This summer, Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach criticized the Shawnee Mission Center for Academic Achievement as a “crystal palace,” citing it as an example of unnecessary administrative spending that wasn’t focused on the classroom.
“It looks like a corporate headquarters,” Kobach said at a debate in Salina, according to the Shawnee Mission Post. “I have no idea what those people are doing in there. They’re probably on their phones playing games.”
But supporters of the $35 million academic center in Overland Park, aware of Kobach’s comments, strongly defend it as a worthwhile, career-oriented educational facility. And its construction was funded by local taxpayers, not the state.
On Monday, district officials will seek Overland Park Planning Commission approval to add several more buildings to support an important part of the center — the urban farm and accredited culinary and restaurant management programs that currently have more than 100 high school students enrolled.
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On a recent Wednesday, several dozen of those students had traded their cellphones for buckets and gardening tools as they toiled at the center’s 1.7-acre urban farm on the property, 8200 W. 71st St.
On a hot afternoon, they pulled weeds, picked ripe tomatoes and chili peppers, prepared baby lettuce and gathered other ingredients as part of their culinary studies, which include the student-run Broadmoor Bistro on site. It resumes serving the public on Wednesday nights, beginning Oct. 3.
“This is a nice opportunity for them to step outside a textbook and into a living classroom,” said teacher Bob Brassard, known to everyone as Chef Bob. “The impact is so much bigger than a textbook or a YouTube video.”
Kobach did not respond Thursday to a request for comment about the educational programs at the center.
But Ryan Flurry, Shawnee Mission principal of career education, said the public just needs to be more aware of how the facility is an asset for the entire community.
“Unfortunately, we’re one of the best-kept secrets in Johnson County,” Flurry said, adding that he is working to get the word out to more parents and the public. The center currently serves more than 400 high school students, primarily from Shawnee Mission but also Blue Valley and De Soto districts. It will soon partner with schools in the Lee’s Summit area.
In addition to its accredited culinary program, Flurry said the center offers classes in biotechnology, engineering, animation and medical health science. It will also be visited by hundreds of elementary and middle school students on field trips this year.
The preliminary plan for growth of the farm, which has city planning staff support, calls for adding a greenhouse, demonstration kitchen and other buildings to turn the land into a true year-round classroom and research laboratory for more than 100 culinary students.
If approved, a final plan would also require Planning Commission and City Council approval. Construction could begin next year, although the full build-out time frame is uncertain.
A rough construction estimate is $2 million to $2.5 million. Flurry said he is confident the district can raise that funding over time from its own funds, grants, other donations and philanthropic contributions.
The additional buildings will take a growing and popular agricultural and culinary program to the next level, Brassard said, adding that the urban farm is envisioned as an asset for the entire community. It will need many volunteers to keep it going, especially in the summer. Residents and families are also invited to visit the farm and surrounding native landscape.
“This is a facility that can be used by everyone,” Brassard said.
The crops being harvested this fall are the first for the new academic center’s farm, and represent major growth from the original quarter-acre plot that started about five years ago at the Broadmoor Technical Center on West 83rd Street.
With soil enhancement from Missouri Organics and partnerships with Cultivate KC and other organizations, this much larger plot has hundreds of tomato and chili plants, fresh herbs, squash, leafy greens, mushrooms, corn and other vegetables. Students already use the produce to prepare salsas and other items to sell and food to serve at the Bistro.
“This facility is so much better than what we had before,” said Baylie Harwick, a Shawnee Mission North High senior in the culinary program, adding that the additional space allows students “to do what we need to do.”
Harwick said her time in the culinary program has convinced her of this: “My goal is to become a chef and own my own restaurant someday.”
She said the work students do every afternoon at the urban farm is “a lot of hard work and it’s very labor intensive” but they love using produce that can’t get any fresher.
The site will soon be further enhanced by about 40 fruit trees, including apple, pear and cherry, that the Giving Grove plans to plant in October.
The Planning Commission proposal calls for a greenhouse, wash station, demonstration kitchen and equipment building, in addition to 10 feettall hoop houses that can be moved to facilitate plant growing in colder temperatures.
“It’s really designed to be an outdoor classroom, a teaching space and event space,” said ACI Boland architect Duane Cash, chief architect on the project.
“This is an amazing project,” said landscape architect Joann Schwarberg, another key proponent of the development. She praised the native, sustainable landscape around the academic center, which helps contain stormwater runoff and is friendly to birds and butterflies. The buildings would be a welcome addition, she said.
“Greenhouses are so important to start your seedlings for all these plants,” she said.
Brassard said that as the urban farm grows, it will allow the culinary students to partner with the center’s engineering and bio-technology students on future improvements, while they all embellish their career skills.
“I think we are lucky to have a taxpayer base and patrons here in Johnson County,” Flurry said, “that are willing to help us bring education to the 21st century.”