Kansas City’s Lavish Classical Greek Magnet Draws Suburban Students and Raises Eyebrows

By Debra Viadero — September 25, 1991 8 min read

KANSAS CITY, MO.--The ancient Greeks never had it as good as Steven Griffin, a junior at Central High School here. A student at the nation’s first “classical Greek” magnet school, Mr. Griffin can choose between learning tae kwon do or tennis. In the school’s Olympic-sized pool, he can take up scuba diving and kayaking.

He will study classical Greek art and architecture and learn the art of debate. And, when he becomes a senior, he will be required to participate in a Greek drama production in the schools 300-seat amphitheater.

“Wherever you go,” he says, “people always want to talk about this school.”

Lots of Missourians are talking about Central High School, and not always favorably. Known as much for its costliness as for its unique program, the school could well be, as its promotional materials proclaim, the “most talked about school in the country.”

The $32-million project, scheduled for completion this year, is the “flagship” program of the nation’s most ambitious and expensive desegregation plan. At a cost of more than $700 million, the Kansas City School District plans to convert each of its 78 schools into magnet schools. Among the features at some of these new programs are a 25-acre farm, a 2,000-square-foot planetarium, and a Model United Nations wired for language translation. None, however, is expected to cost as much as the Central High School project.

In addition to its pool and indoor amphitheater, the school houses a 42,000 square-foot fieldhouse--big enough to accommodate basketball and track practice at the same time. It has a six-lane, one-tenth-mile indoor track, weight-training facilities, racquetball courts, and a gymnastics room equipped with a spring floor exercise mat and a tumbling pit filled with chunks of foam to guard against injuries.

“We’ve always believed the classical Greek program could not be implemented in a lesser facility and be integrated,” says Art Rainwater, the district’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “If you want to train athletes to develop to the best of their ability, you don’t drag mats out in the middle of the floor for gymnastics practice.”

For the ‘Scholar/Athlete’

Central High School is actually two magnet schools under one roof. A magnet program geared to students interested in learning about computers opened at the school in 1988.

Through that program, students have access to more than 1,000 networked computers-more than one for every student in the computer program. Pupils also work with sophisticated electronics equipment, robotics facilities, and computer-aided drafting programs.

“Our students come away from here with the equivalent of a college major in computer science,” says Mr. Rainwater, who also helped design the programs as Central’s former principal.

The classical Greek program, however, has attracted all the attention this year.

In that program, which opened two weeks ago, students are required to take philosophy, Greek, and Latin as well as personal development--a five-day-a-week course that stresses individual physical fitness and development and skills-training in specific sports. They study sports biology and all are required to participate in at least two competitive sports, one of which is an individual sport such as running or judo.

“This is for the scholar/athlete,” Mr. Rainwater says. “That emphasis a lot of times presents a problem in people’s minds because they think the only way to do that is to lower the academic standards.”

The juxtaposition of those two distinct programs, Mr. Rainwater admits, throws together “two very different kinds of kids.”

To minimize differences and teach students to respect them, the program’s designers have blended together some courses commonly taken by all students. English classes, for example, are taught by instructors from the computer-program, and classwork is done on computers. Social studies is taught, using Socratic methods, by teachers from the Greek program.

“You take kids who work” on a computer all day, Mr. Rainwater says, and “you force them in a situation where they have to interact with people.” Likewise, he says, “competitive kids,” who spend much of their time in classroom discussions and in social interaction, must learn to work solitarily on computers.

The facilities housing all of this are built on the site of the city’s oldest high school. Set in the heart of a mostly black, low- to middle-income neighborhood in the heart of the city, the old building was, in the words of one teacher at the new school, like “something out of Blackboard Jungle.”

Photographs of the late-19th-century structure show paint peeling from classroom walls, stained tiles hanging from ceilings, and a spectator area in the gym that was used as a storage area and junk repository. Much of the cost of the new Central High School project, say school officials, stemmed from the need to tear down the old school and completely build the new one, which opened Sept. 3. The district is also building a stadium across the street from the school, which will include four tennis courts, an outdoor track, and football, soccer, and rugby fields.

