Southwest High School closes its doors as alums share fond memories

Southwest Early College Campus holds what could be its final graduation

In a few weeks the 89-year-old Southwest Early College Campus high school is slated to be closed by Kansas City Public Schools. On Tuesday night, students marched with the thought that they very well may be the school’s final graduates.
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In a few weeks the 89-year-old Southwest Early College Campus high school is slated to be closed by Kansas City Public Schools. On Tuesday night, students marched with the thought that they very well may be the school’s final graduates.

Tuesday was the last day of classes before the summer break for Kansas City Public Schools. But for Southwest Early College Campus, it was just the end.

The district is closing the old brick and stone school that has been a landmark in Brookside for nearly 90 years.

Southwest High School, 6512 Wornall Road, has a rich history with a string of famous alums who have strolled through its halls, performed on its stage, played ball on its hardwood and worn the Indians jersey on the field.

Rapper TechN9ne, a 1991 graduate, said: “Southwest is where I learned everything I needed to start my own business. I am a totally proud Southwest Indian. That’s the only reason I would wear orange and black. I’m super sad that it’s closing.”

Tuesday afternoon the school’s wide hallways were quiet. Seniors said their goodbyes last week at graduation, and only about 100 students showed up for the final day. Most classrooms in the four-story building were empty. In those that weren’t, students played games, watched movies or chatted while waiting for the last 2:20 p.m. end-of-school bell.

“I’m sad that they are closing this school,” said Tara Micham, who teaches economics and government. “I love teaching in these classrooms. They are so spacious. I can teach from any corner of the room.”

She said she has enjoyed her students.

“And this is such a great neighborhood. I can come and leave from this school any time of day or night and I always feel safe.”

The Kansas City school board voted to close Southwest along with Wendell Phillips Elementary and Satchel Paige Elementary schools as part of a plan that reconfigures school attendance boundaries. The plan is designed, district leaders say, to make better use of school building space.

With the creation of more neighborhood schools, the plan is also expected to strengthen community ties and bolster student achievement. Next year, Southwest students will join students at Southeast High School, now the district’s African-Centered College Preparatory Academy.

Enrollment in the district has dwindled over the years. In 2006, enrollment was 28,299; in 2015 it was 15,258. At Southwest, enrollment went from 1,491 in 2011 to 239 in 2015.

Closing Southwest reduces the district to four neighborhood high schools.

Southwest was built on a part of the old Armour farm in early 1925 to serve a rapidly growing Country Club District.

Over the years, many of Kansas City’s prominent citizens graduated from Southwest, including Lester Milgram, owner of Milgram Food Stores, in 1934; journalist and author Calvin Trillin in 1953; and Henry Bloch, co-founder of tax preparation giant H&R Block, in 1939.

Ed Matheny, a retired Kansas City attorney and author of “The Rise and Fall of Excellence: The Story of Southwest High School,” graduated from Southwest in 1940. He was class president his senior year and remembers playing football and basketball and running track.

“I had a long and glorious history at Southwest,” Matheny said. “Southwest was one of the best high schools in the country.”

He said that in the 1950s it was listed in national magazines as one of the 30 best high schools.

Bloch, a friend of Matheny’s, said he remembers Southwest being “such a great school. I’m sorry it is going to close.”

District demographics changed through the years, resulting in fewer residents of the neighborhood around Southwest sending children to public schools.

From 1990 until 2005, Southwest operated as Southwest Charter School. Then it was established as an early college prep school. By the 2009-2010 school year, it was known as one of the district’s more successful programs.

Five years ago, when the district sought to downsize, middle school students were put in high school buildings. Students from Westport High School moved into Southwest.

With Westport, unanticipated behavior problems erupted. In 2010, the school principal changed twice. The graduation rate dropped from 68.5 percent in 2012 to 51.5 percent last year. At the same time, composite ACT scores dipped from just above 16 to about 15 out of a possible 36.

But that’s not how TechN9ne, born Aaron D. Yates, remembers his school.

“The whole time I was in school all I heard was, ‘Mr. Yates, if you knew your work like you knew that music, you’d be an A student,’” he said. “I wanted my raps to be smarter. My junior and senior year I made the honor roll.”

Former NFL linebacker Michael Jones said his memories of Southwest are “sweet.”

“It prepared me,” said Jones, a former St. Louis Ram known for making the final, winning tackle of Super Bowl XXXIV. Jones now is the head football coach at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. He has given the commencement speech at Southwest twice, as recently as 2015.

“Southwest was a great steppingstone,” Jones said. “I had great teachers. It was a great school and I have really fond memories.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc