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Uniting at Southwest plus Kansas City Public Schools. Could it equal a partnership?

The old Southwest High School was built in 1925 at 6512 Wornall Road.
The old Southwest High School was built in 1925 at 6512 Wornall Road. File photo

The Kansas City school district and a group hoping to open a new school in the old Southwest High building are talking about partnering if the project can satisfy the community's needs.

The district and the group, Uniting at Southwest, announced on Friday they are moving into the second phase of a standardized process outlined by Kansas City Public Schools for establishing a community/district partnership.

Southwest is a KCPS district building.

"This is a budding relationship," said Natalie Allen, spokeswoman for the district.

KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell and Phyllis Williams, who chairs the Uniting at Southwest board of directors, agree they still have a long way to go in the process.

The two have been haggling over what should be done with the Southwest High School building for almost two years.

"This doesn't mean that we have entered into any type of agreement," Bedell said.

Williams said that while Uniting at Southwest is excited about the progression, "we are still cautious around the fact that we still have to answer big questions both with KCPS and with the community at large."

Questions range from possible enrollment numbers to the physical look of classrooms and whether the curriculum will focus on science and technology.

Allen said one of the district's biggest concerns has been the phrase "diversity by design," which Uniting at Southwest used in its proposal to the district as a concept to create a diverse and equitable school that reflects the population of surrounding neighborhoods.

Uniting at Southwest became a grassroots movement that started among residents living in and around Kansas City's Brookside community, an area south of Brush Creek populated mostly with middle- and upper-middle income families, many of whom have enrolled their children in private high schools rather than the city's public schools.

Uniting was formed to create a project-based learning, public high school with a rigorous curriculum, and they wanted to locate it in their neighborhood in the old Southwest High School at 6512 Wornall Road.

School district leaders have said their strategic plan marks that building for a future middle school and they didn't want to give it up to Uniting.

But 65 days ago the district began accepting proposals from area groups, organizations and businesses that want to collaborate in some way with KCPS.

Uniting at Southwest was the first to submit a "Letter of Intent," proposal, so now the two are talking about the possibility of partnering to open a high school, and possibly a middle school, in the old Southwest building.

Step two will be a series of community forums where the district and Uniting will answer questions and hear ideas from the public about the kind of school they want.

Should the two agree to move forward with a plan, "we want to be able to offer something that doesn't already exist in the community. We don't want redundancy," Bedell said.

Williams said her group wants to create a school that might get people to move back into the city and, she said, "we want something that is going to attract families that may be on the path to opting out of the district."

Southwest High School,has a rich history in the city and a string of famous alums including Henry W. Bloch, whose foundation, along with other local foundations, have put up money to support opening a new innovative high school in the building.

The Kansas City Public School District closed Southwest in 2016. Enrollment at the high school had dwindled from 1,491 in 2011 to 239 in 2015. Whole parts of the school were left unused and neglected.

The giant brick school was built in early 1925 to serve the rapidly growing Country Club District of Kansas City.

From 1990 to 2005, Southwest operated as Southwest Charter School. Then it was established as an early college prep school, an idea that garnered much praise from the public school community. By the 2009-2010 school year, it was known as one of the district’s more successful programs.

Several years ago, the district downsized, moving middle schools into high schools and merged Westport and Southwest high schools.

That caused behavioral problems at Southwest. The graduation rate dropped and ACT scores sunk to about 15 out of a possible 36.

Uniting at Southwest and the district will announce the public forums and both will attend.

But for now, they said, no time frame has been determined for when those public meetings might start.

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