Downtown setting adds learning opportunities for Crossroads Academy

This September a relatively quiet side street in downtown Kansas City is expecting to be buzzing with excitement.

It won’t just be the 170 children — kindergartners through fifth-graders — surging into 1015 Central St. for the first day of school.

The opening of the Crossroads Academy on Sept. 4 also will be celebrated by advocates who’ve pushed for more than a decade to reinvent downtown, once the hub of commerce and culture, to become a place where people not only work and play but live and maybe even raise kids again.

The Crossroads Academy kids will be starting an urban-steeped education that includes field trips to City Hall, visits to the nearby Central Library and using Barney Allis Plaza just down the street for their playground.

“I think it will be great because there’s so much a child can learn about,” said Shirley Scott, a Kansas City mother who visited the school Saturday for an enrollment fair. She had just enrolled Jye, her 9-year-old daughter, in the fourth grade.

“The history of downtown is still here along with all the newness,” Scott said. “I think it will be more adventurous to leave the building for recess. They’ll think of it a field trip.”

Crossroads Academy won’t be downtown’s only school.

The Della Lamb Community Services Association has been operating a charter school at 1000 Charlotte St. since 1999, but it was not widely known to downtown area residents, according to the Downtown Council. Della Lamb primarily serves low-income families, many of them immigrants or refugees.

Bill Dietrich, Downtown Council president and CEO, said housing surveys done by his organization over the past 14 years have downtown respondents identifying a school as a priority.

“It was one of the reasons people cited for leaving downtown — no school,” Dietrich said. “We consider this a major milestone; it’s really a great thing.”

What Dean Johnson and Tysie McDowell-Ray, the co-founders of Crossroads Academy, have in mind is a school for students from families of all incomes and ethnic backgrounds who want to provide their children with an education that has an urban edge. Saturday’s enrollment fair was their second, and more than 130 students already have enrolled.

“We were hoping to establish a school with a student body that reflected our community,” Johnson said. “We’re pleased so far. It seems to be happening.”

Ben Brown and Courtney Sanderson of Kansas City were among the parents visiting the Crossroads Academy event with their son, Atticus, who plans to start kindergarten this fall. The downtown vibe, along with the educational philosophy touted by the school, was appealing.

“We’re interested in an urban setting that’s enticing and compelling,” Brown said. “It seems a new model for education is necessary given the way the world has changed and the challenges kids have. The old ways of doing things don’t have the speed that’s necessary.”

And it will add another dimension to the downtown scene, Brown noted.

“One of the things you’d like to see more of in downtown Kansas City is groups of kids,” he said. “I don’t feel any concern about safety.”

Sanderson added other families in their Northeast Kansas City area are interested in the new school.

“He has neighborhood friends who’ll probably come here,” she said.

Margo Tantau, who visited over the weekend with her son, Cooper, a prospective kindergartner, has lived in San Francisco and New York. A downtown school is not a novelty to her; she was more focused on the program.

“I’m used to the idea of downtown schools,” she said. “It’s more about the energy of the place and teachers that make this a good opportunity.” The co-founders of Crossroads Academy both have a strong background in urban education in Kansas City and other places.

Their most recent assignment was at Gordon Parks Elementary School at 3715 Wyoming St., where Johnson was executive director and McDowell-Ray was principal. They’ll keep the same titles at the new Crossroads Academy, which will be sponsored by the University of Central Missouri at Warrensburg.

Their primary audience will be the 18,000 people who live in greater downtown, a definition that includes close-in neighborhoods such as Columbus Park, the West Side, Longfellow and Union Hill, or downtown workers who live within the boundaries of the Kansas City Public Schools district. The school district restriction is because of state laws governing charter schools.

“We had a call from a parent who works at the children’s hospital but lives in Lee’s Summit,” Johnson said. “We were sorry to say no, but here is a parent from Lee’s Summit wanting to enroll in a Kansas City public school. To me, that’s a paradigm shift.”

The Downtown Council has provided support by introducing Johnson and McDowell-Ray to civic leaders who’ve provided financial support and other help. They’ve raised $400,000 so far toward the goal of $750,000 with bigger gifts coming from the William T. Kemper Foundation, $50,000, and the J.E. Dunn Construction Co., $30,000. The school also has received a $125,000 federal grant.

As for how the Crossroads Academy found its new home on its quiet stretch of Central, that was thanks to Phil Kirk, the retired chairman of DST Realty. The two-story building had been vacant since the architecture firm now known as 360 Architecture moved to the Crossroads Arts District in 2005.

DST Realty is allowing the school to use the building for two years at a monthly rent of $1. After that period, the co-founders expect they’ll need more room and may either relocate to larger quarters or keep 1015 Central and find another building nearby. The ultimate goal is to enroll 370 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

While the 16,000-square-foot building needs some renovation — the basement was mostly unfinished — Johnson and McDowell-Ray are delighted with the imaginative interior design left behind by the previous tenant. It doesn’t hurt that a young Walt Disney had his first job there as an animator back in the 1920s. They even have photos of Disney at his desk that they plan to display.

“We felt a creative vibe, but we had a little trepidation about what the teachers would think of it as a school,” Johnson said. “They picked up on the creative vibe too, as have the parents.”

There’s also a rooftop deck complete with a garden where McDowell-Ray said the students will be able to plant crops and receive science lessons. Part of the basement will be used for recreation, and when the weather’s good the students will walk 1 ½ blocks to Barney Allis Plaza or use a gym in the former Kansas City Athletic Club in the Mark Twain building at 106 W. 11th St.

Much of the renovation is being done by the Christmas in October organization, a nonprofit that does construction work.

Joanna Cuda, who will be teaching first grade, followed McDowell-Ray and Johnson from Gordon Parks school.

“It’s going to be awesome,” she said. “The staff is outstanding, and the administration is outstanding. They’re experienced leaders, and they know what students need.”

Cuda has 10 years experience as a teacher in more traditional locations, and she doesn’t think the students going to a downtown school will be shortchanged at all.

“We’re planning weekly walks to the library, and I think it will be great for students to experience these things,” she said. “I don’t think they’ll miss anything. We’ll provide what they need.”

As for transportation, children from families living in greater downtown will be able ride school buses. The school also is near the primary downtown KCATA bus transfer station at 10th and Baltimore, and the city plans to create a loading zone on Central Street for parents using their cars to drop off their children.

Parking for the 24 faculty members will be in leased space at the nearby Lyric Theatre parking lot.

The organizers say they’ve had no problem hiring teachers. A big draw is the chance to expose students to the dynamic downtown environment.

“Students will learn by going out places,” McDowell-Ray said. “For example, the fourth graders need to learn about government. Instead of just reading a book, they can go to the courthouse and City Hall and have a more hands-on experience.”

And downtown residents are looking forward to a new layer of activity in the evolving urban environment.

“There are a lot of families down here that think it’s a great option,” said Lindsay Tatro, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association.

“If you don’t have a place for children to go to school, you won’t have families living downtown. It’s a wonderful amenity.”