Room to run in gym. No more stumbling over chairs in tiny classrooms. Space to spread out their engineering kits. Really good teachers…
Eight-year-old Lucas McGee covered a lot of territory Wednesday when he listed the things he likes about the newly dedicated expansion of the downtown community’s long-desired public school.
But he didn’t even mention one of Crossroad Academy’s most remarkable achievements:
The school has become uniquely diverse.
Crossroad’s racial numbers and the varying economic fortunes of its families have struck a balance not seen in any of Kansas City’s other public charter schools and strikingly rare among the area’s school districts.
It’s one of the most telling measures that the gamble downtown promoters took three years ago when they threw their support behind the school may be paying off.
Families are choosing to send their children to the school at 1011 Central St., including families who could pay for private schooling or move to suburban communities.
“Children from families who have economic choices are learning side by side with children from families who do not have economic choices,” said Dean Johnson, who co-founded the school with Tysie McDowell-Ray.
All children learn better when they are in such a blended environment, Johnson said.
“Diversity was not the mission of the school,” he said, “but it was an important tactical approach to the mission.”
While Lucas might not be so aware, his parents are. Kris and Adrienne McGee live in Kansas City’s Volker neighborhood and enrolled both of their children in the school because of their confidence in its teachers and for its diversity.
They want their children learning “in a world that is wider than ours,” Adrienne McGee said. “We grew up in suburban schools.”
There was no guarantee families would come, even as McDowell-Ray and Johnson gained critical support from the Downtown Council and, in particular, from the late Phil Kirk of DST Realty.
The school opened in the fall of 2012 without need of a lottery. It had 186 elementary students and no waiting list. Seventy-four percent of its students were considered economically disadvantaged and qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
“People were sussing us out,” Johnson said.
Clearly, families began taking notice of a school that is a walkable distance from the Kansas City Public library, City Hall, Barney Allis Plaza and several theaters — amenities its children use almost daily.
Now in its third year, the school has expanded to 282 students through the seventh grade, and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students is now 53 percent.
Nearly all of the other 19 public charter schools in Kansas City serve enrollments that are 80 percent economically disadvantaged or more, most of them in the 90s.
The one exception — Academie Lafayette — flips the other way. Only 25 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
R. Crosby Kemper III, the director of the Kansas City Public Library, was one of several key civic leaders who had been trying for more than a decade to recruit school developers to establish a downtown school.
Tuesday, in an interview, he anticipated the next morning’s ribbon cutting for the expanded school feeling reassured.
The community is showing it has confidence in the school and its leaders and teachers, Kemper said. A long-missing piece in the Downtown Council’s urban revival — an attractive downtown school — is settling into place.
“It demonstrates that we can do this,” he said.
The twenty-somethings who have come flocking to live in a more-vibrant downtown core in recent years now have more reason to stay once they begin growing families.
“They know they can spend as much of their lives as they want downtown,” he said.
McDowell-Ray and Johnson came from Gordon Parks Elementary School, where they had led a charter school that purposefully served a high-needs student population. The school garnered wide community support but struggled in state test performance.
They first looked to the Crossroads District to find a home for their “dream school,” hence the name. But once they came knocking on the Downtown Council’s door for support in December 2011, Kirk had other ideas and guided them toward property in the heart of downtown.
It was a careful courtship. The downtown supporters needed to know that Crossroads was a promising answer to their long quest for a school. A lot was at stake.
“We had a lot of conversations before they put their bets down on us,” Johnson said.
Wednesday’s ribbon cutting for the expanded school “was a dream come true,” McDowell-Ray said. “I was teary-eyed. We weren’t sure if it would take hold so quickly.”
But just as there was no guarantee the school could achieve its diversity goals, nor is there any guarantee it will last.
The school’s leadership and staff recognize the heavy responsibilities ahead, the two founders said. That means strong academic performance and creative programming to keep the school attractive.
And it also means growing and sustaining a strong recruiting effort that reaches into some of the poorer communities surrounding downtown.
The school has a March 31 lottery date to determine who is in and who goes on the waiting list. And they want everyone in the lottery.
“It’s pertinent to us now that we are a diverse school and it is essential we maintain that,” Johnson said.
After its first two years, Crossroads’ scoring on state tests falls between the state average and the Kansas City Public Schools’ scores.
About 40 percent of its students scored proficient or advanced in communication arts and math, compared to 53 percent for the state and 30 percent for the Kansas City district.
The state needs three years of data before it can give any district or charter school an overall report card score, so Crossroads will get its first performance report this summer.
By 2018, the school expects to be at its full capacity, serving 386 children in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Most of the new children entering the school will be kindergartners, but whatever slots are open in any of the other grades will be filled as well, Johnson said.
“We’ve been blessed with a lot of civic support,” Johnson said. “And we have accountability, not just to the state and to our families, but also to all of our civic and philanthropic partners.”
The school originally raised $600,000 to lease space in a former office building at 1015 Central St. It then went to the city and the Kansas City Tax Increment Financing Commission and received $5.5 million in tax incentives to help it buy its original building and buy and renovate the former Uhlmann Co. building next door, which Uhlmann vacated so the school could grow.
The school is raising an additional $1.7 million to further renovate the space it already has, but Mayor Sly James suggested the school may want to keep an eye out for more opportunities to expand.
“You’re unique and (families) will continue to seek you out,” he said at Wednesday’s dedication. “You are vital to the vitality and growth of this city.”