For now, John Couture’s children are students at Academie Lafayette, a K-8 French language immersion charter that is one of Kansas City’s academically applauded schools.
But the Waldo business owner is concerned about where in Kansas City his kids might attend high school. His family is not the only one in this position.
So he and other parents living mostly in the Waldo and Brookside neighborhoods, along with some civic leaders — a dozen of them in all — have set their eyes on the vacant Southwest High School building as the potential site for a new innovative high school.
Several local philanthropists have pledged dollars in support of the effort, but the folks behind the high school idea are not saying how much.
Michael Zeller, a member of the group — Uniting at Southwest — says the idea is to partner in some way with Kansas City Public Schools to open an “academically rigorous, project-based learning public high school.” Not a charter, and “definitely not private,” said Zeller, a Kansas City property developer with grown and school-age children. “Maybe a type of hybrid.”
Under such an arrangement, students would be Kansas City public school pupils.
Couture said the group and about 650 others who’ve signed a petition on the Uniting at Southwest website believe a new school like the one they are proposing would “attract families back to the neighborhood.”
Couture said that survey respondents said they would not want to enroll their child in a public Kansas City school. Rather, they would be interested in a innovative, high quality and diverse high school.
Zeller concurred. “A good public high school, rigorous and innovative, will attract people to the city and help people stay living in the city,” he said.
He said his group is interested in the old Southwest High building at 6512 Wornall Road for their project “because it is sitting empty, and we have heard from a lot of passionate alumni who are interested in this high school.”
But Kansas City Public Schools officials “are not interested in that,” said Melissa Robinson, who chairs the school board. The building isn’t on the market. In fact, Superintendent Mark Bedell said the district may have plans to use the building in the future.
The Southwest building is not listed on the district website among property available for sale or lease, as are some nine other closed schools and the former school board offices building. Some school officials said small spaces in the school are being used by community groups, and much of the building needs renovating.
Furthermore, Bedell expressed concern that opening another high school in Kansas City would dilute enrollment and resources and pull state dollars that follow the students away from existing high schools.
“There is room to think of things in new ways,” Couture said.
“I think there is room to reach out and find a way to work together,” Couture said. “I think there is room to pull kids together from different backgrounds.”
But room isn’t the problem, says Bedell. There is more than enough room in the existing high schools to accommodate students who might want to come back into the Kansas City school district area. In fact, Bedell said, currently there are far more seats in the 15 public and private high schools in the city than there are students to fill them.
“My primary focus is, let’s do right with the kids we already have,” Bedell said. “We already have saturation in this city. If we open more and more, you spread thin your resources.”
The Kansas City district has eight high schools, including an alternative school, a career and technology school, and Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, which admits students who test high enough.
Bedell said he wants all the students attending schools in the city, whether it’s a public, charter or private school, to have a rich experience. “But we have so many seats that we have the bare minimum to provide what they need.”
Bedell explained that some school don’t have enough students for full-fledged band, orchestra, theater productions or enough athletic talent to compete with other schools. In some schools, the same students are doing everything because there just isn’t enough talent in one school to go around.
Enrollment at Southwest had dropped from 1,491 in 2011 to only 239 in 2015.
Bedell said he’s talked with some who support reopening Southwest as a nontraditional innovation high school and has listened to some of the motive behind it.
“For some people it is the sentiment,” he said. “And everyone says they want a diverse school, but is that what people really want? We cannot have a Southeast High School and a Southwest High School. It is just not fiscally reasonable. I want diversity, too. Then let’s pool resources and make Southeast innovative, diverse and the best it can be.”
This would not be the first time a proposal has been made to acquire the massive old stone high school casting a shadow over Wornall Road.
In 2015, a controversy erupted over the old school, with Academie Lafayette and its supporters who wanted to put a charter high school there for their kids. Some residents accused Academie Lafayette supporters of favoring the mostly middle- and upper-class, mostly better-educated and mostly white neighborhoods that had left the Kansas City Public Schools decades ago for private, parochial and suburban schools.
It got so heated the dispute shut down a school board meeting. Talks between Academie Lafayette and the district regarding the Southwest building “were not successful,” said Sarah Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the charter.
Lafayette school officials said the charter is not involved with the Uniting at Southwest group, and while the French charter is still working toward opening a high school in the future, it is not working with the Kansas City school district and has no designs on Southwest.
But not all the parents interested in the high school proposed by Uniting at Southwest come from the Waldo and Brookside area.
Victor Holden, his wife and five children live east of Troost Avenue. They moved from Indiana to Kansas City “so our children could attend a dual-language education,” said Holden, who works in human resources at H&R Block. Two of his children currently attend Academie Lafayette. The oldest of his school-age children is in high school in Lee’s Summit.
“We are currently a house divided,” Holden said. “That’s why we are interested in this innovative high school. We place a high value on education. We moved from another state for it. And if we can’t find educational value in this city, then we will move to another city.”
Southwest was last named Southwest Early College Campus before it closed for good last May amid sadness expressed by alumni and others in the community who remember the 90-year-old Brookside landmark in its heyday.
The school has a rich history and a string of famous alumni who at various points in time strolled through its halls, performed on its stage, played ball on its hardwood and wore the Indians jersey on the field.
Familiar names like Lester Milgram, owner of Milgram Food Stores; journalist and author Calvin Trillin;, and Aaron D. Yates, better known as rapper Tech N9ne. Henry W. Bloch, co-founder of tax preparation giant H&R Block, also attended. The Bloch Family Foundation is among the financial supporters for putting an innovative high school in the building.
“My late wife, Marion, and I, along with so many other Kansas Citians, are proud alumni of Southwest High School, and we would like to see it reopen as an inclusive, enduring and rigorous educational institution,” Bloch said when asked why the foundation is backing Uniting at Southwest’s plan.
Zeller said he started thinking about a project-learning-based high school opening in the Southwest building after it closed, because although he lives just a few blocks from the school, his son traveled 50 minutes every day to attend Lincoln Prep.
“We live in a big American city; we shouldn’t have the nearest college-bound high school be 8 miles away.”
Southwest High history
The cornerstone of the new building was laid by real estate developer J.C. Nichols on June 11, 1925.
It opened in 1927.
By 1930, enrollment was up to 1,450, and the school was recognized nationally as a college-preparatory institution.
It was the only school in the district that included a planetarium.
The first students bused from other parts of the city to Southwest High School began 1977.
Enrollment declined, Kansas City Public Schools reorganized, and Southwest was renamed the Southwest Science and Mathematics Magnet School in 1988. It closed in 1998.
It reopened as the Southwest Charter School until 2005.
It became part of Kansas City Public Schools again in August 2008, reopening as Southwest Early College Campus.
It closed for good at the end of the 2015-2016 academic year.