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Hickman Mills wants to be the next Kansas City school district to win back full accreditation

Students arrive for a new school year at Ingels Elementary in the Hickman Mills School District. Enrollment in the district has been dropping.

The district’s financial picture has improved, partly with the help of federal COVID aid, and the board last year approved a substantial pay bump for teachers.

Yaw Obeng looked on with a mixture of envy and hope this week as leaders of the Kansas City Public Schools celebrated the Missouri Board of Education vote to grant the district full accreditation.

Obeng is superintendent of the Hickman Mills School District in south Kansas City, which is one of six districts in Missouri to lack the stamp of approval of a fully accredited district. Hickman Mills was classified as provisionally accredited in 2014, with state education officials citing low student academic scores and other problems.

Obeng, who arrived here in June 2020 after leading a district in Vermont, said he intends to begin conversations with his school board and staff at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education about moving Hickman Mills to full accreditation.

He said the district has been making progress on academic achievement and graduation rates, and it actually tops KCPS in some of those metrics. The district’s financial picture has improved, partly with the help of federal COVID aid, and the board last year approved a substantial pay bump for teachers.

Obeng hopes state education officials will focus on Hickman Mills now that KCPS has received full accreditation.

“I’ve heard from the community that Hickman Mills gets treated like the little brother to KCPS,” Obeng said. “I don’t think that we’ve had the opportunity to share our story yet.”

Others are less upbeat about the district of about 5,000 students. They say low academic achievement and ongoing dysfunction on the school board has become a drag on the Hickman Mills community.

“People talk with their feet and they’re moving,” said Karry Palmer, a former school board member and president of Hickman Mills United Neighborhoods. “They’re just not putting their kids in the neighborhood schools. The school district isn’t the only problem, but it is a major problem and it’s really not being addressed.”

The Hickman Mills School District sits in a part of Kansas City that is plagued by poverty and disinvestment. The median household income is $43,774, and more than 35% of children in the district’s boundaries live in poverty, according to Census Reporter, a project that interprets U.S. Census data.

Economic investment in the area is lagging and hopes that the 290-acre Cerner Campus off of Bannister Road would jumpstart a revival suffered a further blow when the company announced it would be acquired by Oracle Corp. The campus was built with the help of an incentive package now valued at $1.75 billion, which allowed Cerner to hold on to tax money that would have gone to the school district.

More than 50% of the housing in the Hickman Mills school district is rental. Evictions and unplanned moves leave classrooms in a continual state of flux, as children move frequently across school and district boundaries during the academic year.

Kansas City Public Schools faces many of the same issues. School and state officials have credited the progress there to Bedell’s sustained leadership, his insistence on sticking to a strong strategic plan, cooperation from his school board and support from the broader civic community.

Governance in Hickman Mills has been rockier. Obeng is the district’s third superintendent in five years. His two predecessors each left for superintendent jobs in neighboring districts.

Board relationships are fraught. Some district residents were recently startled to receive a holiday greeting card featuring photos and best wishes from four board members -- pointedly ignoring the remaining three.

“Over the past year we’ve had incidents where things just haven’t been done right,” said board member Cecil Wattree, who usually finds himself in the minority. He has raised issues about contracts being signed without the correct approval process, outdated policies and failure to keep minutes of meetings.

“There is convolution everywhere,” he said.

Obeng said he gets along with his board, and it has supported all of his recommendations regarding student achievement. He and his wife have built a home in the district, and he said he is planning to stay for the long term.

Obeng said he hopes that Kansas City’s civic and political leaders, who embraced the KCPS march toward full accreditation, will show more support for his district and community.

“We don’t have a major voice,” he said. “No one takes ownership of us. It makes it hard to bring people together.”

Susan Wally works with the Hickman Mills School District as CEO of PREP-KC, which helps urban districts and schools in the region with college and career preparedness and other student-centered work.

“We helped KCPS get to this point. There’s momentum there,” she said, referring to the greater civic community.

“It’s very easy to wring your hands. I remember when people used to do that with KCPS,” Wally said. “(Obeng) needs some social capital. He needs some folks to pay attention to that community.”

Barbara Shelly is a freelance reporter and editor based in Kansas City, Missouri.
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