Jay Jackson likes to joke that if a visitor wants to see the entire Missouri City School, he or she just needs to walk into the middle of the front hallway and turn around once.
That’s how small the school is. Six classrooms, a library, cafeteria and gymnasium.
But the longtime superintendent also will say that while Missouri City is a small school district, it recently has realized some big results. This year, the one-school district scored 96.3 percent on the Missouri School Improvement Program’s annual performance report, which measures academic achievement, attendance and high school readiness.
That is better than what students earned in much larger, robust districts elsewhere in Clay County, including Kearney, Liberty, Smithville and North Kansas City.
“For us, every child is an individual, and every child is special. Every child is gifted, and we believe that,” said Jackson, who joined the district 36 years ago and also serves as principal. “In small schools, in small towns, the schools and community are closely identified with each other. We think school should focus on acceleration and not remediation.”
Situated about 25 miles east of Kansas City, the district serves 21 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Its students learn from three teachers and seven part-timers: a counselor, a librarian and art, music, speech, physical education and special education teachers. Students and staff occupy a one-story, stone building constructed in 1936 in a town that now has around 300 residents.
The district is perhaps best known for voluntarily enrolling African-American and other minority students from Kansas City Public Schools from 1990 to 2002 as part of the federal desegregation program.
Currently, it is one of 71 districts statewide that offer instruction only through the eighth grade. Its students usually advance to high school in Liberty or Excelsior Springs, though some choose other schools.
Students tested well for high school readiness and other areas, Jackson said. With such small enrollment numbers, the annual scoring percentages can vary greatly, he said.
“We have a number of students coming and going each year,” he said. “Sometimes that is good for scores and sometimes not. The scores were very good this year.”
Scoring well on the state report is vital because it is the main factor in determining a district’s accreditation.
On a recent morning, the students in Alyssa Simanowitz’s sixth- through eighth-grade class worked on various assignments. Several sat in front of a row of computers, where some drafted reports on a recent field trip.
“Students in small schools know and trust each other,” said Sandra Demaree, an 11-year-old sixth-grader whose family returned to Missouri City after living in El Paso, Texas, where her father served in the military. “In the big schools, you don’t know everybody, and you can’t trust everybody. That’s why I like being here.”
Students in small classrooms often have a big advantage, Simanowitz said.
“Teaching three different grades within a single classroom poses challenges and opportunities,” she said. “Small classes provide students with one-on-one attention. Students are able to progress at their own speed and learn from other grades within the classroom.”
School districts throughout Missouri struggle with finances and ways to improve student performance, which makes Missouri City’s recent achievement stand out, said Tony Stansberry, regional supervisor for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“They concentrate on academics, they support their school very well and they are able to promote high standards,” said Stansberry, a former Lee’s Summit superintendent. “There is a lot of support in that community for that school and a lot of pride.”
Community support in Missouri City is evident. For example, several school board members are alumni of Missouri City School and have children or grandchildren enrolled there.
Laura Miller, a board member who lives nearby, is known to monitor playground activity and occasionally break up playground disputes. On a recent day, she drove a golf cart around the small campus while crews delivered materials for the school’s new roof.
Residents often volunteer their time, money and services to the school, Miller said.
“Most of us are from here or have been here for a long time, we know each other well, and we look out for each other,” said Miller, who has two grandsons at the school. “We all are looking out for the same thing, and that is what’s best for the kids and for the school.”
In recent years, residents helped the school raise private donations to replace 14 windows at $1,000 each.
The district is seeking donations to replace playground equipment that was installed more than 20 years ago and was submerged during the flood of 1993. The estimated cost: $25,000.
Although some districts would ask voters to approve a property tax increase to fund capital projects, Missouri City has a static population and a slowly growing tax base, with a number of residents living on a fixed income, Jackson said. So Missouri City shies away from raising taxes.
The last time voters approved a property tax increase was in 1985. A levy increase was considered in 1993 to fund additional classrooms when enrollment consisted of 80 local students and 20 transfer students from Kansas City, but the flood swept through, severely damaging the school and wiping out 30 homes.
The idea of a levy increase for the struggling community quickly was dropped, Jackson said.
“We believe that if we can do what we need to do with great effort, donations and volunteerism, it is a viable and healthy way to operate,” he said.
“We have limitations in resources but not in heart and soul.”