Consultants and school officials selected Central for the classical Greek magnet, in part, because it was viewed as one of the most difficult schools to desegregate. As late as 1987, every student at the school was black. Last year, a year after the computer magnet opened, the proportion of African-American students had declined only slightly, to 92 percent.

Employees at the school said white suburban residents still ask them if they “are afraid” to work at Central.

“Whether that’s fact or fiction, security is perceived to be a problem in desegregating the schools,” says Walter Marks, the district’s new schools superintendent.

A major draw for the new program, school officials decided, would be its athletic facilities.

“There are kids in the suburbs whose parents are paying $2,000, $3,000, and $4,000 a year for them to participate in private gymnastics clubs,” Mr. Rainwater says. If the schools are to desegregate, he adds, “we’re going to have to have facilities at least equivalent to that.”

The school district stepped up its efforts to recruit white, suburban students to Central and three other inner-city magnet programs with a targeted marketing campaign. Linda Smaagard, the district’s marketing and recruitment director, says the effort included television, radio, and print advertisements, brochures, and, in Central’s case, two “hard hat” tours to view the new building.

“I think Central is kind of a linchpin of whether we’re successful or not at the high-school level,” Mr. Marks says. “We’re at a point now where, if we don’t make some major’ improvement in test scores and desegregation levels, then we’ve sorely missed the mark.”

Already, the classical Greek magnet program appears to be having some success, school officials say. This year, 71 percent of the 235 students entering the program are black. In contrast, 88 percent of the 800 students in the computer program are African-American.

“A lot of my friends are going to try to come here,” says Derrik Rogers, a student from a mostly white section of the city whose interest in karate and weightlifting led him to Central.

“In a white shirt and blue shorts"--the school’s gym uniform--"everybody’s the same,” he says.

The program was a draw as well for some of the teachers hired to staff it. Ed Bielek took a job as the personal-development teacher after working as a strength coach at the University of Kansas and directing a youth program at the city’s Y.M.C.A.

“We’ve got close to an unlimited situation here to develop athletes to their fullest potential,” he says. “that’s very exciting, and that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the country.”

Pamela Peppers, a teacher in the computer program, says students at the school tell her “this is a beautiful building, and they’re wanting to come to school every day.”

“And these teachers seem like they’ve been excited from day one,” she says.

‘Taj Mahal’

Beyond the spanking new walls of Central, however, mention of the project still generates heated controversy. Gov. John A. Ashcroft has dubbed the building the “Taj Mahal,” and senior citizens complain of having to pay higher taxes to fund it.

Michael Fields, the state’s assistant attorney general, who has led the state’s legal battles opposing the desegregation plan, said the school’s rigorous academic program was “a sham” and labeled Central “a jock school.”

“This’ll be the acid test for the idea that you can attract kids with pretty buildings,” he adds.

The complaints reached a peak in recent years after U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark, who approved and oversees the desegregation plan, ordered a tax increase to pay for it. His authority to take that action was upheld last April by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state has filed another legal action, contesting facets of the plan, before the High Court. It names Central as an example of the kind of excessive spending that can result from a desegregation plan that puts “no limits” on school officials.

Mr. Marks entered that fray seven months ago as no stranger to controversy himself. The former schools superintendent in Richmond, Calif., was criticized for spending practices earlier this year after the Richmond school district, noted for pioneering a similarly ambitious “choice” plan, filed for bankruptcy.

“I guess it would be kind of ironic,” admits Mr. Marks on his selection as Kansas City schools chief.

“But if we’re going to rebuild inner-city education,” he adds, “we’ve got to build facilities that match any in the country, and urban kids deserve that.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1991 edition of Education Week as Kansas City’s Lavish Classical Greek Magnet Draws Suburban Students and Raises Eyebrows