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Kansas City Public Schools Propose Sweeping Changes On A Tight Deadline

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

After 18 months of study Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) released its master plan Wednesday night in a long and contentious board meeting.

The plan covers which buildings will be closed, an overhaul of the transportation system, a plan for year-round class for low-performing elementary schools and the rejuvenation of high school extracurricular activities with an emphasis on sports.

The district says about 2,000 children, 15 percent of the district, would feel the change of school closing and the resulting boundary changes.

The master plan calls for closing Southwest Early College Campus (SWECC) and combining the 300 students there with African-Centered College Preparatory Academy (AC Prep). The combined student body would move to East High School.

Board member Airick West praised the work that went into the plan but says combining those two high schools would be a disaster. “I think it’s an exercise in self-delusion to think we can combine AC Prep and SWECC into one building and deliver for both sets of students the promise of either of those institutions.”

The master plan also calls for closing two elementary schools, Crispus Attucks on Prospect Avenue and Satchel Paige on East 75th Street.

Boundaries would also radically change. Now, the administration says, the lines are so jumbled that students who live next door to East High School attend a different school. Students at Attucks end up at three different high schools.

But the proposed boundary changes got a cool reception from the board.  “This is more like a segregation plan than a master plan,” board member Melissa Robinson said. If SWECC closes then all the district's high schools would be east of Troost Avenue. Board member Amy Hartsfield wondered if white parents would want that and worried they would pull their kids out of the district before they reached high school.

“That will be an issue that I believe will come up again throughout the process," board president Jon Hile said. "I know the administration will do what they can to address that issue, to address that concern and to ensure equality throughout our district.”

The district's goal is to create neighborhood schools that feed into middle and high schools and to keep students from crossing highways or railroad lines to get to class.

The administration wanted the board to vote on the plan just after the first of the year after four public meetings in November and make many of the changes in time for next school year. But the board would not allow the process to move that fast.

“I believe that we need to have at least a 90 day period of intensive community engagement around school closures making sure this is in the best interest of our constituents,” Robinson argued. In the end, the board unanimously agreed to slow down the process.

“We want to be right more than we want to be fast on this,” Hile said. “We have an obligation to make sure that our parents, our community, our teachers, all of our stakeholders are included in the process in a meaningful way.” Hile said if that means the changes need to be delayed a year, that's what will happen.

The master plan would also enhance transportation. Students could bus to school if they lived a half-mile away. Their bus stop would be no more than two blocks from home. Currently, they must live 1.5 miles away to ride the bus.  The district says 1,400 walkers would now be able to ride the bus. 

This is one way, district officials say,  KCPS could compete with the growing number of charter schools in Kansas City. In fact, board member Carl Evans said the master plan needs to address charter school competition. "I don't know how we could remotely talk about closing or opening schools without having a plan to deal with charter schools," he said. "They're lining up between here and Jefferson City."

There was also major changes proposed to academics. The district says low-performing elementary schools might go to year round class. If that happens, the district will start with just one school. The plan also calls for opening a third middle school south of Brush Creek.

For KCPS high schools, the plan calls for them to become college and career theme based. The proposal also emphasizes extra and co-curricular activities. "They may not be tested or graded, but they educate and benefit students in ways that classroom activities cannot," according to the master plan. This may take three to five years, district officials say. "But it is critical that the district's athletic director work with each building administration to develop a district and building level plan," the document says.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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