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More School Choice Might Be Keeping Middle Class Families In Kansas City

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3

Fifteen years ago, the vast majority of young couples buying homes in Brookside and Waldo had no intention of staying in the central city once they started families.

“Maybe they were just married and didn’t have any kids, but they planned to eventually,” says Mary Hutchison, real estate agent. “When they had one child, maybe two, they automatically decided to hop over to Kansas to get their kids in the public school system there.”

Hutchison still sells plenty of homes in top-rated Johnson County school districts. But first-time homebuyers now tell her they want to raise kids in the city.

“Because there’s more school choice now,” Hutchison explains, her car rolling to a stop at 77th and Main streets.

All summer long, houses in hot neighborhoods like Waldo and Brookside have been flying off the market. Everyone wants the same thing – three bedrooms, one-and-a-half bathrooms, move-in ready with a one-car garage.

“For under $250,000,” Hutchison deadpans.

For the last several years, though, demand has outstripped supply. The way it’s been going, a listing goes up on Friday morning, 10 prospective homebuyers traipse through the house that afternoon and by evening the owners have their pick of five offers — all above asking price.

“The myth is there are going to be 10 houses they can choose from in their price range,” Hutchison says. “They expect there to be some choice. For the past couple of years, there has not been enough inventory, but we’ve had so many buyers enter the market.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Kansas City’s hot housing market is changing the conversation prospective homebuyers have with their real estate agents about schools.

Under the Fair Housing Act, real estate agents can’t steer clients toward a particular neighborhood. If someone asks about crime, Hutchison tells them where they can view crime reports. If someone asks about schools, Hutchison suggests they look up test scores, graduation rates and PSAT performance.

These days, most of Hutchison’s clients have done their homework. Some of them already know where they want to send the kids they haven’t had yet.

Not giving up

When Matthew Oates graduated from Paseo Academy in 2003, a struggling Kansas City, Missouri, School District had just regained provisional accreditation from the state after losing it for the first time.

KCPS enrollment 15 years ago was 27,000 – half of what it had been in the district’s heyday and double what it is today. While Oates was earning his degree at the University of Missouri, the district continued to bleed students and even schools, losing seven of its buildings to neighboring Independence.

But Oates wasn’t ready to give up on the district that educated him. When he moved back to take a job with Burns & McDonnell, a Kansas City-based engineering firm, he got involved in the movement to reopen Hale Cook as a neighborhood school. He now represents sub-district 2 on the Kansas City Public Schools Board of Directors. When he was ready to buy a house, he picked a real estate agent who was also a KCPS parent.

“We both went through this knowing that we were O.K. with the neighborhoods and the schools, but we also talked about different times when families maybe came in with a perception about the district that wasn’t all the way correct,” Oates says.

District officials have long argued that public perception of city schools often lags behind what’s actually happening in KCPS classrooms. Oates credits Mark Bedell, now in his second year as superintendent, with making inroads with communities that historically haven’t participated in the district.

“In the past, families that had the ability to opt out of the district ... they have chosen that route. Now I think you’re seeing families look at our schools and say, ‘I have great options right here in my backyard,’” Oates says.

In other words, middle class families are coming back to KCPS.

Leaning toward staying

Right now, there are two district schools on Charlie Inboriboon’s shortlist: Hale Cook and Border Star. But he and his wife are also looking at charter schools for their two sons.

“I think everyone looks at Academie Lafayette, and I think it has everything we’re looking for in a school for Luke and Jake,” Inboriboon says.

Fortunately for Inboriboon and his wife, Pim Jetanalin, they still have some time to make a decision. Luke, their oldest, is 4, and his brother, Jake, is only 2.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Charlie Inboriboon and Pim Jetanalin moved into their Brookside home six years ago, before their sons, 4-year-old Luke and 2-year-old Jake, were born. Sometimes they think about moving to Johnson County for the schools, but they'd rather stay in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I think we change back and forth every couple of days. Especially when we talk to friends who live in Blue Valley, you think about moving out there,” Inboriboon says.

Inboriboon and Jetanalin hadn’t started their family yet when they bought their Brookside home six years ago, but they were aware the schools were unaccredited. At the time, buying a house in the top-rated Blue Valley School District and commuting from Olathe – he’s an emergency medicine physician who splits his time between Truman Medical Center and Children’s Mercy; she’s a rheumatologist at KU Med – didn’t make sense. Inboriboon says he’s pretty sure it still doesn’t make sense.

“We value having that shorter commute. That extra 30 minutes to an hour depending on traffic is a huge difference for us in terms of spending that time with the kids,” he says.

It’s easy to see that this family is close. The boys watch Ninjago in their pajamas, chattering happily with each other while their parents discuss school options.

Jetanalin didn’t want to be interviewed on tape, but in an email, Inboriboon wrote, “She is a great mother (wife, human being).” They don’t have other family in the area – Inboriboon’s parents are in Chicago, where he grew up, and Jetanalin’s live in Bangkok.

Inboriboon says he and Jetanalin both grew up in “academically rigorous” environments. While they want their sons to attend a good school, they also want to leave time for them to be kids.

So despite pressure from their Johnson County friends, Inboriboon and Jetanalin are leaning toward staying in Brookside. They’ll be in good company – Inboriboon says whenever he takes the boys to a nearby park, the topic of conversation is always where parents plan to send their young kids to school.

