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Hickman Mills District Struggles Through Tough Year

Alex Smith

The Kansas City, Missouri school district gets all the press, but school districts all over the metro area deal with big challenges. This year has been one of the toughest ever for Missouri’s very first school district, Hickman Mills.

If you take a walk around the Hickman Mills school district, it doesn’t take long before you notice something a little unusual. Almost none of the streets have sidewalks. Few of them even have curbs. And behind many rows of house, there are still acres of undeveloped land. That’s cause, unlike most suburbs, Hickman Mills wasn’t built as a suburb. It started as a rural school district back in 1902. In its 110 years, Hickman Mills has seen waves of people come and go but it’s managed to hang on, at least a little, to its rural feel. Inside the buildings, however, the district is dealing with problems more typical of the inner city.

The Hickman Mills district serves just about 6200 students who live in the area between Swope Park and Grandview. Today, about 90% of those students are non-white. It’s got 8 grade schools, one middle school, a junior high and a senior high school. This is a small district, but Hickman Mills faces a big list of problems. As board of education president Breman Anderson explains the problem at the top of the list.

“When you have a district that is approximately 83% free and reduced lunch,” says Anderson, “It is an indicator that the children are coming from economically stressed households. There’s a direct correlation between being low income, being overwhelmingly free and reduced and having issues with academics and the whole nine yards.”

A Difficult Year

2012 has been an especially difficult year for Hickman Mills. In March, the district announced it would need to cut 47 teaching positions, and a few months later, long-time superintendent Marge Williams retired. But the biggest hit came on September 18th . Sarah Potter of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education explains.

“In September,” says Sarah Potter, “The department recommended that Hickman Mill be changed from fully accredited to provisionally accredited. That means that they are still accredited, but that they don’t have that full accreditation. They’re on notice that they have a lot of improvement to be made.”

Great Time For The District

But the Hickman Mills district hasn’t always struggled. After WWII, the rural area started to become a suburb of KCMO as employers like the IRS, Westinghouse and Bendix drew families to the neighborhood. KU student Aaron Rife, who’s doing his doctoral dissertation on the district, says this was a golden era for Hickman Mills.

“One of the biggest problems they had was being able to keep up with the population,” explains Rife. “And in this time, the 1950’s, the ‘60s, a little bit the ‘70s, but mostly the ‘50s and ‘60s, there’s this huge growth. They’re constantly building new schools, especially elementary schools, to be able to keep up with all these children that are moving in. With all these families coming in, that’s property tax. And the property tax is a large part of what funds local school districts. It’s during this time, again, because they have to build these school buildings, they are passing levies. The mill levies are raising, and they’re passing bonds, special actions to get schools built or to add onto schools. It’s a great time. It is an absolutely great time for this district.”

The Hickman Mills boom was more working and middle class than upper class. Moving here was more affordable than moving to Johnson County. But like Johnson County, the neighborhood was overwhelmingly white, and it tried to stay that way through social pressure.

“There is an argument that people are moving to this area to be homogenous, to get away from an ever-increasingly diverse group of people in Kansas City,” explains Aaron Rife. “To be fair, attractive housing prices were probably the most responsible for people moving into this area. But it was white.”

A Tipping Point

The Hickman Mills was almost entirely annexed by Kansas City, Missouri in 1961, but its school district was not. While it never received the national recognition of the Shawnee Mission or Blue Valley, the Hickman Mills district was strong and stable all the way through the mid ‘90s. But Aaron Rife says a tipping point occurred in the mid ‘80s. He believes the major changes in the district can be traced to some very specific changes in housing.

“I posit that there’s an event,” Rife says. “In 1987, one of the major housing projects in Kansas City, Wayne Miner, was closed. There was more introduction of Section 8 housing into Ruskin Heights and into the Hickman Mills area. And African American families began to arrive in larger numbers in this school district. And to be specific, poorer African American families. Before this, from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, a large portion of non-white families who moved into this area were middle class. So it is in the 1990s that the change begins to happen, and, really, to be fair, it’s not just the fact that black families are moving in. As black families move in, the trend tends to show that white families begin to move out. And that really cements, really by the early 2000’s. It’s really only a decade ago that the shift goes from majority white to majority non-white.”

