Kansas City schools are the 'heartbeat' of their neighborhoods. Families don't know if they'll close
Kansas City Public Schools is considering shuttering up to 10 schools as it faces dwindling enrollment and aging buildings. But families have pushed back against the plan, with some saying they won't keep their children in the district if their school closes.
Dalia Rodriguez says her 9-year-old daughter Natalie loves everything about her school at James Elementary, even math class.
But Rodriguez says Natalie especially loves spending time with her teachers.
“She's always talk about the teachers. So for her, every single one is favorite,” says Rodriguez. “It's the second house for my daughter.”
That’s why Rodriguez says she’s fighting to keep her daughter’s school open – Kansas City Public Schools announced it was considering closing James Elementary as early as next fall, part of a proposal to shutter 10 schools due to declining enrollment and aging buildings.
The move falls under Blueprint 2030, the district's long term strategic plan to give its students the same academic opportunities as students in suburban districts.
But Rodriguez says James Elementary is more than just a school to her family.
“It's part, our community is part of my daughter life, is part of a lot of kids,” Rodriguez says. “They have to know exactly if they, if they close James is, is a lot of hearts broke.”
Months after announcing its intentions, and after multiple contentious meetings, KCPS has moved back the final vote to January — leaving families uncertain about which of their schools will actually close.
In a note to families, the district said the postponement was based on feedback from the community. KCPS is now working on revised recommendations to bring to the January 11 school board meeting.
‘Our heartbeat in this neighborhood’
James Elementary is one of three schools in Kansas City’s historic northeast neighborhood that’s potentially on the chopping block, along with Whittier Elementary and Northeast High School.
Community members worry shutting down these buildings would hit the city’s most vulnerable populations the hardest. According to Revolución Educativa, the schools serve a diverse population of immigrant families, many of whom speak Spanish as their primary language — including Rodriguez.
KCPS said it worked to provide resources in the city’s five most-spoken languages: English, Spanish, Swahili, Somali and Burmese. That included printing translated material in schools and at meetings, and providing translators at community conversations, two of which were held in Spanish.
But Edgar Palacios, CEO and founder of Revolucion Educativa, says that many Spanish-speaking families were caught off guard by the closure announcement. He thinks the board needed to delay its final decision and give communities more time to provide feedback and build alternative plans.
Living in walking distance to a neighborhood school, Palacios says, reduces anxiety for immigrant families. And many buildings serve double duty as contact points for community members, such as a food pantry at Northeast High School that serves around 100 families a month.
“I don't want to put my child on a bus because I don't know what's going to happen to that child on the bus. I don't know the school that they're going to go to as well,” Palacios says. “I'm not going to be able to build a relationship with that school as deeply because I can't access it or get to it as quickly.”
Christine Shuck is the mother of a first grader at Whittier Elementary, which is slated to close in fall 2024. If that happens, students would be divided into four different schools across the district.
When Shuck first moved into the Lykins neighborhood in 2013, she was hesitant to enroll her daughter into KCPS because it recently lost its accreditation. She decided to homeschool instead.
When Shuck later had to become a caretaker for her father, she enrolled her daughter at Whittier — something she only planned on for the remainder of the school year.
Shuck said that Whittier’s faculty changed her mind about public school.
“They're like magic workers over there,” Shuck said. “And you’re going to break them up and send them to other places? You're gonna break a team that knows what they are doing.”
Shuck says she hoped her first grader would be able to graduate from Whittier, and planned to enroll her 14-month-old son when he was ready for kindergarten.
“Whittier is truly our heartbeat in this neighborhood and the Lykins neighborhood. And I don't want to see it leave,” Shuck says.
Shuck worries that if the school closes, fewer families will move into the neighborhood, and abandoned homes will worsen the area’s blight.
That’s also the concern of the Lykins Neighborhood Association, which has been working to turn abandoned properties into quality housing. The association’s members say Whittier is at the core of the project, and worry about the district’s plans for that building.
“When you take away that asset without a plan, it becomes a pox on the neighborhood. Things deteriorate around it, it attracts crime,” says Kelly Allen, the group’s special projects director. “Losing the school itself is bad enough because it's important to people. But losing the school and then just having it sit and rot, like all of the other northeast schools that have closed since 2009, is unacceptable.”
While the neighborhood group acknowledges the district needs to close schools, it doesn’t think Whittier or James Elementary are the right ones — both are among the higher performing in the district, according to state assessments.
Why are these closures happening?
Along with academic performance, the consulting firm that recommended the 10 schools for closures also looked at enrollment, demographic trends, facility conditions, location and equity.
The proposed recommendations would redirect $13.2 million for the district to make investments into expanding academic programs like foreign language classes, instrumental music, science labs, elective courses, project-based learning and field trips.
Some parts of the plan are also contingent on the district passing a bond initiative. The district hasn't had a successful school bond vote since 1967.
And in the last couple of decades, KCPS has seen a steep drop off in its enrollment. The district shut down half its schools in 2010, driving even more families to enroll in charter schools and suburban districts.
Still, Interim Superintendent Jennifer Collier said the district will not see the growth it needs unless it makes changes, including closures.
“Our funds are currently spread across our system, where we have buildings that are not a capacity, where enrollments are low, where we struggle have staff and the kind of programming that we want to have in buildings, because we don't have enough students to be able to provide that,” Collier said at an October board meeting. “We can't continue down that road. We have to address this now if we want to see this school district and our students continue to accelerate and to learn and to thrive.”
The school district says it will establish “Transition Teams” at all closing schools, with counselors, a restorative justice coordinator and a clinician to assist and support students in their move.
“We know families at closing schools will consider all their options. We will be working with students individually to make these placements and address concerns,” the district said in an email. “We are hopeful new programs and investments in KCPS will encourage families to stay in our district.”
But if their schools get closed, some families say they won't keep their children in the district.
Rodriguez spends a lot of time volunteering at James Elementary, from putting on events to mentoring students in Spanish, because she’s seen the impact it’s had on Natalie.
“She feel like, ‘I can do this. When I grown, I want to go to the college. I want to go to the university. That's why I go to James. I want to learn,’” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez says she’ll likely enroll her daughter at a charter school if James Elementary closes. But she’d prefer instead to keep it open and help it grow.
“We can make programs, we can tell the people, James is good,” Rodriguez says. “Now, it's different. They have programs, they have a lot of good things.”