Plan to remake former Southwest High School comes with big questions for Kansas City

07/12/2014 5:57 PM

07/12/2014 10:56 PM

The tantalizing upside in reincarnating hallowed Southwest High School as an elite and selective-admission school wakens a dream.

This has always been the way to invite back the mostly middle- and upper-class, mostly better-educated and mostly white neighborhoods that deserted Kansas City Public Schools at the head of its fall decades ago.

Adorn the school. Open its doors to students who demonstrate the willingness and ability to meet a higher academic standard.

But there is a downside — a large challenge — awaiting Kansas City Public Schools if it adopts its proposal to create a selective-admission international high school with the Academie Lafayette charter school.

It’s the same burden that saddles the many urban school districts across the nation that have established exam-entry elite schools.

It’s a burden already felt in Kansas City with its longtime successful flagship — the selective Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.

And in the Kansas City, Kan., School District with selective and equally successful Sumner Academy.

What of the schools that would lose more of their top students to a second elite school? What of the Centrals and Easts and Northeast high schools of the world?

There’s the rub.

Then-superintendent Bernard Taylor was not willing to add a selective-admission route for Southwest in 2005.

That was the first summer that the district was looking for a creative way to reopen the school at 6512 Wornall Road, where years of difficulties involving students bused in from throughout the district had poisoned its rapport with the surrounding neighborhood.

Southwest, anchored within the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods and revered for its history and famous alumni, deserved better, Taylor was told in public meetings that summer.

Southwest neighbors asked: Why not make it a selective school like Lincoln?

Said Taylor: “I am not going to consign a badge of inferiority on our other schools and their students and teachers.”

He could have been imagining Elisha Verge in 2014, father of two sons at Southwest Early College Campus, the current name of the former Southwest High School.

Verge worries about lost opportunities for some of his younger son’s peers who might not pass an entry test, who might not have the same chance to grow alongside strong students in the other schools where they land.

“This is about my community — the community of urban core learners,” Verge said.

“Steel sharpens steel. Good students around other good students become great students. This (selective-school idea) is good for the scarce few. But what about the masses?”

Attracting new families

The fact that Kansas City is immersed in this kind of conversation is thrilling to Superintendent Steve Green.

He believes it could work. He believes the district could meet the challenge, offer strong choices and see all of its schools rise with the new competition, including Lincoln. Including Central.

The city is intrigued. That’s for sure.

The proposal, still in flux and out for public debate, would strike an unprecedented partnership with the successful Academie Lafayette, giving the charter control of Southwest.

Students from the charter’s K-8 program would flow into the school, and it would take on at least as many Kansas City Public Schools students who test into what would be an international baccalaureate program.

The concern about how the district will strengthen choices for students who don’t fit the new school runs deep, Green said.

And the thrill of opening a challenging school that attracts new families is real.

“We are the catalyst,” Green said. “We are at the center of this major discussion. We are being entrepreneurial. We’re forging new partnerships. We’re causing people to think about things they haven’t thought about before.”

He thinks of people like the parent who rose at one of the recent community meetings. She shared the strain her family endures in paying “very expensive” tuition to private school.

She said of the Academie Lafayette high school plan: “This would be great for me.”

Perpetuating segregation?

No community knows better than Kansas City how hard this all is.

Racial divisions. Political divisions. Audacious desegregation plans. Charter schools. Breaking. Rebuilding. Rebreaking. Rebuilding again.

Kansas City’s public education storms — and the way Lincoln, its selective-admission magnet school, held to rocky ground against the sinking sand — have been mirrored throughout the country, said Claire Smrekar, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University.

Research shows that students enrolled in the selective schools have on balance benefited, she said.

And for stressed public school districts fighting the flight of better-resourced families, elite schools have been a way of holding parents who might opt to go to private or suburban schools, she said.

Research also has upheld the belief that students thrive better when they work alongside children from a mixture of economic backgrounds, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

To the extent that the selective magnet schools have held on to middle class families, that’s been a good thing for public school systems, he said.

“But the needle that has to be threaded is avoiding enclaves of privilege surrounded by a sea of mediocrity,” he said.

That’s where research on selective magnets goes lacking.

On one hand, analysis has shown that students in elite schools tend to thrive better than peers in the same district who qualified for the schools but weren’t enrolled, said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an assistant professor for educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Gains are seen across economic and racial lines.

But what we don’t know, she said, is how establishing selective elite schools affects the students who attend the other district schools.

Most districts with elite schools are much larger than Kansas City. The effects are diffused among many schools, and too many other student performance factors make it hard to isolate the causes.

Yet it is an issue that districts should weigh in opening selective schools, Smrekar said.

“Are you perpetuating segregation by class and race?” she said. “That’s a question the public needs to grapple with. It needs to be part of the discourse.”

Pronounced divides

Numerically, the divide between Academie Lafayette and Kansas City Public Schools is pronounced.

The French immersion charter school’s student enrollment is 65 percent white and 22 percent economically disadvantaged, compared with a district that is 9 percent white and 89 percent economically disadvantaged.

But the charter school, in partnering with the school district, is seeking diversity.

If the charter does operate the high school at Southwest, it wants the KCPS students entering the school to pass an entrance test so the school would know they are prepared for what the charter intends to be a rigorous program, said Academie Lafayette board chairman David Cozad.