As lower-income families moved in and middle-income families moved out, trouble for the school district was inevitable.

“Part of the problem that happens in a community,” explains Aaron Rife, “Is when middle class families move out, housing values tend to depreciate. If you just look at a neighborhood of a couple blocks, for example, the greater number of poor people living in an area, and the fewer number of middle class people living in an area, housing values depreciate. And if housing values depreciate, then the property values depreciate, which means the school gets less funding.”

Rife describes how one problem led to another in Hickman Mills during the ‘90s. Bannister Mall and nearby stores got a bad reputation and lost business to other shopping areas before finally shutting down. The school district had trouble attracting and keeping good teachers. And about 15 years ago, Hickman Mills started having problems meeting state education standards, struggling mostly with annual MAP test scores. Missouri’s Annual Progress Reports for schools has 14 points, and in the past several years Hickman Mills has only been earning about half of those.

“If you look at the data from about 2007 to 2012,” says Sarah Potter, “You’ll see that it’s 6, 6, 6, 7, 9, 7. So they went up a little bit, but then they went back down. So it’s not been a real steady progress upwards. They’ve kind of gone up and down for the last 7 years or so. That’s what we were concerned about it that they’re not on a steady improvement line.”

Moving Forward

On a recent Thursday evening, about 150 parents, teachers and students turned out in the Junior High gym to hear the district’s plans for moving forward. Among the speakers was new acting superintendent Barbara Tate. Shortly after accreditation announcement, the board of education voted to replace the acting superintendent with Barbara Tate. Tate recently retired from the Grandview school district, where she worked as assistant superintendent. In Grandview, she earned a reputation as a strong leader dealing with problems similar to those Hickman Mills have been dealing with. Hickman Mills spokesperson John Baccala explains the new acting superintendent’s role.  

“Right now, Mrs. Barbara Tate is going through and evaluating all of our academic standards and procedures and trying to assess where it is that we need improvement,” says John Baccala.  “One of the things she has determined he need to improve on is we need a better way to monitor academic progress. The systems we were using to monitor academic progress, in her mind, were not working. And pretty obviously, they weren’t, because we weren’t getting an accurate understanding of where our students were. And we’re gone in and talked to teachers and gone in and talked to the principals, and once again reinforced concepts of what we want done academically and what needs to be done academically and what our focus needs to be on and what the concentration of academic studies need to be on.”

The board of education is currently searching for a permanent superintendent, and Barbara Tate will probably just stay in her position for another semester or so. So the district is also working on its own plans to improve the district.

“We’ve already gone out and hired new teachers,” Baccala continues. “And we’ve hired some more academic instruction folks to help our students just in the past two months. So I think we’re getting on the right track. We have a lot of people here. Every person in this school district is committed to getting back to fully-credited status. And I think we’re gonna be able to do that. It’s just going to take time.”

Aaron Rife also says there’s reason to be optimistic about the future of Hickman Mills. He says the district is resilient and has plenty of competent people. But he believes Hickman Mills could benefit from more than just new internal strategies.

“I sincerely believe, and it’s not just Hickman Mills,” says Rife, “It’s any struggling school district – give them money. Give them lots and lots of money. And I know that does not jive well with other points of view on this issue. But the problems that Hickman Mills is having are dealing with students who are underperforming who tend to come from poor backgrounds. Which means they need programs. They need specialists. They need more reading specialists. They need math specialists. They need counselors. And they have this to a degree, but they need more. They need lots and lots of really good people who are really good at their job to help these kids out.”

In 2013, Hickman Mills will face a new set of increased standards called MSIP 5. This means higher expectations in things like attendance and standardized test scores. But MSIP 5 could also help Hickman Mills regain full accreditation because it looks at a 3-year rolling average of progress, instead of looking at each year individually. Sarah Potter says if the district is able to show improvement very quickly, it might be able to regain full accreditation status as early, but the current plan is to re-evaluate Hickman Mills in 2015.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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