Lincoln Prep parents and alumni concerned about dwindling black student body
Earlier this school year during an American history class at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, veteran teacher Deborah Etterling fielded a concern from a student unlike any other she had encountered in her 32 years at the school.
A black male sophomore had seen a group of prospective sixth graders at a Lincoln Prep open house event and was shocked.
“He said the majority of the students were white,” Etterling recalled as she leaned against her desk at the front of her cozy classroom.
“He said it was going to change the way that Lincoln is.”
Since its founding more than 150 years ago, Lincoln has been many things: One of the oldest high schools in the city. A top destination for many of Kansas City’s brightest students. An incubator for some of the city’s most noteworthy figures, like journalist Lucile Bluford, jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker, barbecue magnate Ollie Gates and Royals Hall of Famer Frank White, to name a few.
Yet, perhaps most definitively, Lincoln Prep has always been predominantly black.
That fact, however, is almost certain to change by the upcoming school year.
As the demographics of Kansas City continue to morph, so do the demographics of the city’s most historic black high school. Blacks are leaving Kansas City’s core for the suburbs and elsewhere, while white and Hispanic communities are increasingly moving into the city. The same circular movement, district data shows, is happening at Lincoln.
If enrollment trends continue, by fall 2019, black students will no longer be Lincoln’s largest demographic. Those same trends suggest, in fact, that by 2023, black students will be among the school’s minority population behind Hispanic and white students.
It is a diversification that, on one hand, is being met by many in the local black community with concern, anger and confusion at how, exactly, such a change could take place.
Others, however, see it as a sign, at long last, of a fully integrated school — a goal the district has painstakingly spent decades, billions of dollars, a Supreme Court ruling and a multitude of failures trying to achieve.
“The Castle On The Hill”
Established in 1867 inside a rented building at 10th and McGee streets, Lincoln School was the first to open to black children on the Missouri side of the Kansas City area. An additional building for post-elementary education was constructed in 1890 and is considered to have been the city’s first all-black high school.
The high school moved to its current location, a grand brick building atop a steep hill at 21st Street and Woodland Avenue, in 1936. By that time, Lincoln, or “The Castle on The Hill,” had built a reputation as a petri dish for Kansas City’s greatest black thinkers, artists and educators and a major resource for the city’s growing black middle class.
This was due in large part to Lincoln’s exceptional teaching staff, many of whom — like famed Harlem Renaissance visual artist Aaron Douglas and composer William Levi Dawson — had the resume and skill set to teach at any major university in the country but were often overlooked because of race.
The education they provided, alongside the school’s proximity to the historic 18th and Vine district — now home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and American Jazz Museum — made the school an educational and cultural epicenter for blacks in Kansas City.
“I didn’t know the history of Lincoln when I took over, but I surely learned it,” says local educator Corey Scholes.
Scholes, who is white, served as the principal of Lincoln Middle School from 1998 to 2000. She is now the director of education at the Kaufmann Foundation.
“Lincoln was a source of pride for the black community. For the KC community,” she says.
Ron Achelpohl is white and has had two children graduate from Lincoln. His sister also attended the school during its earliest years of integration. He says his family has maintained a commitment to Lincoln, in part because of the school’s history and the achievements it bore.
“Part of Lincoln’s history, the uplifting result of the African American community turning it into a center of greatness, comes from the adversity the school faced.”
Achelpohl’s son, Milton, who graduated in 2009 and is now in graduate school, speaks similarly. “Being able to be the minority, and understand my privilege and come to terms with that, I don’t think it can be overstated,” he says.
Scholes says all this is what makes Lincoln distinct.
“The rich history. How it became a sense of place and home and pride for generations of black people. We can’t forget that.”
Yet an erasure of that history is what many fear will happen as Lincoln continues to lose black students.
Integration officially began in Kansas City schools after the 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka” Supreme Court ruling. Though desegregation was ordered at “deliberate speed” by the court, the process came at a trickling pace. Lincoln High did not see integration until 1978.
Etterling arrived at Lincoln in 1986, one year after federal district Judge Russell G. Clark ordered one of the most ambitious — and ultimately doomed — desegregation plans in history.
By 1985, white flight had taken full effect in Kansas City. The city’s school district had become majority black, but district voters remained majority white. The discrepancy allowed voters to abandon funding for district schools to the point that some, like Central High, were literally falling apart, suffering from collapsing ceilings and broken water pipes.
To fight the deprivation, Clark enacted the infamous “magnet schools” plan, named for its intention to draw white families back into the inner cities and the schools they had abandoned.
Class sizes were shrunk and teachers salaries raised. Fifty-five new schools were to be renovated and 17 new schools constructed.
