State of Missouri forces Gordon Parks Elementary School to close

Outside in the sunshine at Gordon Parks Elementary School on Thursday, someone watered a new tree on the lawn, and children in their blue school T-shirts played kickball.

Inside, kindergarten teacher Gladys Groves cried over what the children did not yet know.

Their school is being shut down.

The charter school, in 13 years of serving children from the highest levels of poverty, had struggled throughout its history to get off the floor in state performance tests.

This week, the state of Missouri determined that too many children have been failing the tests for too long.

The state school board voted unanimously, on the recommendation of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, to deny the school a new charter, stunning staff and school leaders who thought until the vote Tuesday morning that the school would get more time.

“Where will our kids go from here?” Groves said. “Who cares enough about them? Will someone care about them like I care about them?”

Groves has been at the school at 3715 Wyoming St. since the beginning, teaching children who, the school says, mostly come to the school one and two years below grade level.

“This is my purpose,” she said.

Missouri acknowledged that the school has served a challenging population. State records show that nearly all of its students — 94 percent — qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. And 16 percent are special education students. Both of those percentages are higher than numbers for Kansas City Public Schools.

The school was founded by Dorothy Curry and Sue Jarvis. They were inspired by the work of the nonprofit Operation Breakthrough, where they were volunteers, to help impoverished families in the heart of Kansas City.

Some two-thirds of the students who opened the school came from Operation Breakthrough, and one-third today come from the agency. The school captured the hearts of many people in the community, with a long list of donors.

“We hoped to break the cycle of poverty,” Jarvis said. “It’s a very daunting task.”

But state test performance, which had hovered among the lowest in the state, behind Kansas City Public Schools and most other charters, took a dip in 2012. The state felt it had no choice.

“They’ve had 13 years to help these children and unfortunately it’s not happening,” said Sarah Potter, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “They are well below the state average. They are below the Kansas City school district. We were really forced to do this.”

In 2012, in English language arts, 12.9 percent of Gordon Parks students scored proficient or advanced, compared with 58.1 percent statewide and 34.7 percent in Kansas City Public Schools, state records show.

In math, 16.7 percent of Gordon Parks scored proficient or advanced, compared with 59.3 statewide and 35 for KCPS.

Gordon Parks officials argued that internal testing showed the school was making strides this year. They also noted that the school suffered a significant turnover of staff and students in the 2011-2012 school year when it lost people to the new Crossroads Academy charter.

More than half of the teachers left for the new school, Gordon Parks board president Doug Curry said. And many students, including Gordon Parks’ top-performing students, followed them.

“You build a culture, and then you have to start over,” he said. “It was devastating.”

Charter schools in Kansas City are sponsored by colleges and universities. Gordon Parks’ sponsor, the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, wanted the state to issue a new five-year charter.

The university, which has pulled its sponsorship in the past with other schools that struggled, believed Gordon Parks was fulfilling a mission that needed to carry on, said Vici Hughes, the director of the Midwest Center for Charter Schools and Urban Education at UCM.

“We embraced the high-risk mission,” Hughes said. “I was very surprised and disheartened.”

The last day of school, by the state’s direction, will be May 23, Curry said. The school had planned an extended school year through June, but that is now canceled.

This was to be a special year for the school, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Gordon Parks’ birth. Children have been preparing all school year for a musical show, an original work of art, celebrating the photographer’s life. The June 13-14 event is also called off.

The now-canceled extended school year was one of the efforts at the school that was being funded through a federal school improvement grant. This was the first year of the three-year grant. Curry and Hughes said they had hoped the state board would give the school improvement process a chance to help the school.

Gordon Parks officials say there is no way now to undo the decision, and that is frustrating to Operation Breakthrough co-founder and Gordon Parks supporter Sister Berta Sailer.

“This is so wrong,” she said. “There’s no appeals process. If I get the death penalty, at least I can appeal that.”

Now staff are scrambling to help families make new plans for the summer and for the next school year, Curry said. They will be bringing in representatives from other schools for a school fair to help families choose.

But he fears how families who were relying on the school’s summer nutrition program and classes will manage. School leaders also worry for teachers who will now have to find new opportunities among districts and charter schools that have already hired most of their staff for the next school year.

Curry said it frustrates him that board members who chose to shut down the school have never seen it. There is a reason the school has garnered so much support over the years, he said.

“The community knows it’s different here,” he said. “The state board doesn’t understand the poverty of our children.”

The state could no longer look past the test performance, Potter said.

“We believe all children can learn,” she said. “Unfortunately, these students would be better off in a better school system.”

The state and the sponsors of charter schools have come under increased pressure in recent years to hold the schools more accountable for their academic performance. UCM had previously pulled its support from Don Bosco and the Urban Community Leadership Academy in Kansas City, leading to the closure of those schools.

Those schools had management and financial issues as well as performance concerns, Hughes said. But Gordon Parks had solid financial support and board governance, she said.

There are 46 charter schools in the state — 25 in Kansas City and 21 in St. Louis — and the state and sponsors rightfully are requiring good performance, said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.

“That’s the charter school model,” he said. “Schools that are not performing can be— and are — closed, opening space for new opportunities.”

The work that UCM was doing with Gordon Parks to prepare a plan to improve performance was encouraging, Thaman said, “but in this case there was a difference of opinion. It’s a decision the state board has to make.”

Other schools in Kansas City see poverty. Others send home food and keep basic supplies on hand to help families in crisis.

Wadandra McBride hopes someone will help catch the families that she has seen as Gordon Parks’ coordinator of family services.

“This is their safe haven,” she said. “It’s consistency they get here.”

She had been out delivering sacks of food and now, back in her office, the sounds of the children at play sifted through her open window.

“They are our writers, our lawyers, our doctors,” she said. “They are our future. We owe it to them.”