Steve Rose

Rebirth of Van Horn High School is a sign of hope

Updated: 2013-08-18T23:27:46Z

By STEVE ROSE

The Kansas City Star

If Kansas City Public Schools were abolished, no neighboring school district would want to absorb throngs of urban core students into their own districts, right?

Wrong.

Two years ago, six superintendents from neighboring districts (Independence, Center, Raytown, Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs, and North Kansas City) held a private meeting with Kansas City Mayor Sly James. They floated a bold idea. Each offered to take a piece of the district, using current buildings (no busing) and manage the schools under a multiyear contract. If it worked, they could make the experiment permanent.

As one superintendent told me, they felt they had an obligation to “save the kids.”

James told the group he opposed dissolving the district, saying he believed it was important for the city to maintain its core district.

Fast forward to Aug. 28 this year when the Missouri Commissioner of Education will have new authority to recommend dissolution of the 15,300-student district. She could choose to merge it with other districts, with the approval of the State Board of Education and district voters. We know from that meeting two years ago that the superintendents are likely to be very supportive of that action.

We also know that in 2007, both Independence and Kansas City constituents overwhelmingly voted to allow Independence to annex a part of Kansas City Public Schools, including 2,600 of its students in seven schools. One school was closed. The others remained open, and the students continued to be enrolled in their previous school buildings but in a new district.

What happened after the annexation is near-miraculous.

Van Horn High School, which was the only high school involved in the annexation, had at that time the second highest dropout rate in the state of Missouri. Only about a third of the students graduated from high school.

Today, the graduation rate at Van Horn is about 90 percent.

These students, whose poverty rate is sky-high, are not all that different from the remaining students in the Kansas City district.

What did the suburban district do that Kansas City Public Schools did not do?

“We gave the students hope,” said former Independence superintendent Jim Hinson, now the newly appointed superintendent of the Shawnee Mission School District.

They did far more than that. They gave the students almost all new teachers and administrators.

Hinson said they allowed all teachers and administrators from Kansas City who wanted to join the Independence district to go through rigorous interviews. In addition to the several hundred applicants from Kansas City, there were 3,600 applicants from all over the country to fill 400 new positions.

In the end, Hinson said they hired only 10 teachers and two administrators from Kansas City Public Schools.

“We picked those we thought would be the very best,” Hinson said. “We wanted to give the kids a fresh start.”

A fresh start also included getting rid of the metal detectors and armed security guards at the entrance to Van Horn.

“We wanted to show there is a changing culture, as well,” said Hinson.

The dramatic changes at Van Horn and the other schools annexed by Independence could never take place in the old district, according to Hinson, with the past teachers, administrators, school board and constant turnover of superintendents.

Kansas City Public Schools should be carved up and absorbed by the neighboring suburban districts. Yet the students would stay in their same school facilities.

The ingredients for change are all there: Missouri now has the authority to merge districts, superintendents of neighboring districts would likely be lined up to support such a move, and history tells us we have a real possibility of making a profound difference in the lives of children.

To reach Steve Rose, a longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to srose@kc.rr.com.

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