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'This is the school to keep': Central High graduates and students argue against proposed closure

A woman wearing a white jacket spreads her arms and angrily shouts at a microphone with a crowd behind her  inside a school multipurpose room.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Teola Powell, a 1966 graduate of Central High School, tells those gathered Wednesday night in the school's multipurpose room, "This is the school to keep" during a listening session regarding the Blueprint 2023's recommendations.

Central High School is one of 10 buildings that Kansas City Public Schools is proposing to close. But students, families and alumni pushed back at a town hall Wednesday, arguing the building is one of the district's newest, with amenities — like an Olympic-sized pool — that other schools don't have.

Students, family and alumni packed the house at Central High School on Wednesday night, pleading with Kansas City Public Schools to save the high school from closure.

"This is the school to keep," said Teona Powell, a 1966 graduate, in front of the filled multipurpose room. “If you put it in a nutshell, what we're saying to you is Central is not the school to close."

The public meeting was the second since the Board of Education announced a slate of 10 schools recommended for closure at last week’s board of education meeting.

The closures — prompted by declining student numbers and increasing building costs — were unveiled as part of Blueprint 2030, the district’s long term strategic plan aimed at giving its students the same academic opportunities as those in suburban districts.

Under the plan, Central High on Indiana Avenue and 33rd Street would be one of the first schools to close in fall 2023, and its students would be sent instead to Southeast High School, 4.5 miles away on E. Meyer Boulevard.

The first KCPS meeting, held at the Southeast Community Center on Monday, grew heated as community members voiced their concerns about the closures. Wednesday night’s meeting went similarly, with audience members speaking over district officials at times.

District officials reasoned that compared to other local school districts, KCPS is spending significantly more on operational costs. By closing schools, they say more of that money can go toward academic opportunities and programs for students.

Da’Miyah Jones, vice president of Central High School’s student council, told the audience that it is not students’ fault that the district neglected maintaining the building. However, Jones praised the way the current school year is going, crediting its success to the leadership of its principal.

“We actually have been doing a lot of new things that high schools should have," Jones said. "We actually have a real high school and now you all are taking that away from us."

A man wearing a blue T-shirt holds a blue sign that reads "Neighborhood Schools Serve all students; deserve your support."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Daniel Gooden, a parent of a junior at Central High School, expresses his displeasure with the idea of closing the Kansas City school during a listening session Wednesday night to discuss Blueprint 2023's recommendations.

Many of those who spoke at Wednesday's meeting took issue with the proposal to close Central High School because it’s one of the district’s newer facilities. While the high school is the oldest remaining in the city — opening its doors in 1884 — it was rebuilt in the 1990s.

Audience members also pointed out that Central High has amenities that other schools don’t have, like an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“We're not saying that nothing has to be done yet, but what we need is to keep Central open because it has all the modern stuff now,” Powell said. “We need to do what these schools on the outside did to get our students to go out there.”

District officials contend that the building hasn’t aged well in the last 30 years, and raised major concerns with its infrastructure. The national agency that assembled the closure recommendations, MGT Consulting Group, reported that Central High has more than $14 million in deferred maintenance costs.

KCPS cited the large building costs and enrollment numbers in its decision on which schools to potentially close. Central High School currently has a student population of just 472. (Southeast High currently has 528 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.)

Central High is also one of four schools recommended to be converted for another use by the school district. Central could be repurposed as a professional learning center or "swing site" for building relocations during renovations or construction.

Other schools set for closure include Northeast High, James Elementary, Longfellow Elementary, Troost Elementary, Wheatley Elementary, Whittier Elementary, King Elementary, Faxon Elementary and Melcher Elementary. The district says it would retain all school staff.

Under the recommended changes, KCPS would also create one new middle and two new elementary schools.

Charnissa Holliday-Scott, the district’s interim chief of staff, said the board of education doesn’t want to close schools.

“We really want a long term proposition and a plan. That is why we are seeking the input of our community,” Holliday Scott said. “We cannot be in a position where we do absolutely nothing and our children do not benefit. We cannot, we refuse to be here. This is too important for our children.”

The district will continue hearing from the community at more public meetings over the next few weeks, before the Board of Education votes on the final recommendation on December 14. A full set of dates and times for those meetings can be found here.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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