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Gamble by Kansas City school district, neighborhood is paying off

Lael Ricks, 6, played with chalk on the sidewalk outside of the school as the rest of her family (Avery, 2, father Nick, Valery and mother Liz) watched and listened during a get together for families in the Hale Cook Elementary School neighborhood.
Lael Ricks, 6, played with chalk on the sidewalk outside of the school as the rest of her family (Avery, 2, father Nick, Valery and mother Liz) watched and listened during a get together for families in the Hale Cook Elementary School neighborhood. Kansas City Star

Ninety-two.

Finally, Kansas City’s sometimes fanciful determination to open Hale Cook Elementary School has an enrollment count with substance.

And numbers within the number suggest the district might have more than a new anchor in the mostly white, middle- to upper-class southwest neighborhoods that abandoned the district years ago.

With some 53 percent of the enrollees being white and 47 percent being of color, the school is lining up to be the district’s most diverse.

It’s by design, and it hasn’t been easy, or by any means assured.

“It was scary going into the regular school district,” said Loretta Phillips, who is black and who had started her 7-year-old son, Joseph Carter, in a private religious school as a kindergartner. “But I thought we would take the chance.”

A diverse school entices her, she said. “(Joseph) will be able to keep up with kids of all diversity.”

The district has assigned the school a principal. Crews are at work finishing renovations of the red brick building at 7302 Pennsylvania Ave.

It’s a public school, free, without waiting lists and with a coalescing core of families who want to stay in their Waldo and Brookside neighborhoods.

“This is awesome,” said parent Susan Stocking, who is white and whose son Tucker is headed into the first grade. She and other families want to stay and raise their kids in the city.

Hale Cook will have students in pre-kindergarten through second grade.

A year ago, Superintendent Steve Green could have called it off. The recruitment effort by the Friends of Hale Cook fell short of its goal — again.

Hale Cook was one of five schools closed in 2009, shut down a year ahead of a massive consolidation in 2010. Combined, the two waves of closings cut in half the number of buildings in the shrinking district.

In 2011, then-Superintendent John Covington said he’d reopen the school if the neighborhood movement could recruit enough new families to fill it — about 300. That goal proved impossible to reach.

Green, after taking over as superintendent in 2011, saw promise in the movement as a chance to recover families who for years had mostly left by the time their children reached school age, or who had gone to private schools or tried the waiting lists of the few popular charter public schools in the area.

Green would be willing to let the school open with just lower grades, attracting new parents with children in kindergarten and first grade, and let it grow by adding higher grades one at a time.

The district wanted enough for two kindergarten classrooms and one first grade — some 50 or 60 children. The new school was able to secure enrollment for only 26.

Many families were taking notice of the school, however, including many whose children were not kindergarten age yet. Although those gathering at Hale Cook promotional events were almost all white families, they were city dwellers who wanted the diversity of the city.

“We (the families and the district) were both venturing down a path, not sure where it would lead,” Green said. “But we trusted in each other. We had faith in each other.”

They also worked together to design boundary lines for the school’s enrollment area that purposefully stretched across Troost Avenue on its southern end toward The Paseo.

“We asked the district to help us with new boundaries,” said Ashley Hand of the Friends of Hale Cook. “We didn’t want to look like privileged people trying to (open a school) for ourselves. … We were excited by the diversity it brought in.”

The district enrolled the original Hale Cook families in fall 2013 by giving them a kindergarten classroom in Hartman Elementary School, about 1.5 miles southeast of Hale Cook at 8111 Oak St. The first-graders were inserted into one of Hartman’s first-grade classes.

The district committed to preparing to open Hale Cook’s building in fall 2014 on faith that more families would come.

Hand thinks the district’s gamble gave the Hale Cook movement the footing it needed to finally secure enrollments for 2014-15.

They were no longer just prospective district parents trying to get others to take the first leap. The small group in Hartman meant there were parents now speaking with inside experience.

This spring, when the Friends of Hale Cook put a float in the Brookside pre-St. Patrick’s Day Parade, they were led by a little band of red-shirted children and their teacher.

That’s when Hand thought that Hale Cook really might happen, she said.

“We went from being a group of activists to being families with kids in a parade marching with their teacher,” she said.

When the community gathered at the end of May to meet the school’s new principal, Julie Lynch, Green called the school a gamble that was paying off.

“I know this is a day some doubted would come to fruition, but here we are,” he said. “It’s a proud moment … (of) people taking a risk and staying the course.”

Uncertainty still weighs over many families, such as Nate and Liz Ricks and their three children who joined the gathering to see the school and its principal. Their oldest child, 6, has been in a private school, but they would like for their children to be in public schools by the time all three of them are school age.

“A lot of families are thinking ahead,” Nate Ricks said. “We love the area, and we’d love to make it a long-term home.”

But then he added, pointing west toward the state line, “Or do we move a mile and a half that way?”

“We’re still on the fence,” he said. “We’d love to stay and be a part of the community.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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