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As Lee's Summit Redraws School Boundaries, White Parents Don't Want To Talk About Race

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Ariana Tolbert, left, and her friends support the Lee's Summit West Titans on neon night. Early on in the boundary change process, Tolbert, a senior, was worried her younger sister, a freshman, would have to switch schools.

The Lee’s Summit R-7 school board is considering a plan that moves about 800 of the district’s 18,000 students to different schools next year.

Conversations about school boundary changes are always fraught. When schools are overcrowded and someone has to move, no one wants it to be their kid.

So tensions were already high when race and equity became part of the discussion.

“We’re not quite sure what is the most important thing right now. Is it the boundary changes? Is it equity?” parent Jessica Vandenbos asked at the September board meeting. “All of that at once is just a lot.”

'West is the best'

Lee’s Summit is an affluent suburb with a median home price of $237,900. For the past decade, families have been building and buying even more expensive homes in the southwest part of the city with the expectation that their kids would go to Lee’s Summit West, the newest of the district’s three high schools.

“Well, West is the best!” Ariana Tolbert, a senior at Lee’s Summit West, said at a football game against crosstown rival Lee’s Summit North. Since she will be graduating this spring, the boundary changes won’t affect her, but she was worried about what would happen to her younger sister, a freshman.

“She’s been really excited to come to West, and I love being at West,” Tolbert said. “We’re really involved. I’m in choir, we’re both on dance team together. If these boundary changes ever happen anytime soon, that would just really suck.”

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
At a series of community forums, parents could leave comments on the different plans the district was considering.

That’s something the team working on the Comprehensive Facilities Master Plan – or the CFMP, as you’ll hear it referred to around town – heard a lot. In the past, when Lee’s Summit has opened new high schools, only seniors were allowed to stay at the old school. Everyone else had to move.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Lee's Summit North students cheer at a game against their crosstown rival, Lee's Summit West.

“We heard a lot of feedback about the grandfathering provision,” district spokeswoman Kelly Wachel said. “If students were in high school, could they just stay at their high school and not be affected? And we listened and said OK.”

'Then what?'

The announcement that current high school students wouldn’t have to switch schools came as the district was trying to defuse tensions over a diversity consultant.

Administrators had wanted to bring in Glenn Singleton, the author of “Courageous Conversations About Race,” for a presentation on the achievement gap. They were preparing to release data that showed students of color trailing their white peers academically.

“My question to every naysayer is when we look at the data, then what? Then what?” Superintendent Dennis Carpenter asked in frustration at the September board meeting.

Online, in closed Facebook groups and on Nextdoor, some parents were complaining that Carpenter, the district’s first black superintendent, made everything about race. They turned out at the September board meeting to oppose bringing Singleton to Lee’s Summit. They demanded to see the data the district had on the achievement gap. They argued that income, not race, was driving the disparities.

But the data the district released in early October actually controlled for family wealth. It confirmed what families of color already knew.

“African American children are not receiving equitable educational opportunities in (Lee’s Summit),” parent Alethea Rollins said, reading from a letter penned on behalf of the district's black students. “They face institutional bias and prejudice. They are frequently confronted with discrimination, racism, and sexism.”

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUr 89.3
KCUr 89.3
A parent looks at the various boundary options presented during the public engagement process.

Incidents of racist bullying have been reported to the school board in the past. But after Rollins and other black parents spoke, the school board just moved on with the meeting.

Moderators in the Facebook group to discuss boundary did their best to keep the conversation civil. Many parents jumped on a thread opposing more multi-family housing in Lee's Summit to tell the poster she did not speak for them. Fed up, the poster complained she'd had more conversations about race in the past two weeks than she had in her entire life and was "over it."

'This seems like it's all adults'

For his part, Superintendent Carpenter was disappointed that the community wasn’t ready to have the conversation about how to ensure equal access to opportunity for all kids. But as the boundary conversation continued, he heard things that encouraged him.

Like the fact that several board members were aghast that there weren’t even seats in the district’s pre-K program for everyone who needed one.

“It's about this notion of access and opportunity. No kid should be on a waiting list. We heard that loud and clear. That's equity, so we'll continue to lean into that conversation,” he said on Monday.

As for the boundary changes, the option the board is considering is a mashup of the orange and green plans presented to the community last month. The full effect of the boundary changes won’t be felt until 2022 when the last class of grandfathered high school students graduates. The 10-year projection has 691 students moving from Lee’s Summit West to Lee’s Summit High School. At work session earlier this week, board members seemed committed to facilities improvements at the oldest schools, all of which serve a disproportionate number of low-income children.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Seventh-grader Daniel Schmidt urged the district to go ahead and build another middle school. It's one of the options Lee's Summit is considering to accommodate population growth.

Whether families felt listened to will come down to where they live, how old their kids are and whether they’ll go to a preferred school next year. Few parents wanted to talk to KCUR for this story, but Campbell Middle School seventh-grader Daniel Schmidt did.

“Just because this seems like it’s all adults making the decisions, and there’s no kid input,” he said.

Schmidt would like to stay at Campbell. But if he has to move to Pleasant Lea Middle School next year, he’s pretty sure he’ll be fine.

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

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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