Traditionally, you’d give silver for a 25th anniversary and gold for a 50th. The 25-year-old Blue Valley Educational Foundation is celebrating the school district’s 50th anniversary with its own twist: $250,000 in educational grants.
Broken down, that’s $5,000 for every school, as well as $5,000 each for several special programs and more for other district projects. Those special programs include the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), Parents as Teachers and the Early Childhood Education Program.
“The district has gotten so large and diverse that it’s hard” to choose a districtwide program to support, said Anne Blessing, executive director of the foundation. “We really were not able to identify one program or project that would touch enough of our students that it would be an appropriate gift.”
The schools can’t use the grant money for just anything. Each school or program picked from a list of options that included a technology package for student laptops or tablets, field trips to performing arts events, and a Makerspace with special software and hands-on supplies.
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The idea is that the money goes to support educational endeavors tied either to STEM programming or the arts. Some money also will go to supporting student wellness programs that include mental health awareness.
Although the foundation hasn’t raised all the money yet, it has enough to start implementing the schools’ choices and officials are confident about raising the remainder.
Blessing said that they’ve ordered all the technology components schools asked to have as part of their grants. She hopes that everything will be ready to use by the end of 2015 but will definitely be in place by the end of the school year in the spring.
As the district celebrates its 50th anniversary, it is looking back at its many changes and ahead as it searches for a new superintendent.
In its 50 years, the district has changed considerably. The first year they have records of the student population was 1970, when 852 pupils made up the whole district. Compare that to today’s 22,087, and you have an idea of just how much things have changed in a few decades.
Interim Superintendent Al Hanna has been with the district 33 years, and he remembers the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s.
“We were just not prepared to grow as fast as we did. We had one year we grew (by) 1,100 kids when the (entire) district only had 6,000 kids,” Hanna said. “We couldn’t build the schools fast enough.”
Now the district is growing at a more manageable pace. Hanna estimates there’s an increase of 150 to 200 students each year now. Most of that growth is in the upper grade levels — and there’s a reason for that.
Hanna said most new homes in the Blue Valley area start at $400,000.
“Our housing market right now is not a real affordable housing market for young families,” Hanna said.
The northwestern part of the district is seeing some growth in the lower grades, and Hanna said it’s because the resale value of a home there is more affordable for young families.
“We’ve become a very desirable district in a county that really values education. … They’re willing to support education. That’s why we’ve had this great success with bond issues” to fund schools, Hanna said.
Right now, the district is building one new elementary school at 178th and Grant streets. It has already got land purchased for two more elementary schools and a middle school, but there’s no timeline or funding in place for those right now. Hanna said he thinks the district will need to build a sixth high school eventually.
With all this growth and development, it’s sometimes hard to picture the rural roots of Blue Valley.
“I came here from Shawnee Mission in ’82, and the difference in the two districts at that time was very noticeable,” Hanna said. In Blue Valley, “many kids’ families lived on farm. This district was not a suburban school district at all,” he said.
The big shift happened as south Overland Park and Leawood began to get more developed in the 1990s. Now, Hanna touts the district’s average ACT score — 25.4 — and the success of programs such as CAPS as proof of how far Blue Valley has come.
“In the last two to three years, (CAPS has been) starting to draw interest from other districts throughout country. … People see that and view us as an innovative district. We’re looking at more than just the traditional high school as an option for students,” Hanna said.
Hanna, who will retire next summer, said his successor will need to be supportive of innovation.
“We need someone here that can organize the business of education — (is) sincerely interested in the kids but (who can) realize there’s an organization to manage,” Hanna said.
Right now, the district is not considering any individual candidates for the job, said Mike Seitz, president of the Blue Valley school board. They’re organizing meetings of parents, local businesses and others to get feedback on what they should be looking for in applicants.
Although they hope make a choice by February or March, Seitz said the new person probably would not start before the end of the current school year.
“We’d like an innovative educator who is willing to look both inside the box and outside the box for any educational nuances that might make Blue Valley better,” Seitz said. “We’re not looking to upset the applecart. We’re generally pleased with the direction and trajectory of the district.”
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