School district deals with urban challenges


Opinion column

by Murrel Bland

Dr. Charles Foust has a difficult job. Only time will tell if he is the person to turn around the Kansas City, Kansas, School District that suffers from a series of structural problems. So far, Dr. Foust remains optimistic that the district will improve.

Dr. Foust was the featured speaker at a luncheon Friday, Nov. 15, of the Congressional Forum at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. About 75 persons, mostly business leaders of the Kansas City, Kansas, Chamber of Commerce, attended.

Much of the speech dealt with a PowerPoint presentation that indicated district students have made progress academically. When you look at where students have been and are, there is plenty of room for improvement. Only about 20 percent of students are proficient in math and reading skills. Dr. Foust said it was important for teachers and administrators to be enthusiastic about their profession.

During the 30 years starting in the early 1970s, the district suffered a substantial loss of its middle class as more than 60,000 persons left Kansas City, Kansas. Many of these persons moved to Johnson or Leavenworth counties. At the same time, about 30,000 persons moved to Kansas City, Kansas; many of these newcomers were not members of the middle class.

Teaching in an urban district is challenging; many of the students are considered “at risk,” qualifying for free or reduced meals. Many students come from one-parent homes. More than 500 are considered homeless (there are different definitions and levels of homelessness). Several students do not speak English.

Financing the school district is expensive. The district has an annual budget of more than $380 million; that equates to about $16,000 per student. A third of a typical property tax bill goes to the school district. To its credit, the district’s student population has been stable in recent years. In the early 1970s, its student population was at its peak with more than 30,000; Washington was the largest high school in Kansas.

Dr. Foust said that the district’s schools are safe. That is contrary to comments he heard last year when he was applying for the superintendent’s job. Parents pleaded with him, telling of horror stories about unsafe conditions at Schlagle and Washington high schools.

The graduation rate from Kansas City, Kansas, high schools has shown improvement at about 73 percent. But there is concern that even if students receive diplomas, they are not prepared with necessary skills for secondary education. Many of these students end up at Kansas City Kansas Community College where they must take remedial classes in math and English before they are able to take college-level courses. To Dr. Foust’s credit, he meets regularly with Dr. Greg Mosier, the president of the community college, to discuss common concerns. The district is offering its buildings for college classes.

The decline of academic standards at Sumner Academy of Arts and Science has been seen. Sumner is a college preparatory magnet school created in the late 1970s as a result of a federal desegregation lawsuit. As the district lost its middle class, student achievement at Sumner has declined. Some Sumner graduates must take remedial classes at the community college.

Dr. Foust made a plea for volunteers to “adopt” schools. A member of the Congressional Forum audience, Dr. Jane Winkler Philbrook, said her Kiwanis Club is already doing that; the club has adopted Stony Point South Elementary School.

Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He is the executive director of Business West.

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