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With a summer of drama over, Gordon Parks charter school works to secure its future

Updated: 2013-09-10T02:28:10Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

Tanisha Gladney’s youngest child — and her most vulnerable — sat silently on the classroom floor of the Gordon Parks Elementary School that Gladney wept for and cheered for throughout an anxious summer.

Eight-year-old Keman Clark was settled in for his 12th day of second grade in a school with barely a third of the number of pupils and teachers it had a year ago.

As he sat cross-legged at the fringe of hand-raising classmates around his teacher, his detached focus revealed what his mother knows: Keman needs special attention.

For Keman, his mother and all the children, parents and teachers tossed by the summer’s fight, it’s now September.

As the school started its third full week of the fall term Monday, the state of Missouri announced that it will not appeal a recent court decision, ending any speculation that it might try again to compel the struggling charter school to shut down. School administrators say they have put aside frustrations over what they thought was unfair treatment.

Now the real work is on.

Many of Gordon Parks’ families and teachers were scattered in fretful searches for alternate schools after the Missouri Board of Education decided in May not to renew the school’s charter.

Some families came back after Gordon Parks won its lawsuit against the state at the end of July. But the school had to reopen smaller, starting with classes only through second grade.

Parents chased after options between Kansas City district schools and charter schools, hitting the waiting lists at popular charter schools.

“I didn’t have a choice,” said Ronisha Scott, who placed her twin boys in the Kansas City Public Schools’ Banneker Elementary School after other choices she had hoped for were full. “I wanted to find a school I’m comfortable with.”

It’s early, but Scott, like other parents followed by The Star whose children either graduated or had to leave Gordon Parks, said her children were doing OK in their new school.

“They like it,” she said. “They’re fine. They’re opening up.”

Families spent the early summer chasing their Plan B’s and Plan C’s, parent Virginia Cowans said. Cowans toured a half-dozen schools seeking spots for a fourth-grade son and fifth-grade daughter, landing her son at Pathways Academy and her daughter at the Kauffman School — both charter schools.

Parents had to move on, and that was what Cowans said she urged other parents to do early in the summer when they were distraught over Gordon Parks’ closing.

“Kids were crying and parents were saying, ‘What are we going to do?’” Cowans said. “You can keep faith and hope, but children do have to have other options.”

Gladney found spots for her fifth- and sixth-grade children at KIPP Endeavor Academy charter school.

But with Keman, because of his need for an individualized education plan, she had fewer options.

Gladney was looking into online curriculum, thinking she would take a hiatus from her college courses and teach her son herself.

“I was looking at a dead end,” she said.

After the court victory, Gladney remembered getting off the phone with the school and telling Keman that he could go back to Gordon Parks after all.

“He said, ‘Yes! Yes! Thank you!,’” Gladney said. “He was excited. He could breathe.”

The road ahead, however, remains uncertain for the charter school at 3715 Wyoming St. On Monday, one floor was easily enough space to serve the 82 children in five classrooms from kindergarten through second grade.

Those 82 pupils made for a nearly perfect attendance day — step one in the school’s plan for an academic and financial recovery, said Steve Fleming, the school’s executive director and principal.

Gordon Parks has been struggling throughout its 14-year history to improve the performance of its students, who come mostly from low-income and transient households.

The school became the first area charter school to feel the increased authority that the Missouri legislature gave the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2012 to hold charter schools more accountable to state standards.

The state school board, on the education department’s recommendation, in May denied Gordon Parks’ application for a five-year renewal of its charter.

The school and its sponsor, the University of Central Missouri, sued to keep the school open. On July 29, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green ruled in favor of the charter school.

Green ruled that the state had abused its discretion, acting unlawfully, unreasonably and arbitrarily in recommending the board deny the renewal.

On Monday, the state and the school announced they had agreed to a final judgment that amended some details in the court’s decision but did not change the outcome: The school will remain open.

“We continue to be concerned about the performance of Gordon Parks,” Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said in a written statement. “Charter schools — like all public schools — are expected to provide quality education for the children they serve.”

Over the next two or three years, the school intends to grow back to a kindergarten-through-fifth grade elementary school, said Doug Curry, the president of the school’s governing board.

The school’s leaders are working with the university on an academic improvement plan. The school also wants to work with the state and its school-improvement teams.

“We’re on board with (the state),” said Curry, who added that he was eager to take up Nicastro’s offer to work together once they got past the court matters.

“She said, ‘When this is over, I’d like to sit down and talk with you about how to educate these urban children,’” Curry said.

“We’re here,” he said. “We’re ready.”

Just what will come, parent Celestria Gilyard doesn’t know. She laments over the names of favorite teachers who are gone, the ones who taught her older son, who graduated in June. But her younger son, James Bell, her kindergartner, is in Gordon Parks right where she wants him.

How’s the school doing?

“I’ll find out,” she said.

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

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