To pay for the plan, Clark took the shocking step of doubling the city’s local property tax. The influx of cash created schools like the $32 million Central High School, equipped with handball courts, planetarium, more than 1,000 computers and a fencing program. It also led to the renaming of some schools to reflect their more specialized nature. Lincoln became Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.
By 1996, the court-ordered plan had cost an astronomical $1.7 billion. Yet results did not match the exorbitant cost. White flight remained unabated as the district saw a less than 2% rise in the number of out-of-district students enrolling in magnet schools. Time magazine called the plan “the Waterloo” of U.S. school integration attempts.
More than any other high school, however, the plan did bring diversity to Lincoln Prep. According to Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education statistics, by 2002, Lincoln Prep was 65% black, 25% white and just under 5% Hispanic.
The integration at Lincoln also appears to be bucking a national trend toward more segregated schools.
A recently published UCLA and Penn State report found the percentage of intensely segregated schools, or schools where less than 10% of a student body is white, has tripled between 1988 and 2016.
The only bright spot? Midwest schools, where researchers found the share of black children attending intensely segregated schools to be on a steady decline since 2001.
“Lincoln’s been diverse for a while,” says Michael Givhan, a class of 2000 Lincoln Prep graduate and father of a current Lincoln Prep sophomore. “But now, it seems like Lincoln’s being marketed away from us.”
This past fall, Lincoln’s black student population fell for its 10th consecutive year to just above 37%. In that same time, Hispanic enrollment has grown to represent 35% of the school with white students representing 15%.
For the past five years, black enrollment has dropped 3 percentage points on average, while Hispanic and white enrollment has risen 2 percentage points. Assuming those trends continue, Hispanic students can be expected to become the school’s majority by this fall and black students the minority by as early as 2023.
The impending change has many of the school’s black alumni, like Givhan, anxious about what the change means for the school’s legacy.
“I don’t want to lose our identity. I don’t want to lose our history. It’s ironic that Lincoln is in the Beacon Hill neighborhood because it’s always been a beacon of hope for the black community,” he says. “I just feel like we’re going to lose that hope.”
“Not giving up on anything”
According to statistics from the Mid-America Regional Council, the black population in Kansas City’s core decreased by more than 26,000 between 2000 and 2017. In that same period, KC’s white population decreased by about 4,600 while its Hispanic population increased by about 6,600.
Frank Lenk, the director of research services at the council summed it up thusly: “Basically, what’s happening is, and this has been happening for a while, minorities are suburbanizing.”
The study also found that historically black neighborhoods are becoming more Hispanic, while areas like downtown and Beacon Hill — both in Lincoln’s proverbial backyard — are becoming whiter and more affluent.
Beverly Hill is an example of this phenomenon of black flight from the city. Hill graduated from Lincoln Prep in the ’80s and is a teacher at Central High School. But due in large part, she says, to crime, she moved her family to Lee’s Summit, where her youngest son is currently attending school.
She says the changes in demographics at Lincoln are “disheartening,” but she has to place the safety of her children first.
“I have two black boys. The things I most want is for my youngest son to be in a stable learning environment where the teachers are highly qualified, where I don’t have to pay tuition, where I don’t have to pay $600,000 to get a house and where I have safety.”
Kansas City Superintendent Mark Bedell says recognizing black flight is key to understanding how Lincoln continues to diversify and why the black population is dwindling.
“Part of what needs to happen, we have to make sure we’re doing a good enough job to create a school system that when people are able to generate their next level of income that they’re saying ‘We love what’s happening in our schools and we want to stay right here in the city,’ and not have to feel like you have to move to the suburbs to find a good education.”
Bedell is on the right path. Since helming KC schools in 2016, enrollment has grown, the district has scored its highest ever state Annual Performance Report score and is almost certain to be awarded full accreditation for the first time in 30 years next spring.
The district has also taken to actively courting middle class families who had previously left the district for charter schools or the suburbs.
To some, however, like Angelynn Howell, who has a son graduating from Lincoln later this month, that pursuit has translated to an uneven focus on non-black families.
“All of the reputation that Lincoln has built, all of its prestige. It has come from the black community. But now this community is being cut off.”
Howell is president of Lincoln’s School Advisory Committee and says she blames district leadership for not retaining black students. She describes recruitment meetings where district officials have been disproportionately interested in recruiting from the “south zone,” which in addition to communities east of Troost, includes neighborhoods like Brookside, Waldo and the South Plaza, areas known for their affluence and whiteness.
“The district isn’t going into the neighborhoods and inviting them over and recruiting kids,” Howell says. She and some committee parents have told Bedell that he isn’t doing enough recruiting in the city’s black neighborhoods.
