Downtown elementary school fills neighborhood need

For the past 10 years, Kansas City has strived to turn downtown into a real neighborhood.

The main ingredients were all there — new loft housing, a vibrant library, parks, cultural amenities, even a grocery store.

But one crucial element was lacking: An all-purpose elementary school.

Now that’s no longer the case.

Since Sept. 4, nearly 200 children have filled and enlivened a 100-year-old office building that has been transformed into the Crossroads Academy charter school.

The address is 1015 Central St. But in a way, the entire downtown serves as their classroom as the children study at the nearby central library, meet the mayor at City Hall, enjoy recess at Barney Allis Plaza and sit star-struck at Folly Theater productions.

“We wanted the kids to have access to the arts and culture and civic assets of our city,” said Crossroads Academy Executive Director Dean Johnson. “What a great, rich place for a school to be.”

Opening the elementary school fulfills a longtime dream of the Downtown Council, which every two years has surveyed residents on their desires for a revitalized neighborhood.

“Clearly at the top of that list is the need for a high quality school for them, close to where they work or live,” said Downtown Council President Bill Dietrich.

About 18,000 people live in or near downtown, including 1,600 elementary school-aged children. Thousands more work downtown and would love to be able to drop their children close to work.

Pryia Logan recently moved from Las Vegas to downtown Kansas City and enrolled her daughter, Mia Sanders, in third grade at Crossroads Academy.

“It was a convenient location, and my daughter was excited about going to an urban school,” Logan said. “My daughter, she loves going there.”

Logan liked the school’s challenging curriculum and proximity to the library. She also contrasted Kansas City’s downtown, steeped in history, with their previous life in Las Vegas.

“She’ll be able to experience urban living as well as an urban education,” Logan said. “A lot of Vegas is very new.”

There is one other charter school at 10th and Charlotte streets, operated since 1999 by the Della Lamb Community Services Association. But it is not widely marketed to downtown residents and serves primarily low-income and at-risk families, many of them immigrants.

Johnson previously was executive director of the Gordon Parks Charter School in Midtown, but he was active in the Downtown Council’s education committee. He and Gordon Parks Principal Tysie McDowell-Ray were both excited about the prospect of co-founding a new school, and Crossroads Academy’s charter was approved in February, sponsored by the University of Central Missouri-Warrensburg.

Dietrich credited Phil Kirk, retired DST Realty chairman, with identifying a good location for Crossroads Academy in a vacant office building where Walt Disney got his first animation job in the 1920s.

It had been vacant for a few years, since 360 Architecture moved to the Crossroads Arts District.

Kirk said he knew the two-story building could be adapted for the new school because it had lots of natural light and tall windows, and it was situated on a quiet street near high-rise apartments and condos.

“I’m very excited about it,” Kirk said. “Dean and his principal have done a wonderful job of putting a highly talented staff of teachers in place.”

Initially, they had planned to enroll 170 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. But interest was so high that enrollment expanded to 190.

A handful of students walk or bike to school. Many others have parents working downtown who drop them off. About half arrive by bus, coming from Old Northeast, Midtown or farther east. All must live within the boundaries of the Kansas City public schools.

Creative approach

The building lacks a gymnasium, auditorium and cafeteria, but the staff has adjusted. The physical education teacher has created games and sports that can be played in a basement activities room. The children eat catered lunches in their classrooms. The library and Quality Hill Playhouse have offered space for the children’s drama and music performances.

Teachers have filled their rooms with comfortable furnishings, pillows and books and have covered the walls with student artwork and lessons to create a vibrant, inviting classroom atmosphere.

Johnson and McDowell-Ray say their top priority was providing an academically rigorous education. The regular school day runs long, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the school year is 197 days, compared to the normal 174. Class size is limited to 20 students, and teachers provide intense individual attention to get kids at or above grade level.

The co-founders also had their pick of teachers as they sifted through 300 applicants for 20 teaching positions. The majority have master’s degrees and average 10 years experience. One recently finished a Peace Corps stint in Nicaragua. Another Kansas City-area native was teaching outside New Orleans but moved back specifically to teach at Crossroads.

“When a girlfriend and other colleagues told me they were opening a charter school downtown, I was, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to be part of that,’^” said second-grade teacher Kirsten Snapp.

Snapp, in her seventh year of teaching, said she’s impressed with the parent involvement.

“They’re the most vocal group of parents I’ve ever worked with, in a good way,” she said.

Veteran Blue Springs teacher and principal Bev Leonard heard about plans for the school and came out of retirement to work there. She assists teachers with innovative instructional strategies.

“I have never seen a staff work so hard, and really the exciting part is that they are using data to help kids,” she said. “The kids are mastering the material and goals because of how the teachers are mastering the data.”

Parents agree it’s a great learning environment.

Alicia Burris-Williams, who lives in Midtown, enrolled her son, Austin, in kindergarten after hearing about the school.

“He’s already reading,” she said. “I’m impressed.”

She works downtown, so is able to chaperone her son’s class on its weekly walks to the library. They’re an eye-catching group.

“Just to see people’s expressions when they see us walking around, they’re surprised that a school is down here and the kids are well-behaved,” she said.

Folly Executive Director Gale Tallis said she was delighted to have the school just a block away. Students have already attended a children’s theater production and seen Alvin Ailey dancers at the Folly.

“We really wanted to reach out to Crossroads,” Tallis said. “We’re so happy to see the school and the energy it creates.”

Just this month, the Kansas City Ballet also launched a 24-week high energy dance program for Crossroads fourth-graders. The school building doesn’t have space, but it’s close enough to bus them to the Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity, just west of Union Station.

While the school has received public school funding and a $125,000 federal charter school grant, it has also benefited from generous donations, including from the 11th Street Corridor Neighborhood Cooperative, William T. Kemper Foundation, Kirk Foundation, Sosland Foundation, Louetta Cowden Foundation, JE Dunn Construction, and Tom and Patty Sweeny Family. A “Dreaming Big” fund-raiser and celebration dinner, featuring some of downtown’s top restaurants, is planned for Dec. 6 at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Ultimately, the school plans to have 370 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. That would require expanding to a second building, or finding a larger building, but the founders are determined to stay in the heart of downtown.

Board President Richard Moore, who has worked downtown for Commerce Bank for 30 years, said the response shows the potential for good schools to keep young families in the urban core.

McDowell-Ray feels the same way.

“We have parents who were telling us they were moving out of the city. But instead, their child now comes here, and they would like to stay,” she said. “That is huge, to know this school can help to keep families here.”