Korinne Lanning doesn’t know it, but this is going to be a hard week in the Hickman Mills School District.
She’s 9. She knows nothing of the state audit that will land Tuesday or its anticipated litany of mistakes that have surely helped keep the provisionally accredited south Kansas City district mired in poor overall performance for so many years.
But she knows the water cycle. And the way she has learned it, and how well, reflects the brighter light of a district that thinks it has broken the grip of its past failings.
“You start with condensation into any type of precipitation,” the Johnson Elementary School third-grader says, tracing the giant-sized paper model she helped erect in the window.
“The collection of the precipitation can be any river or lake, and it usually goes to the ocean. Water evaporates into the clouds because of the sun,” she adds, sweeping her hand back to the top in a show ofta-da
, “which is the primary energy source for the whole water cycle.”
She’s practiced it many ways, blending reading, math and science, writing paragraphs, watching videos, making paper study guides called foldables …
“Would you like to see my foldable?” she asks.
While the narrative of Kansas City Public Schools has drawn more attention, Hickman Mills, with an enrollment of 6,000, has been waging its own struggle — trying to join neighboring districts Center, Grandview and Raytown, among those with high concentrations of low-income students that succeed.
“Our kids deserve the best,” Johnson Elementary Principal Kay Hoff said after watching Korinne’s impromptu performance. “They are just as bright. Just as deserving as any others.”
The timing of the audit might seem problematic. After all, the district has a new superintendent in Dennis Carpenter, new board leadership and a new community-grown plan.
The district is ready to launch a major reorganization — planning a universal prekindergarten program for all 4-year-olds, a concentrated center for all ninth-graders and an alternative school.
But it’s good to know all of the bad, to help root it out for good, said Ruskin High School math and computer science teacher Lewis McKenzie.
“I want all the cards on the table,” he said.
If the new administration and the plans it is making are sound, it can stand up to what the audit will show.
Hickman Mills, as a community, has been through so much — watching its commercial base crumble and the once-giant Bannister Mall retail center be scraped away to its foundation.
But here comes Cerner Corp., with its plans to build a $4.3 billion campus on the old mall site. It’s bought the land. It seems real, and so seem the promises of new district leadership, he said.
“There’s hope,” McKenzie said. “The district is ready for Cerner. Now is the time.”
These are better days for Carpenter.
He starts off his monthly leadership meeting with administrators and principals reciting the projected scores a district consultant said may come on state tests, based on student achievement on math benchmarks so far this school year.
“I don’t want to get too excited,” he says. “We’ve still got tests to take. But if this bears out …”
He doesn’t want to say too much out loud.
But he thinks students may already be reaping benefits from the district’s effort to simplify its mission, clarify its priorities and bear down on the essentials of instruction.
“I’m a fan of less-equals-more,” he reminds them.
A year ago in April, Carpenter, a first-time superintendent from Newton County Schools near Atlanta, arrived in Hickman Mills to begin preparing for the post he officially took July 1.
He watched a fractured school board fight over then-board President Breman Anderson Jr.’s attempt to censure another member, featuring cross-accusations of Sunshine Law violations and the dismissal of the board’s attorney.
A month later, members of the board effectively staged a coup, getting the votes to push Anderson out of the president’s role.
All of this played out while Carpenter was trying to recruit and rehire principals and administrators, and shape his strategy for a district that had been deflated to provisionally accredited status in 2012.
So went many of the district’s problems that will be revealed anew in the coming audit. It’s a necessary cleansing, said Eric Lowe, who was voted as the new board president the night of Anderson’s ouster.
Lowe can’t discuss specifics of the audit, but he knows it will be troubling.
“People may see things unfortunate and shocking, and they will have every right to be upset,” he said. “But my hope is that people will look at the full body of work since Dr. Carpenter has been here.”
The new leadership, Carpenter told his administrative team, will have “the luxury” of knowing that the problems were in the past. But it is a thin veil of protection, he added afterward.
He was able to rally broad community support in creating the framework of the district’s new five-year plan. And a collaborative-minded school board is backing his major reorganization plans.
“People have got to have confidence in us,” Carpenter said. “They’ve got to have trust in us.”
Here’s what’s coming — and fast:
The former Ervin Middle School will be remodeled as an early learning center at a likely cost of about $7.73 million, beginning almost immediately so it can open in August.
No time to request a bond issue from voters. The district probably will secure the project with lease bonds — like a mortgage — to be paid back at about $500,000 a year.
The district will offer free full-day pre-K programming for all of the roughly 600 4-year-olds in the district at Ervin and the Markley Early Childhood Center. All kindergartners will go to Ervin.
This coming year’s sixth-graders will stay in the elementary schools. Eighth-graders, who would have been moving up to Hickman Mills Junior High, will stay in Smith-Hale Middle School.
Hickman Mills Junior High will become solely a ninth-grade center.
The district also is planning an alternative secondary school through Ombudsman Educational Services.
It will require major reorganization of staff and departments. Many budget cuts will have to be made in other areas.
But these are the critical areas the planning teams isolated, Carpenter said: too many children entering kindergarten unready to learn. Too many ninth-graders not ready for high school and falling at risk. Too many youths disrupting or drifting out of school who need a new setting.
“Now we have our priorities,” he said. “And we will build the budget from the priorities and work back.”
At Johnson, Korinne’s teacher, Dana Tiller, took a moment to consider the shifting tide in Hickman Mills and called herself “scarily excited.”
At the moment, she was in Johnson’s professional development room working with other third-grade teachers on instructional strategies while their classes were out at music and art.
Jennifer Keith was gripping the marker, listing their ideas under the Common Core learning targets for teaching algebraic thinking.
Keith has been in the district 16 years. “I’ve seen the top of the hill, and I’ve seen the decline,” she said.
There is a degree of focus from the top now, she said, more than before.
“This is what our kids need.”
They let anyone passing through know how they are doing — each teacher, each class. Charts marking how many students are above or below benchmarks during the course of the year hang outside every classroom door.
The school staff, taking their part in turning the district around, “own” their data, Hoff said. They “take it personally.”
“We’re always thinking about what a child needs to excel,” she said. “I expect some sleepless nights.”
Here they come.