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Gordon Parks school will graduate fifth-graders and continue its fight for survival

Updated: 2013-06-27T14:27:39Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

At least one truth can be agreed upon between the people who want to save Gordon Parks Elementary School and the Missouri officials who determined it should be closed:

Gordon Parks has been singled out.

An intensified campaign in support of the school begins Thursday as it celebrates what supporters hope is not its last class of graduating fifth-graders.

The popular school, which has raised some $7.5 million in private funds in its 13-year history, purposefully reached out for children with some of the highest needs.

Now it stands as the first area charter school to be swept up by the stiffer broom that Missouri legislators gave the state in return for expanding the reach of charter schools in 2012.

Even if it wins a court challenge in late July, the school at 3715 Wyoming St. will have to restart with only a few grade levels because most of its staff had to find job security elsewhere.

Supporters and also a SaveGordonParks.com website that is set to go active Thursday describe what they believe is an unfair attempt to make the school the new law’s first victim.

“We think our population of children was ignored (by the state) in making the recommendation” that its charter not be renewed, Gordon Parks board president Doug Curry said.

The school has been struggling for many years to boost its performance on state tests. The school was singled out, said Margie Vandeven, the state’s assistant education commissioner, because of the persistent performance issues — and because of timing.

The school was due for charter renewal. Its sponsor, the University of Central Missouri, under the law could seek only a five-year option.

The state did not want to recommend a lengthy renewal for a school with “a history of low performance,” Vandeven said. “In this case, very low.”

When the state presented its case against renewal to the state school board in May, it showed how Gordon Parks has performed far below the level of Kansas City Public Schools, a district that is unaccredited. The district’s totals, however, included higher-performing magnet schools that tend not to have as high concentrations of poverty.

The Star did a separate calculation averaging the performance totals from only the 17 general elementary schools in the district, whose percentage of economically distressed students range from 88 to 97 percent — similar to Gordon Parks.

In 2012, Gordon Parks saw a dip in performance in which 13 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in communication arts, and 17 percent did so in math.

The 17 district schools, on average, saw 20.1 percent perform proficient or above in communication arts and 29.9 percent score that high in math. When all elementary schools were considered, at least a third of students were proficient or higher in math and communication arts.

In each category last year, Gordon Parks scored higher than only three of the 17 schools.

Under the new law, sponsors shall take “all reasonable steps necessary” to confirm that charter schools comply with sections of the law. That includes a “thorough analysis” of evidence that the charter has maintained performance that meets or exceeds the district in which the charter is located in three of the last four years.

Vandeven said the state recognizes that Gordon Parks serves a high-needs population.

“We expect all kids to learn,” she said. “If you’re taking on that population, the expectations are that you provide services to move these students forward.”

The University of Central Missouri was made aware last spring that the state would be reluctant to recommend a new charter for Gordon Parks, but the sponsor was determined to win the state board’s approval, said Vici Hughes, the director of the Midwest Center for Charter Schools and Urban Education at the university.

“We knew their scores were low,” Hughes said.

But the sponsor believed the school was rebounding from curriculum changes and administrative turnover in 2011 and was showing it was positioned to carry on with its mission to serve children from poor and often transient families.

“It’s a good school. It’s where these students need to be,” she said. “We needed to go forward with renewal.”

The new web page and the public campaign are aimed at restoring community confidence in the school, Curry said.

The school won an initial victory last May when a Cole County circuit judge granted a temporary restraining order that has allowed the school to operate as if its charter had been renewed, pending a hearing set for July 26.

That allowed the school to receive state funding through the end of its extended academic year in June. The school was able to bring its 2013 fifth-grade class to its scheduled graduation.

If the court restores Gordon Parks’ charter, it still may be several years before another fifth-grade class graduates. Many of the school’s teachers have sought out new jobs — with Gordon Parks’ help. And many families have moved on to new schools.

The school expects it could have staff ready to serve kindergarten and first grade, a special class for children who need preparation for kindergarten and possibly a second-grade class, Curry said.

“Our belief is we’re going to win in court and continue,” he said, “but we can’t continue (with a full school) next year because the damage has been done.”

Academic achievement: One measure

A key measure for the state in deciding to renew a charter school weighs the school’s state test performance compared with the public school district. The Star compiled the performance of 17 general elementary schools in Kansas City Public Schools, excluding magnet schools, to get a rough comparison with the charter Gordon Parks Elementary School. All of the schools serve predominantly poor populations with more than 90 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

Percentage of elementary students who scored proficient or advanced:

COMMUNICATION ARTS MATH
2010 2011 2012 2010 2011 2012
State57.757.458.155.757.259.3
Gordon Parks14.021.713.010.320.817.0
Kansas City Public Schools overall38.835.934.734.727.835.0
Kansas City Public Schools average of 17 general elementary schools*21.420.720.125.725.629.9
Gordon Parks’ rank out of 18 schools16715181315

*The Star averaged the 17 schools’ percentages of proficient and advanced students. Because some schools are larger than others, the percentages aren’t exactly comparable with the districtwide or Gordon Parks figures.

The rate of students served who have disabilities:

Kansas City Public Schools: 10.75 percent

Gordon Parks Elementary: 15.63 percent

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

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