She wants a district that fights back, that finds a way to keep classes sizes down, and give better pay to its teachers.

“It’s really about getting people involved,” she said.

It is a misperception, Johnson said, if patrons think that district leaders haven’t fought hard.

The district has been using its own lobbyist, Stuart Little, to both work the halls in Topeka and bring back information to the district’s community, said Leigh Anne Neal, the associate superintendent for communications and public information.

The PTAs and community groups persistently share the message, she said, that patrons need to be informed and they need to vote.

“We continue to tell our story,” Neal said.

Like this one: The biotechnology program at West produced two of the three grand award winners this spring at the Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair.

One of those winners, 18-year-old Nathan Witters, wouldn’t have thought it possible unless he had, almost on a whim, given the lab class a try.

“I heard there were no written tests and no homework,” Nathan said.

Of course, once he got into it and determined his topic — ticks and Lyme disease — he found himself taking a lot of work home.

You put on the white lab coat, the teacher sets you loose. Next thing you know, he said, “I thought I could see myself doing research.”

Most of the classrooms that students know deal in accumulating information and theory, said the biotech teacher, Brenda Bott, like basketball players learning the rules and the skills.

“But you never get to touch the basketball,” she said. “In here,” she said, nodding at the room of lab-coated students, “you play the game.”


“Please welcome our new superintendent...

It was a telling choice that school board President Patty Mach announced last March.

…Jim Hinson.”

Before choosing the Independence superintendent, she and other board members had read through the voluminous comments from parents and patrons about what they wanted in their next leader.

“I read through a stack this high,” she said, holding a finger about two inches above the table.

They wanted someone with experience with changing demographics. Who knows tight budgets. Who can work with politicians. Who’s visible. A community leader. Someone known for innovation. Whose district excelled through it all.

“We were looking for a fresh set of eyes,” she said.

Important to Hinson’s resume was Independence’s experience absorbing western Independence neighborhoods and schools in 2007 that had been part of the Kansas City Public Schools.

Hinson — teamed with then-state Sen. Victor Callahan — helped bring about a boundary change that many had struggled for years to achieve and had come to believe could not be done.

Getting there required convincing the balance of the Independence School District and its neighborhoods to not just tolerate a significant change in demographics, but to step out and welcome the change.

The children in the annexed neighborhoods tended to come from some of the area’s lower income households. They would put extra strain on the district’s resources.

But they deserved the chance to learn and excel.

“I like a divergent population,” Hinson said. “It’s reflective of the world today. It’s reflective of society.”

The two points he made to concerned Independence residents:

First, those students from poor households would bring extra federal dollars, easing any strain on district resources.

Second, Independence schools, like Shawnee Mission and other districts, are already serving hundreds of students with high needs.

“They are kids just like anyone’s kids,” he said.

Independence also sent a message to the new families and children entering the district, Hinson said.

“We will have high expectations for you, but we also want you to have high expectations for us.”

That is the understanding he said he is bringing with him to Shawnee Mission when he starts July 1.

“It is a wrong perception if you think any children are not as brilliant or can’t be as successful in life,” he said. “It is morally wrong.”

He intends to listen, he said. And if information from Topeka threatens schools, “I will fight for kids.”

This is what Kathy Cook wanted to see.

Choosing Hinson, she said, suggests a board and a district realizing the challenges.

“I feel like the district is beginning to seek the input of parents,” Cook said. “...When the school board made that choice (Hinson), they heard what parents said.”

The North graduate and district parent shares several frustrations in recent years. She was dissatisfied with some of the approaches the district took while making emotionally charged decisions around school closings and budget cuts.

Through it all, though, her sense is that parents mostly believe in their children’s teachers. She recounted their extra efforts during and after school — debate coaches traveling to meets, journalism teachers staying up to meet deadlines, emails returned even at night.

“The district isn’t the same as it was 25 years ago,” Cook said. “But that doesn’t make us any less of a district.”

The public schools must thrive, she said.

“This is how we change lives.”


Amit Bhatla came to Shawnee Mission Northwest High School from private school.

Toni Ruo came from Catholic schools.

The same for Makela Hayford.

The seniors and their parents troubled over their school choices entering high school. Then they came to Northwest’s international baccalaureate program. They are taking on the international college-preparatory curriculum that emphasizes creative and critical thinking, promoting intercultural understanding and respect.

“My lens,” Amit said, “was what will help me for college.”

What they got, they said, were vigorous discussions, challenging projects and an international perspective that came from more than the curriculum.

Look at them. From Amit to Toni to Makela, they represent family roots in India, the United States and Ghana.

At one of the first dinner gatherings Makela attended, she marveled at the food offerings students brought.

“Someone brought tajine,” she said, describing a casserole-like dish from North Africa. “Tajine.”

Said Toni: “I came here for the diversity.”

Also telling is the diversity of their college options, and they have many.

Amit plans to study political science at the University of Kansas. Toni is choosing between aeronautical or biomedical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. Makela will study biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta.

English teacher Ben Pabst, who talked about the “high level of discourse” these and other students in the program have brought to their discussions and writings, added this about their college plans:

He said, “They will be very well prepared.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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