Wednesday, July 01, 2009


I am completely a product of the Kansas City, Missouri school district. I was educated in the district from kindergarten through high school graduation. Then I attended Kansas City Junior College, now Metropolitan Community College and I have both a bachelor's and master's degree from UMKC. My first job out of college was to teach in the Kansas City, Missouri school district -- first at Southeast Junior for seven years and then at the original Paseo High School for fifteen years. That totals 42 years of my life given to the KCMO schools. I hang my head in shame and mortification that I supported this criminally racist district for so much of my life.

Once I graduated from the pristine white enclave of Southwest High School, the school that created the need for the huge desegregation plan Kansas City lived under for so many years, I was always very clear that my career in education belonged in urban core schools. Consequently, I have never stepped back into Southwest since I graduated in 1964 -- the year the school was nominated as one of the 50 best in the nation.

For my 22 year teaching career in KCMO district I never earned a salary above $32,000 – that’s with 20 years tenure and a master’s degree. I quit in 1990 when my high school was detonated to make way for a performing arts school. During the late 1980's and early 1990's, J.E. Dunn (the city's pre-eminent construction company) and Freedom, Inc. (an African-American political group) bilked the district of over ONE BILLION DOLLARS (and I lost count after the first billion -- it was probably closer to TWO BILLION) claiming that they were building new schools of the highest quality and renovating the old ones to top standards.

So the beautiful school I taught in (on the right) was leveled. There was nothing wrong with it, frankly, other than the greed that bringing it down and rebuilding a huge complex on its site generated (on the left, below). The high school I graduated from, Southwest, cost over $33 million to renovate. They even put in a planetarium. Westport High School in the center of the city was renovated at a cost higher than that. And the decrepit Central High School, the only high school for African-Americans during the shame of the 1950's, was torn down and replaced with a structure to support the "Greek" magnet concept -- this meant that the students were trained to become athletes (after all it was for the Black Community) so they needed a swimming pool that the instructors could walk under and watch the swimmers. Also during this time every single school in the district became a magnet school and the neighborhood schools were a thing of the past.

Today a new superintendent took over the KCMOSD, Dr. John Covington. He is reported to be guaranteed a $250,000 yearly salary for the next three years. He was hired in from the outside. His inaugurial speech was all about how he was going to be open and communicative with the people of Kansas City. He is the 24th superintendent in the district in the last 40 years. In the last 20 years nearly all of the superintendents have had their contracts bought out by the district.

I left the Kansas City School District in 1990 and I'm sure they were thrilled to see me go. Along with my students and their parents, we had sued the district in federal court to stop the destruction of Paseo High School and to ensure that those students, 100% African-American, would not have their last years of high school destroyed by a magnet plan that was sure to fail. We lost our case after a nine-month fight that was the #2 media story of Kansas City in 1989/90-- everybody likes a David and Goliath fight.

Today, the district's magnet plan is history. Funny that neighborhood schools are now the hue and cry of the parents. The billion dollars in construction? Today the district cannot afford to maintain the schools they built or rehabbed. Once Dunn and Freedom had taken all the money they could from the district, they had no interest in the educational fate of the students. This month the district has announced it is closing 13 area schools. Southwest High School stands empty except for occasional attempts to find a private sponsor to take it over. Both Westport and Central Middle Schools are being closed for the next school year.

Today I work in a district across the state line. I said I'd never cross over -- but then I began to hear about an urban core district that had their act together (and yes, they asked me to come). They were actually educating inner city students. Test scores were going up. Teachers were treated like professionals -- and though we don't make a heap of money, we sure make more than $32,000 I made from 1983 until 1990 when I quit KCMO. Even better, this district promotes its own. The superintendent was a teacher, then a principal, then an administrator in the district. She lives right around the corner from my high school. She shows up for celebrations and in times of trouble.

Here's an antidote I like to tell about the differences I see in the two districts, just from a teacher's perspective:

An arson fire was started at Paseo during the mid-1980's. It was in the office, did little physical destruction but there was water and smoke damage. The school shut down for three days but the teachers were required to be on site. During the first day, I was in my room, salvaging papers and generally examining the damage when the superintendent of schools showed up -- in a three piece white suit with his chauffeur (you got that right -- he had a driver, paid for by the district with the worst test scores in the state!). Of course, dressed all in white he couldn't sit down but he walked through first floor of the building (gingerly) and then had the teachers meet with him briefly in the auditorium. There we were told it was our job to make sure our rooms were cleaned of all damage before school opened in two days time. We were the cleaning crew.

During my first year across the state line, we had a vandalism event at my beautiful, historic, well-preserved, and beloved school. Students came in, took fire extinguishers and threw them through the beautiful historic panes of glass in our doors. They shot the foam up and down the hallways. In some rooms they threw things out the windows. When the teachers arrived in the morning, the police were still in the building, with the superintendent who had come over from her house in her bathrobe. We gathered in the parking lot. Soon the superintendent came out and told us we could enter the building and examine our rooms and see the damage, but then we were to go home and relax for the rest of the day. The district hired crews to come in and clean the building from top to bottom -- 24 hours of work -- while the teachers got a paid day of vacation. The next morning, when we gathered at school, the superintendent and her staff were there to greet us and tell us how sorry she was about the damage to our lovely building and to encourage us to have a good day despite the trouble. We could not tell that any problem had even occurred in the building. Everything was back in place, ready for business.

How vastly different are both approaches. In one setting the teachers were janitors, maids, and cleaning people. In the other, we were respected and valued professionals. In one setting the superintendent showed up to lord his suit, driver, and power over us. In the other, the superintendent was there for support, both physical and moral.

The district I work in now is improving test scores with the same student population, but possibly even more diverse (we have a larger Hispanic community) than in Kansas City Missouri. Do we face problems? Of course. But we handle them as a team. The staff is seen as professionals who want to do a good job. The administration is there to support the teaching and the teachers are there to provide a quality education.

I love teaching. I never knew how much until I finally came into a world where teachers have a value and students are the reason for our existence.

I believe with all my heart that the reason the Kansas City Missouri School District fails is because the city leaders want it to fail. Nothing is as frightening to closet bigots as having an educated minority population -- because you might actually be creating someone like an Obama -- and dear God! we don't want "those folks" in power.

So I still live in Kansas City -- and yes, I live east of Troost (white eyes are rolling now!) -- but I would NEVER, EVER entrust a child to the Kansas City School District. The people that run that show (and it's not the superintendent or the teachers, I promise you) are devils. But they are rich devils, for sure.

1 comment:

Margaret said...

As you know as a loyal reader, I LOVE education rants and do many of my own. (but not so much in the summer)This is an excellent post and should be required reading for admin in ALL districts. Way to go!!