The Pattonville School District in suburban St. Louis has gone through an evolution from a mostly white district to now claiming to be one of the most diverse school districts in America. So, it is no coincidence that its superintendent, Mike Fulton, just landed the job as the new superintendent of the Shawnee Mission School District.
What comes through loud and clear from this choice is that diversity is top of mind for the Shawnee Mission school board and others involved in the selection process. That’s understandable. The district has undergone radical demographic changes just in the past decade. Along with delivering exceptional opportunities, these changes have been challenging and even traumatic.
Shawnee Mission was previously known as a district of affluence. For many decades, it also was a booming district with a student population that once approached 45,000. Above all, the Shawnee Mission district was synonymous with academic excellence, including sky-high test scores, almost 100 percent graduation rates and nearly the same percentage going to college. Shawnee Mission, more than any other school district, was the magnet that drew thousands of families to Johnson County.
Over the years, the student population has shrunk to 27,000. And an influx of minorities has changed the district dramatically. These demographic and cultural changes have required a reallocation of resources and a change in focus. A mere decade ago, Shawnee Mission was 78 percent white. It is now 64 percent white. The most profound change is in the Hispanic student population, which was 8.5 percent a decade ago and has since more than doubled to almost 19 percent.
School board members see the need to reinvent the district to adapt and thrive amid these changes. So, they picked a superintendent from a district that has gone through a a major cultural transformation.
The Pattonville School District, which has only 5,500 students, was 70 percent white a decade ago. Today, whites are in the minority, with 49 percent. There was and is a relatively small Hispanic population in the Pattonville district. The biggest cultural change has been the surge of African-American students, from 24 to 33 percent.
Fulton presided over the district as superintendent for the last 11 years. So, he not only witnessed the dramatic changes, he also was responsible for adapting. And apparently, he did well with that challenge. The district claims that test scores are up, which would be a significant achievement.
In many ways, Pattonville and Shawnee Mission today are at about the same academic level. The SAT scores are similar. The ACT scores are similar. Where Pattonville excels is in reading and math proficiency. Pattonville’s proficiency in reading is 64 percent, versus only 52 percent in Shawnee Mission. Math proficiency is 47 percent in the Pattonville district, versus 42 percent in Shawnee Mission. These are state measurements. Missouri’s standards may differ from Kansas’.
No doubt, Fulton’s experience with a diversifying student population was key to his hiring in the Shawnee Mission district. In fact, the diversity factor was so important that a major obstacle to this move was not only overlooked, it was dismissed. How often do superintendents leap from a district with just one high school to one with five high schools? That’s a steep learning curve. Fulton may have the skills to make the jump. But there’s no way to know yet.
As an alum of Shawnee Mission schools, I must admit I miss the days when the Committee for Excellence, a highly effective citizens’ group, ruled the roost. It had one goal: excellence. Diversity and poverty were not real issues for the district then.
I’m glad Shawnee Mission schools have become more diverse and more representative of a changing nation, and I welcome both the challenges and the opportunities. But managing diversity and poverty is not the objective — the goal is still academic excellence. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t worry this decision was made to serve other concerns, at the expense of choosing the best academic leader.
Fulton may turn out to be the rare superintendent who can balance both priorities: diversity and academic excellence. Let us hope so.