The charter had also been exploring opening a high school on its own at the vacated Westport High School in midtown, but it now looks to stay closer to home at Southwest, a mile from Academie Lafayette’s upper elementary school at 69th and Oak streets.

The building the charter covets has produced titans of the city such as Henry and Richard Bloch, writers Calvin Trillin and Evan Connell, a star for New York’s Metropolitan Opera in Sandra Warfield, actor Chris Cooper and a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Richard E. Smalley.

The nine affluent U.S. census tracts near the school could hardly be more contrasted with the balance of the Kansas City school district.

More than seven out of 10 of the Southwest area’s school-age children are in private schools. In the rest of the district, nine of 10 students are in public schools.

About 2 percent of the Southwest area’s families with children live below the federal poverty line, compared with more than 40 percent in the rest of the district.

Off and on for several years, the district and Academie Lafayette have talked about their mutual desire to extend their popular foreign-language-based schools into an international high school.

That remains the primary motivation for the union, Green said.

But there’s no denying that he sees an Academie Lafayette-run school in Southwest as an opening to win those neighborhoods back and begin building enrollment again.

“This is the free market system at work,” Green said. “How do we position ourselves so we have unique offerings so that you make (the public school system) the choice?”

‘Very hard stuff’

The hardest part — and this goes nationwide, Smrekar said — is giving the other families, the ones not matched with the selective schools, the feeling that they have good choices too.

“This is very hard stuff even under the best of conditions, when schools had the resources and the will,” she said.

Kansas City knows that well.

Beginning in the 1970s, districts across the nation at various times came under court order to desegregate schools, though probably none would surpass the opportunity given Kansas City.

All told over the course of more than two decades, the Kansas City district had some $2 billion to build and carry out a massive districtwide magnet school system.

Among the high schools, only Lincoln’s college prep program, with the advantage of its selective admission, thrived. The themed schools mostly failed to energize students or teachers.

The magnet schools at best only delayed the continued flight of middle class families — black and white — out of district schools.

Arthur Benson, attorney for the plaintiff families in the desegregation case, has watched the struggle as closely as anyone. He later served on the Kansas City school board.

The selective-school decision now in front of the district poses “a close call,” Benson said.

Schools today are emphasizing project-based, collaborative learning that relies even more on student leaders in the classroom, Benson said.

The Southwest plan, by drawing away more top students, would place a higher premium on the performance of the administrators and teachers in the general high schools.

“Without a corresponding devotion of effort done smartly at East, Northeast and Central, the harm this would inflict would make this an unwise plan to adopt,” he said.

In Kansas City, Kan., on a smaller scale, Sumner Academy also served as the centerpiece of a desegregation plan.

Like Lincoln, it thrives as the district flagship. The two international baccalaureate schools are regularly recognized on lists of the nation’s top high schools.

The best students, in large part, are in those schools, and that strains the remaining schools in their own missions to make graduates who are college or career ready.

It shows in graduation rates, where Lincoln and Sumner stand at more than 98 percent, while the other schools’ graduation rates range into the 80 percent and 70 percent range.

ACT college entrance exam scores sit comfortably above the state average at the selective schools but persist far below at the others.

Discipline also suffers, especially in the Kansas City general high schools.

Kansas City, Kan.,’s general high schools — Harmon, Schlagle, Washington and Wyandotte — can’t be Sumner, said David Smith, district chief of staff.

They have to be something else.

And it has to show, he said, when the district gets curious or concerned parents to come in and see the schools for themselves.

Many of the students who don’t go to Sumner may not test as well, Smith said. Many come from families that have no college history.

Each of the other schools stakes out its mission, and in many cases it is to give students tangible experiences in college and career preparation.

That means more college visits, college credit courses, industry partnerships, internshiplike courses — extra support that Sumner students, comfortable in the traditional academic world, might not need.

“It gives us a chance to tell (the general high school students) that you are college material because look at what you’ve done,” Smith said.

The job will be harder for the Kansas City general schools.

They will be competing against possibly two academically selective schools plus the Paseo Academy for Fine and Performing Arts as well as the African Centered College Preparatory Academy.

And they’ll be rowing against the tide of history.

“That’s our biggest challenge,” Green said.

“We will be creative. The principals and staff (of the general schools) have to say, ‘We’re going to step up and find our identity. We’re going to find our niche. … We’re going to be known.’”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to

27 percent of K-12 children in the affluent area around Southwest attend public schools, including charters.

93 percent of K-12 children in the rest of the KC district attend public schools, including charters.

The district thinks a selective Southwest would eventually attract more families to the district.

How the new school would work

The Academie Lafayette charter school would gain academic control of Southwest as early as fall 2015. The charter would supply the school’s staff and curriculum.

Students graduating from the charter’s kindergarten-through-eighth-grade French immersion schools would flow into the school and join with at least as many district students, who would have to go through a selective application process.

Students enrolled through the district — including those who had been attending private schools or who were home-schooled — would count for the district, in enrollment and in test scores. But they would be blended with charter students in the classrooms.

A final decision probably will be made this fall.

Information for the community

The school district has set up public meetings to discuss plans for Southwest.

Parent meeting: Thursday, 6:30 p.m., Paseo Academy, 4747 Flora Ave.

Community meeting: July 22, 6 p.m., Paseo Academy


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