Fate of Gordon Parks Elementary School is now in court

Opposing attorneys painted starkly different pictures of the performance of Gordon Parks Elementary on Thursday as the battle over the school’s future finally made its way to court.

Both sides hope to sway Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green, who will ultimately decide whether the State Board of Education erred earlier this year when it voted unanimously to deny Gordon Parks a new charter.

Supporters of the school conceded that student scores on standardized tests were lower than those of their contemporaries around the state and across the Kansas City Public School district.

But because the students served by the school are high risk and high need, that’s not a fair comparison, said Gordon Parks board president Doug Curry.

Seven percent of students are homeless, he testified Thursday, and 96 percent live below the poverty line. Most students start at the school one or two grade levels behind, he said, and there is much turnover.

Basing the success of the school solely on annual state tests is not a good indicator of its success or failure, Curry said.

The school’s sponsor, the University of Central Missouri, hoped to renew Gordon Parks’ charter for five more years. The school appeared to rebound from curriculum changes and administrative turnover in 2011, and internal testing showed the school was making strides, said Vici Hughes, the director of the Midwest Center for Charter Schools and Urban Education at the university.

Hughes testified that the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education, which recommended the state board revoke Gordon Parks’ charter, did not give the school a fair chance. The university was denied an opportunity to give a presentation to the state school board, she alleged, and was not allowed to provide internal testing numbers that demonstrated student growth.

“I sensed a negative tone from the very beginning of the board meeting,” she said.

Daniel Follett, an assistant attorney general representing the state school board and Department of Secondary and Elementary Education, repeatedly steered witnesses to poor results on state achievement tests over the school’s history. Last year, fewer than 13 percent of Gordon Parks students were proficient in English language arts, and fewer than 17 percent were proficient in math.

Follett argued that despite claims to the contrary, Gordon Park students have fallen further behind their contemporaries in Kansas City and Missouri over the last five years, thus justifying the state’s action.

Testimony will continue Friday, with the school calling its final witnesses and the state getting a chance to present its case to the judge.