Kansas City district to consider reopening middle schools

Plenty of reasons are prompting Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green to reconsider the way the district sorts children in those troublesome middle school years.

The simplest: He has eyes.

“I’ve been in the buildings,” he said. “I’ve traveled down the wings.”

He’s witnessed the loosened energy of 12- and 13-year-olds gathered into Kansas City’s sprawling high schools under its current practice of placing grades 7 to 12 in one building.

“I’ve seen teachers standing in the doorways asking me, ‘Are you going to change this?’ ”

The district should bring back stand-alone middle schools, say some of its students who’ve played through the latest in a circular history of reformations.

The Lincoln College Preparatory Academy students don’t mean to say it’s been all bad.

Their school hasn’t experienced as much difficulty as some of the district high schools that blamed spikes in disruptive behaviors on the sudden influx of seventh- and eighth-graders beginning in the fall of 2010.

“We do have good relationships here,” 15-year-old Lincoln sophomore Alina Crouch said.

“But it’s like older and younger siblings together. You help each other, but only so long,” she said.

“You need your own bedroom.”

The district administration is preparing plans to take the question into the community next spring.

Parents and teachers don’t need long memories to conjure up old debates that several area school districts have wrestled with in recent years.

It was just the spring of 2010 when former Superintendent John Covington was making his case to move Kansas City’s middle grades into the high schools.

The under-enrolled district needed to close schools. High schools were more than half-empty. The district could move middle-grade students into their own wings within the high schools, Covington said.

Besides, it seemed that many parents and teachers did not like the K-8 elementary school concept used at that time. Elementary staff never felt quite right having 12- and 13-year-olds scattered among the younger ranks, he said.

The district had completed a three-year transition to K-8s, started in 2007 under former Superintendent Anthony Amato, who had closed the old middle schools.

Amato’s argument recognized that middle schools were the most unsafe and poorest performing schools in the district before 2007.

K-8s would keep parents involved in the schools, he said. Discipline problems would settle.

“It seems we’ve tried everything,” sighed Kansas City Federation of Teachers President Andrea Flinders.

“Once again we’re looking at changing the structure of the district. And that’s huge.”

If the district’s exploration with its community takes it back to middle schools, it would return to what is by far the most common arrangement for middle grades in public school systems.

“I think we never should have gone away from the middle school concept,” Flinders said.

“I’m looking for some stability for the kids.”

The district is preparing for change.

Last week the school board approved two contracts with construction consultants.

They will be preparing to remodel and reactivate the empty middle schools next to Lincoln, Paseo and Northeast high schools.

The consultants’ primary role will be to help with the community discussions, said district spokeswoman Eileen Houston-Stewart.

The consultants have built and modernized middle schools and will help imagine what’s possible with the old buildings, she said.

The district doesn’t want to rush, she said. Middle school-aged students may see curriculum and program changes, but any moves into new buildings wouldn’t happen before the fall of 2014.

Re-opened schools would likely grow one grade level at a time, Green said, and students currently in the high schools would advance through those schools without change.

They don’t want to revisit the peril of 2010-2011.

The district closed 40 percent of its schools in 2010, and seventh- and eighth-graders relocated all at once.

The district’s overall rate of discipline incidents mushroomed. Problems were most acute at the suddenly overwhelmed Southwest Early College Campus, but all the high schools struggled with the adjustment.

The state test performance of seventh- and eighth-graders, which had been climbing steadily during the gradual transition to K-8 schools, took a dive the first year of the 7-12 high schools.

“It was a hard environment to go into,” said Isaac Smith, 14, who had to jump from Lincoln middle to Lincoln high in the seventh grade.

“You felt that vibe of people looking down on you,” he said.

To be yanked out of middle school, 15-year-old Lincoln sophomore Michelle Thatsanithone recalled, was to be pulled out from under “your own skin.”

As a school ambassador, Michelle gives incoming elementary students tours of the building, and she sees their anxiety.

“Seeing a high school makes them more not ready,” she said. “They’re shy and shocked.”

Across the district, many middle-schoolers struggled and many disrupted their high schools trying to make their marks.

Covington had hoped to avoid having to close more high schools — a difficult decision that the Hickman Mills School District made when it converted one of its two high schools into a junior high in 2010.

The community still feels pain in the loss of Hickman Mills High School, district spokesman John Baccala said. But the transition was mostly a smooth one for the students.

“We’re dealing with students of similar age and similar behavior and social issues,” he said. “When you do that, it can be a little easier.”

If Kansas City decides to reopen middle schools, there will be costs — and that’s part of the discussion the district needs to have, Green said.

High schools would lose a lot of their numbers, but the district is exploring the idea of sharing the buildings with partnering organizations.

There will be intense attention on the right programming and services as well, he said, to avoid a return to the poor-performing middle schools of a decade ago that spurred the district’s frustrating search for a new approach.

Parents will be eager to have these discussions, said Fred Hudgins, chairman of the district’s parent and community advisory committee.

“From the beginning there were challenges with (having middle grade students in) the high schools,” he said. When it comes to reopening middle schools, “a lot of parents are for it.”

The Lincoln students suggest planners going forward should weigh potential costs as investments.

“I understand budgets,” 15-year-old Alina said. “But this is our education. We’re raising Americans to succeed.”