What schools closing in Kansas City means for children, families and neighborhoods
This month will mark the end for at least three Kansas City schools, and another is fighting to stay open
Kevin Foster, executive director of Genesis School, waves to a classroom of students on May 16 in Kansas City. The K-8 charter school won’t reopen in the fall unless a court intervenes in its sponsor’s decision to shut it down (Zach Bauman/The Beacon).
Teachers and staff at Genesis School in Kansas City have tried to maintain a normal school year despite an unusual situation: They don’t know whether students will return in the fall.
That’s because the K-8 charter school’s sponsor, the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, wants to shut it down over its academic performance. The State Board of Education backed that decision after Genesis appealed.
Genesis argues that recent data shows it has improved. School leaders also say the commission didn’t follow the process outlined in its contract with Genesis when it moved to close the school.
Genesis has asked a court to overrule its sponsor and the state board, Executive Director Kevin Foster said, and expects it might receive a decision about a week after its June 9 trial date.
While Foster believes the school’s case is strong, he’s still preparing for both outcomes.
Officials have informed families about other schools their students could attend. School leaders are learning about what it would take to “wind down a school,” Foster said, and discussing how Genesis could serve the neighborhood in another format. The organization existed as a nonprofit before it became a charter school.
Other Kansas City schools, and the communities they serve, are also making plans for school closures as the 2022-23 academic year wraps up. In January, the Kansas City Public Schools board voted to close two neighborhood elementary schools, Longfellow and Troost, at the end of the school year, citing declining enrollment districtwide that has left KCPS’ budget spread thin on too many aging school buildings. A private school, Urban Christian Academy, also plans to close its doors after a show of support for LGBTQ+ students caused funders to withdraw.
A school closure may mark the end of an era, but it leaves a gap with lasting impacts. Where do students go? What happens to the building? How does a neighborhood recover from the loss?
The impact of a school closure on students and families
With Longfellow Elementary closing, Beth Coleman’s son and daughter will attend a new school this fall. For Coleman’s son, who will start fourth grade at Primitivo Garcia Elementary, it will be his third school in three years. That’s particularly sad, Coleman said, because her son and her younger daughter, who will start first grade, have had positive experiences at Longfellow. She told The Beacon in January that her son was happier after he transferred from a Kansas City charter school that wasn’t meeting his academic needs.
“This was their first year at Longfellow, and they really loved it there,” she said recently. “And so for it to only be a year, it’s actually pretty upsetting to them.”
To support families like Coleman’s, Kansas City Public Schools has been offering school tours, enrollment nights and an informational webpage, district spokesperson Shain Bergan said in a statement. He declined an interview with The Beacon.
In addition to newly assigned neighborhood schools, the district waived the standard transfer application process for several nearby schools if families enrolled before mid-March, and encouraged families to consider its signature schools, which have a specific focus area such as college prep or arts and are open to families throughout the district.
A side effect of those extra choices is that groups of friends may not stay together as families select different schools.
Enrolling at a different school than his friends has been hard on her son, Coleman said. To help children acclimate, she suggested Primitivo Garcia could host events, facilitate icebreaker activities or build extra time into the school day for kids to socialize and make new friends.
At Genesis, Foster is also thinking about what families will do if the school closes.
Genesis, which is attached to the Thornberry Unit of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, offers free before- and after-school care as well as embedded mental health services. Genesis specializes in helping students who struggled at other schools.
Foster said he was sure to distribute information about the charter school lottery process in time for families to have a chance at entering the most competitive schools. Families can enroll in charter schools with open seats or KCPS neighborhood schools at any time, but Foster worries that some families will struggle to find a good fit at another school if Genesis closes.
The leader of Urban Christian Academy also emphasized its tight-knit and comprehensive approach to supporting families. The school is particularly grieving the “loss of community,” Executive Director Kalie Callaway-George said earlier this year.
“UCA really has existed as a support system for many of our scholars and their families,” she said. Resources to help with bills, clothing or food likely exist in other schools, but “because we’re a small community, we’re just able to do that in a really personalized way.”
The impact on neighborhoods
School closures in Kansas City aren’t new.
Judith Boyd has seen dozens of KCPS schools close since she began her more than 40-year teaching career in the district. “Every neighborhood has suffered the loss of a school. Some neighborhoods like ours have suffered more than one,” she said.
Boyd, now a member of the Blue Hills Neighborhood Association board, said she used to stop by a house after school or during lunch if she needed to talk to a family. “You get to know other people in your neighborhood, other parents, you subscribe to a common culture of success and focus and vision,” she said. But some of the schools that built that sense of community no longer exist.
Charter schools, which can draw students from all over the district, and the remaining more scattered neighborhood schools also have a sense of community and culture, Boyd said. But she isn’t sure how that shared culture extends outside the building when families don’t live nearby.
From her home, longtime Blue Hills resident Linda Brown can see children walking to Troost Elementary. “It’s funny because when you see them cutting up, I step out into the yard and will say stuff to them,” she said. If the children talk back, she’ll remind them that she knows where their mother lives.
“Those are the things that you miss with the neighborhood school and kids walking to and from school,” she said.
The physical vacancy a closed school leaves can also harm a neighborhood if it isn’t filled, said Brown, who is president of the Blue Hills Neighborhood Association. Empty buildings can attract crime and be dangerous for curious children, she said.
KCPS typically attempts to repurpose vacant buildings or sell them. Some sites have been turned into apartment complexes or co-working spaces. But other closed schools such as Pershing School in Blue Hills have been vacant for a long time.
“It lends to the blight in the neighborhood,” Boyd said. “It also makes people wonder, are they important? Is anything ever going to happen here? You know, are we going to benefit from what happens here?”
That’s why Boyd and Brown are relieved that the district plans to continue using the Troost site. It may be used for professional development or as a temporary school site for students whose buildings are being renovated.
“Not only is the spirit of the neighborhood not as broken as it could have been, but the real estate in the neighborhood… it’s not going to get worse,” Boyd said. “There is some loss and some sadness, but it could have been so much worse than it is.”
Boyd taught at Troost Elementary for 20 years until her retirement in 2013, then returned as a reading interventionist and volunteer. She said she hopes the district works to preserve the school’s history.
She remembers children proudly singing a song about school namesake Dr. Benoist Troost at assemblies, though she acknowledges Troost, who enslaved people, is controversial.
“Some of the most powerful and best teachers in the district at one time at the elementary level went right through Troost Elementary,” Boyd said.
Foster said the Genesis building won’t remain vacant if the school closes.
“We have a facility, and there’s a deep commitment to serve at-risk kids,” he said. “We might serve as a nonprofit educational service provider.”
But the school’s closure will still leave a void, he said, referring to a map that shows many Genesis students’ homes are clustered around the school and not near other charter schools. Genesis is open to students districtwide, but 84% of those enrolled live within three miles of the school, and 75% live within two miles of it.
People who cared about the ecosystem of available schools would ask, “How do we get that building, and how do we get those kids?” Foster said. “But no one’s calling.”
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