KC district seeks to turn around struggling school

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Frustrated parents in a cash-strapped Kansas City School District are hoping officials can turn around a once excelling secondary school that has faced a rash of fights and fires since its enrollment swelled after the district closed about 40 percent of its schools to balance its budget.

“The difference between last year and this year is a 1,000 percent difference,“ said Kristie Myers, the mother of an eighth-grader. ”Last year there were a limited amount of students. The teachers were able to give more attention to kids. Now I walk into the school and kids are cussing.”

Police went to the Southwest Early College Campus on 84 days — sometimes multiple times — from August to a particularly disruptive day last month when the school was evacuated twice and eventually dismissed an hour early. Firefighters have been called to the school about 50 times.

“It’s nuts,” said police Capt. Steve Young. “It’s really stupid.”

Earlier this month, the school’s third principal of the year announced he was resigning so he can lead a suburban elementary school. He will remain at Southwest through the end of the semester.

The union that represents teachers and other school personnel in the 19,000-student district has demanded changes at the school, which serves seventh-graders through high-schoolers.

“What I truly believe is kids only do what you allow them to do,” said Andrea Flinders, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “You set the standards and then you enforce consequences. There hasn’t been consistent enforcement of the rules and the rules change from one day to the next.”

Even many parents acknowledged the closures were needed as the district for the past few years plowed through large reserves it built up when money from a $2 billion court-ordered desegregation plan was flooding its coffers. The district’s school board voted last spring to close the schools to erase a projected $50 million budget shortfall. School administrators had said that without radical cuts, the district risked being in the red by this year.

The district began operating Southwest as a magnet program in 2008. By last school year, it was serving about 500 students who committed to an early college program. Today, its enrollment totals around 1,300 after it took in students from schools that closed over the summer.

Superintendent John Covington has said he believes a small group of seventh- and eighth-graders is responsible for many of the problems at Southwest.

“We are working with this administration to make sure we create a safe environment for the faculty, the staff and our students,” Covington said during a news conference last month to announce increased security. “With a little patience we’ll get there.”

To address the problems, the district now has a security staff of 18 and is speeding up the installation of security cameras near fire alarms. It also announced last month that it was sending four administrators and eight attendance-and-dropout specialists to help quell disruptions.

Besides the security increases, academics are being addressed too. The district is splitting the school into three academies, placing the early college program that helps students graduate with college credits on one floor and adding a program focused on helping struggling students catch up and another focused on students interested in health and science careers.

The district is looking into requiring every parent to attend a conference and commit themselves to helping their students.

Myers is watching. She said she was pleased her daughter would attend the school she graduated from in 1990. Things went great last year. Her daughter came home excited about what she was learning. This year, one of the new Southwest students has been threatening to jump her daughter, which is particularly scary because the teen has a blood-clotting disorder.

She would like things to return to the way they were last year, but if they don’t she plans to move her daughter to another district school or an independently run charter school. Some of her daughter’s friends have already left the school.

“The teachers have no control over their classes because of these fights,“ Myers said. ”Those teachers up there are wonderful. But if you can’t control your class you can’t teach.”

Johanna Calhoun, the mother of an eighth-grade boy, said her son has been threatened and wound up suspended after getting into a fight himself. She said her son didn’t have a history of getting in trouble before.

She had heard good things about last year, which just magnifies her disappointment.

“My son gets up there and it’s a hot mess,“ Calhoun said. ”Everybody is so hurt by what is going on. We don’t understand.“

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