Schools are out -- forever


During the warm months, when students at Westport High School got too hot, they cooled down by moving to one of the many vacant classrooms on campus. It was one of the advantages of having 400 students assigned to a school that could hold 1,200.

The downside became apparent last week, though, when the Kansas City school board voted to close Westport and 25 other schools -- nearly half of the district’s campuses.

Big-city districts shutter schools all the time. Cities such as Denver and Portland, Ore., have seen childless young families repopulate their urban cores and have adjusted accordingly.

But what is happening in Kansas City is different in scale than anywhere else in the country. It’s an extreme example of what happens when a school system loses the support of the public it’s meant to serve.

The Kansas City, Missouri School District lost half of its student population in the last 10 years as parents fled to the suburbs or placed their children in private or non-district-run charter schools. District test scores have long lagged behind the rest of the state’s.

Meanwhile, the district continued to operate 61 schools capable of holding 75,000 students. It now has about 17,000 students. By comparison, the Los Angeles Unified School District has 678,000 students, including those in charter schools, and 891 schools and facilities.

“This is a day of reckoning for this community,” said Supt. John Covington, predicting other districts will confront similar problems. “They’re going to have to face it one way or the other.”

Indeed, on Wednesday, Detroit announced it would close 45 public schools -- a smaller percentage of its campuses than Kansas City, but a significant number nonetheless.

“These hard economic times are going to cause school boards and school districts to look at the issue of school closings,” said Anne Bryant, president of the National School Boards Assn.

But the problems in Kansas City started before the recession. They resulted from decades of neglect, bad decisions and the hollowing of the city’s core.

“This is pretty historic,” said Wanda Blanchett, dean of the School of Education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “I can’t think of any other district that has this level of concern.”

The district started losing students after a lengthy desegregation battle was launched in federal courts in the 1970s, which led to busing and other attempts to balance enrollments. First came white flight. Then came middle-class flight, as black families joined whites in moving to more suburban districts for better schools.

Meanwhile, those outer districts extended their attendance boundaries into Kansas City. The city is now divvied up among more than a dozen districts.

Most of the children in the district, officials agree, attend because their parents have no other option. About 80% of students receive free or partially subsidized lunches.

“You’ve got kids who can’t go anywhere else,” said former school board member Al Mauro. “These are not kids who are intellectually deficient. [But] they’re bringing a lot of baggage into the classroom.”

About 50,000 school-age children live in the district’s boundaries, but only 17,000 go to its schools. As the district educated fewer and fewer of the city’s children, it got less and less public support. The public hasn’t approved a school bond measure since 1969.

“If the majority of the people within our boundaries aren’t patrons, it’s more complicated to get support,” said Airick West, a school board member.

Exacerbating the problem has been long-running turmoil within the district. A teachers’ strike in the 1970s drove many parents away. In the 1980s, the district launched a building spree, erecting state-of-the-art schools with Olympic-size swimming pools to lure students back.

It didn’t work.

Every few years a superintendent left -- voluntarily or ousted by the board -- to be followed by a replacement with new priorities. “We’ve had just a revolving door of superintendents,” said Andrea Flinders, president of the teacher’s union.

Previous superintendents tried to close schools only to be overruled by the school board. Covington, who came from Pueblo, Colo., last July, argued that the district had to stop spending money on maintaining half-empty buildings.

The board approved his plan, which closes 26 schools and three other buildings, by a 5-4 vote after months of tumultuous forums. The plan, which also cuts 700 jobs, is projected to save $50 million from a $300-million budget.

West, who voted for the plan, said he got more than 500 e-mails the next day -- only seven from people opposed to the closings. “We’ve all known this needed to happen for a long time,” he said.

But the debate may not be over. Five school board seats will be determined in elections on April 6. One slate of candidates is running to reverse the closures; another slate supports them.

Some parents have vowed to pull their children from the district rather than transfer them to other schools.

One concern is the consolidation of an “Afrikan-Centered Education” program, which has a curriculum guided by African cultural concepts. Students from three schools, divided by kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth grade, and seventh through 12th, will be placed at one school.

The program is popular in a district that is 61% black; 30% of Kansas City’s population is African American.

“Who’s going to be left with our children packed into those buildings, like slave ships?” asked Ron Hunt, a neighborhood activist with three children in an Afrikan-Centered Education school. Hunt is calling for parents to pull their children from the district.

Jamekia Kendrix already did. She pulled her daughter out this year -- while running a nonprofit to improve education in the district.

She did so with mixed feelings. As a child she attended public schools before transferring to a private high school. She felt alienated there and had vowed to keep her children in public schools.

Now, Kendrix is worried about more empty buildings blighting the struggling Kansas City core, where 25% of homes are unoccupied, including seven on her block.

Nonetheless, she supports Covington’s plan.

“My hopes are in the next two years I can get my children back into the district” once it improves, she said.

At Westport, a hulking brick building in a modest neighborhood of turn-of-the-century houses, students are not as optimistic. The high schoolers don’t follow the minutiae of school board policy, but they said they realized change was inevitable as the student body shrank. “You could see it coming,” said sophomore Chandra Swatosh, 16.

Since the closures were approved, students have had trouble focusing on their work and wonder where they will end up next year. Robert Young, another 16-year-old sophomore, worried what would happen to the relationships he’s forged at Westport with both teachers and other students.

“This is such a small school, we all know each other,” he said. “All of us are going to be split up.”