For the first time in more than seven decades, the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is opening an urban school.
Bright Futures Fund, which raises money for schools in the diocese, is acquiring the Derrick Thomas Academy charter school building as the future home of a new Catholic elementary school.
Officials also told The Star that the plan calls for the closing of two Catholic schools with a long history in Kansas City — Our Lady of the Angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Both schools have operated in Kansas City since the early 1900s.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
More than 200 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, along with many of the teachers, will move at the beginning of the next school year into the Derrick Thomas building at 201 E. Armour Blvd.
“It means we will be able to provide broader opportunities for children in this city for a quality Catholic education,” said Bishop James Vann Johnston, installed in Kansas City in November.
“As a pastor, my heart is about to burst with joy,” he said. “This is when the church is at its best. This mission shines a light on the inner city and gives opportunity that doesn’t exist right now.”
He said the decision to relocate two of its schools closer to the east side of the urban core is a sign of the diocese’s “commitment to the core of the city.”
This represents the second major announcement this week involving urban schools. On Wednesday, Crossroads Academy charter school announced it is merging with the Scuola Vita Nuova charter and opening a new elementary school and a new downtown high school over the next two years.
Derrick Thomas Academy opened in 2001 but has been vacant since 2013 when the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which sponsored the school, declined to renew its charter because of reports of mismanagement and poor performance.
The 90,000-square-foot school, named for the late Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, owed millions in unpaid bills when it was shuttered.
The idea for Bright Futures to acquire the building for the diocese arose from a retreat for the funding arm’s board of directors where members discussed challenges with aging school buildings.
“I began looking around to see what I could find, somewhere we could create a new vision,” said Lamar Hunt Jr., a member of the Bright Futures board. Hunt is also the benefactor who, through his charity, the Loretto Foundation, provided the money to obtain the Derrick Thomas building for the diocese.
“It is very important to me and my wife,” Hunt said of the gift. “There is great need. We have been given so much. We have to come up with clear and good plans to pass it on.”
Under the deal, Bright Futures will lease the building from its current owner — New Jersey-based investment firm Lord Abbett & Co. LLC — for five years and then buy it at a still-to-be determined price. A name for the new school hasn’t been chosen.
Hunt said the four-story school building is so large it will allow the diocese to include an array of community services such as parenting, job search and financial literacy help for the school’s families and others in the community.
The Derrick Thomas building is also move-in ready. Its previous occupants left it fully furnished with millions of dollars’ worth of furniture, books and equipment, including about 40 smart boards, said Jeremy Lillig, executive director of Bright Futures.
The building includes art rooms, science labs and ball fields, things Our Lady of the Angels and Guadalupe don’t have.
“The physical surroundings are going to be much better,” Lillig said. “I’m excited to see what that affords us.”
Our Lady of Angels Principal Mary Delac learned the move might happen in October. She drove the 1 1/2 -mile distance from her school in the Westport area to look at the Derrick Thomas building.
“I started salivating as soon as I saw the playground,” Delac said. “In my 26 years in urban education, I’ve never had a nice playground. Our playground is in a parking lot that we share.”
Inside the school, Delac said she was almost giddy over the amenities — central heating and cooling, a reception desk at the front door, an open library on the first floor, and handicap accessibility.
“I never in my wildest dreams would have thought of something this big for our children,” Delac said.
She’s concerned, though, that some parents, whose families have generational ties to Our Lady of the Angels or Guadalupe, will find it hard to learn the schools are closing.
“We grow attached to the building we come to every day,” Delac said. “But what makes a school special are the people who come here every day. It has nothing to do with bricks.”
However, Delac said the new school will prominently display elements of both schools’ histories.
Our Lady of the Angels was started in a four-room house in 1910 by Benedictine Sisters. The existing structure was built in 1955. During World War I, the German parish that ran the school and adjoining church worried that people in the community might think it was unpatriotic, so it erected a flag pole and raised a large American flag near its front door. The pole is still there.
Today, the school serves 154 students: 80 percent Hispanic,11 percent African-American, 5 percent white,and the rest Asian or mixed race. Nearly all the students come from low-income households.
Our Lady of Guadalupe was started in 1915 by Jesuit priests as a school to teach English to new immigrants. The current school was built in 1921. Today, Guadalupe serves 69 students: 68 percent are Hispanic, while the others are white or mixed race. About 97 percent are from low-income households.
Both schools boast that all their students are performing at grade level or above when they leave. And Lillig said nearly 100 percent of the students go on to high school and graduate. He doesn’t expect academic performance will be impacted by the move.
“We are going to take all the best of what we already love about these schools and put it now in an awesome environment,” Delac said. “That is what is best for our kids. It is what our kids deserve.”
Even more exciting, Delac said, is that “we will have space for even more kids. We will be able to reach into neighborhoods where we once had a presence and had to pull out ... neighborhoods where we had to close schools.”
The last Catholic elementary school on the city’s east side closed seven years ago. The diocese closed St. Monica school in 2008 and before that St. Francis Xavier in 2004, both shuttered because of unmanageable deficits and dwindling enrollment plus competition from the growing number of charter schools in the city.
Those same reasons in the last decade have led to the disappearance of Catholic schools in urban areas across the country.
Brooklyn, N.Y., closed 26 Catholic elementary schools in 2005, and earlier this month the Archdiocese of Chicago, one of the largest parochial school systems in the country, closed three schools after having closed nine urban and suburban schools last year because of low enrollment.
So opening an urban Catholic school in Kansas City bucks the trend, Lillig said. Combining Our Lady of Angels with Guadalupe means the new school is expected to open with 223 students. But the diocese plans to add preschool and grow its total enrollment to 625 students within five years.