Bedell says he not only disagrees with their charge, it also stings.
“We recruit all over this city,” he says. “The thing that hurts me is when people say there’s a master plan. Like we have a plan to not allow for black students to get into Lincoln. Come on, that’s just crazy. I have two kids that go there. I want that school to be the most diverse school just like I want to see happen with all other schools.”
It was a lack of diversity in her own life growing up that convinced Ebony Rivera, a 2005 Lincoln graduate, to send her daughter there.
After spending her freshman and sophomore years at Lincoln, Rivera’s family moved to Lee’s Summit, and Rivera enrolled in Lee’s Summit High School.
“I hated it,” says Rivera, who is Mexican American. She says her time at Lee’s Summit was marked with repeated instances of racism from her teachers and peers. “I was being graded so unfairly that I had to petition my final grades. I told my mom I had to go back to Lincoln.”
Now Rivera has a daughter, a seventh grader at Lincoln.
“Based on that experience I had in a predominantly white school, I knew my daughter was going to Lincoln no matter what. I wanted her to have diversity and not be stuck in a box. I wanted her to have the full high school experience. To run for prom, try out for cheerleading, be involved; all things the black and Hispanic kids weren’t doing when I was at Lee’s Summit.”
Earlier this year, Rivera’s daughter brought home an invitation for a birthday party in Shawnee Mission.
“I remember thinking ‘Who does she know throwing a party way out there?” Rivera says with a laugh. The invitation, it turns out, had come from a white classmate. “I asked her about the girl and she told me, ‘Yeah, Mom. I have friends of all races.’ And I thought, ‘This is why I put her in Lincoln.’”
Rivera, who is also half black, admits that she is “shocked” to hear how much demographics had changed at Lincoln since she left, and that black alumni and parents have a right to feel anxious. But she says as long as the school works to keep Lincoln’s sense of history strong among current students and administrators, it’s important for the Lincoln community to “embrace change.”
The true source of frustration at Lincoln’s demographic changes, Bedell believes, lies with the city’s deeper complicated relationship with racial tension.
“I feel like as a superintendent, I’m stuck in the middle of a city that’s broken from a racial standpoint,” he says. “I’ve got the southwest side of town that has their concerns, who feel like we’re not being equitable in serving that area. Then I have my black community that feels like, ‘Oh, you’re giving up on the one thing we had that was a source of pride.’ I’m saying that I’m not giving up on anything. My job is I’ve got to be the superintendent of all.”
“Why shouldn’t it change?”
It didn’t take long, Etterling says, for her to debunk the student’s theory that an influx of non-black students would fundamentally alter Lincoln’s culture and legacy.
What he had seen was an open house, not an actual group of accepted students. And, considering that no class at Lincoln Prep is majority white, the students he’d seen certainly weren’t the totality of the future school enrollment.
But even if those students had been the majority, Etterling posed to the teen and his American history classmates, how would that change the culture or legacy of Lincoln?
“I get the concern,” Etterling says. “Lincoln’s been here since 1867. Started by African Americans, made great by African Americans. But if you really, really want things to change, what better place than a school to change those things? And what better place to be all inclusive, culturally, than Lincoln?”
Bedell says in light of the concerns from parents and alumni, he will consider a serious effort to develop curriculum and a framework to celebrate and memorialize Lincoln’s history.
“Our job is to do everything in our power to protect the history of these schools. My job is to do everything in my power to protect the history of the district. Lincoln has always been one of the sources of pride for this school district, so I want to be able to maintain that.”
While it is important to memorialize Lincoln’s past, Etterling says the same amount of attention has to be paid to the institution’s future.
“Lincoln, I think, should change with the times. It’s the Castle on the Hill, so to speak. Why shouldn’t it change to show what KC represents? Why not have Lincoln be that bright shining star that it’s always been? To show this is how we can change. This is how Kansas City can change.
“I think that’s a good legacy to have, also.”
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How we found the story
As a Lincoln Prep graduate (Go Tigers!), Aaron Randle was intrigued when he heard alumni, retired teachers and district employees talk about how startled they were over the changing makeup of Lincoln’s student body. Everyone knew Lincoln was different in a way it never had been before, but no one seemed to know the specifics behind why and how. And just as interestingly, he wanted to hear how a community is grappling with that reality.
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Why it's an important story
When any community is faced with losing a piece of its cultural identity, particularly one so tied to its sense of pride and achievement, it’s a story worth telling. While reporting, people cried when speaking about what Lincoln means to them and what it’s meant to those before them. It really revealed the emotions swirling around this issue, and how much it matters.
More about Aaron Randle
Aaron has been a reporter at The Star for 3 years and will soon be starting a fellowship with The New York Times.