Opting for private school

More middle class families are choosing public schools, but not all of them. Private schools remain popular with parents that can afford to send their kids to them.

When Leslie Popplewell Ferguson moved her family north of the river from Indianapolis three years ago so she could take a job in St. Joseph, she didn’t expect to fall in love with Kansas City. At first, her long commute made it difficult to make friends. But then she found what she calls the “perfect” school for her 6-year-old son, Levi.

Credit Leslie Popplewell Ferguson
Leslie Popplewell Ferguson and her husband, Dan, send 6-year-old Levi to Pembroke Hill. They moved to Brookside to be closer to Levi's school.

“When he went for his evaluation day at Pembroke Hill, he just fit right in,” Ferguson says. “He was sitting on the teacher’s lap and playing with the kids. It was the only school he really felt at home at, which really decided it for us.”

But it made Ferguson’s long commute even longer. On days when it was her turn to drop Levi off at school, she had to trek 30 minutes down to Pembroke Hill and 70 minutes back up to St. Joseph. That’s why when she was offered a job at VML, a big advertising firm based out of the downtown airport, Ferguson and her husband, Dan, started to look for homes in Brookside.

“It was rough,” Ferguson says of house hunting this spring and summer. “We lost out on about four houses we put full price offers in, all of which went for well over list price.”

The family might be living out of boxes, but Ferguson is thrilled they finally found a home in Brookside on a block with lots of kids around Levi’s age.

“That’s the best part because he doesn’t like being an only child,” Ferguson says. “There are four boys that live directly across the street from us. So it’s really nice. We get home, and he’ll say, ‘I’m going to go outside and see what the guys are doing.’”

Levi’s new friends don’t go to his school. They go to Academie Lafayette, Crossroads Academy and Catholic day schools.

Ferguson says she isn’t opposed to sending Levi to a public school. If her family had been living within the boundaries of KCPS when Levi started kindergarten, they would have entered the lottery for Academie Lafayette. But Levi loves Pembroke, and Ferguson doesn’t want to mess with something that’s working.

Besides, they can afford private school tuition for one child.

“If we had two or three, we would not be sending all of them to Pembroke,” Ferguson says.

Enrollment ticking up

Last spring, Rebecca Haessig started blogging about education in Kansas City. Using publicly available data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, she charted the decline in KCPS enrollment in the years since 2000, the year the district first lost accreditation.

Credit Rebecca Haessig / Set The Schools Free
Set The Schools Free
Public school enrollment has been declining in Kansas City for decades. But in the last three years, it's ticked up slightly.

“Basically when you’re looking at that line graph, you’re seeing pretty continual decline until about 2014,” Haessig says. “I think we’re all really familiar with this story of decades of declining enrollment in our central school district.”

Haessig is the former director of education initiatives at the Kauffman Foundation. Her blog, Set The Schools Free, is considered an authoritative source of analysis by people who work closely with the city’s schools, such as Mayor Sly James’ education advisor, Julie Holland.

Between 2014 and 2015, public school enrollment ticked up slightly. It did so again between 2015 and 2016 and once more between 2016 and 2017.

“The rule I tend to go by is two data points is an observation, and three starts constituting a trend,” Haessig says.

Most of the growth was in the charter sector, which didn’t surprise Haessig. Like a lot of parents in her Brookside neighborhood, she’d chosen a public charter school for her son. These are families that probably would have sent their children to private school a decade ago, or else moved out to the suburbs.

But more options have become available in just the last few years. For families that can’t get a coveted seat at Academie Lafayette, there are the two Crossroads schools, as well as good options in KCPS.

“For example, Hale Cook is really popular with young families,” Haessig says. “It’s giving young families a reason to stay.”

White flight reversed

Haessig assumed incoming kindergarteners were driving the uptick in public school enrollment. But what’s interesting is that kindergarten enrollment actually decreased between 2014 and 2017, even though overall enrollment was up. And according to U.S. Census data, there were 10,000 fewer school-age children living within KCPS boundaries in 2010 than there were in 2000.

Which means public school enrollment has increased even as the number of school-age kids in Kansas City has declined.

Credit Rebecca Haessig / Set The Schools Free
Set The Schools Free
Surprisingly, it isn't kindergarten enrollment that's driving the uptick. In fact, the number of 5-year-olds entering the school system is decreasing.

There’s also a demographic shift underway. For years, it was white families that left the district. Now that they’re coming back – and Hispanic families are moving in – it’s black families that are leaving.

“People are leaving our schools who previously have been enrolling their kids here,” Haessig says. “Where are they going? Why are they leaving?”

No one – not Haessig, not the mayor’s office, not DESE – can answer those questions. (KCUR has tried, through our reporting on student mobility, but even that comes up short.)

While anecdotally it certainly seem like more families – particularly affluent ones who can afford to live in Brookside and Waldo – are satisfied with public school options in the city, Haessig says there are still too many kids who aren’t getting a great education.

“Our charter sector is growing, and that’s enabled us to capture families that might have otherwise left our school district,” Haessig says. “A side effect of the charter school growth is our district is slowly fragmenting. In the absence of some coordinating central entity, we risk it becoming increasingly inequitable, inefficient and difficult to navigate.”

Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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