Silence fills the halls and classrooms of Sumner Elementary School in Topeka, Kan.—the building where the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school-segregation case originated. Despite its historic role in the country’s education system, Sumner closed its doors as a school in 1996. Since then it has been used as a storage unit, a police training facility, and an art project for vandals. But now one educator is fighting to reopen the site as an affordable private school.
“Sumner’s the first in integration, and Sumner should be the first in innovation,” Sandra Lassiter, a former Topeka elementary school principal who is spearheading the effort, said in an interview. Lassiter hopes a revamped Sumner will breathe life into what she says is a blighted Topeka neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in the city.
Lassiter has submitted three charter school proposals to Topeka’s school board since 2007, the last of which was rejected in December over concerns about the soundness of Lassiter’s education plan, community support, and funding, according to a February 2007 article in Topeka’s Capital-Journal. But Lassiter, who retired from the Topeka district in 2003 on unpleasant terms and subsequently filed a lawsuit claiming she’d been forced to resign, said she believes her checkered history with the district factored into the board’s decision. Now working on her fourth proposal, Lassiter wants to focus on building a solid education foundation for children with a K-3rd grade private school.
Lassiter said there is no shortage of willing teachers, dedicated parents, and community members willing to help her realize her vision. She has also found people interested in establishing a 4th-8th grade charter school, which was a part of her original plan. Currently, she is working with investors and corporate sponsors to raise money to purchase the building and cover costs for the sliding-scale tuition she would charge parents.
She expects at least half of the new school’s students would be those being left behind in existing public schools, and whose families cannot afford to send them to private schools. “We know that a lot of children make it in traditional public schools,” Lassiter said. “But there’s the ‘however’ group [of students]. I‘m saying, ‘Send them to me.’”
Lassiter noted that in her 30 years in education she saw kids that “could run but not read.” With a robust reading program at the core of her planned curriculum at Sumner, Lassiter hopes to close the achievement gap for students who are reading several grades below level. Small classes, on-site student mentors, wellness and character education, and foreign language proficiency for all students by 3rd grade are also part of Lassiter’s plan for the future school. She expects Sumner will be a community hub, with workshops for unwed mothers, a WIC program, and exercise classes for seniors.
For Lassiter and others, reopening Sumner would bring a much-needed resource back into a community that has fallen by the wayside. “We need our hands untied,” she said, “Let’s establish a model where those kids can go back to basics.”
Sumner’s surrounding neighborhood boasts an ethnically and economically diverse population, according to Lassiter. But a local teacher, Darlene Palmer, said this diversity is not always addressed adequately in area classrooms. “We talked about training teachers to prepare them for different types of students that come into the classroom,” she said in an interview. “[But] I believe that teachers need more training in dealing with diverse kids in the classroom.”
Palmer said she finds some of the same issues for integrating schools today that she encountered 30 years ago when she was in college. “When I was in school it was about color, the Jim Crow laws. Now it’s about socioeconomically deprived schools and color,” she said, noting continuing barriers to successful integration efforts.
“Once you think you can reach the bar, somehow the bar is moved,” she said. “Low income or black children can somehow never begin to touch the bar.” But Palmer said she believes Lassiter’s school will recapture its historic role and realize the goals of equal opportunity and equal education that integration is supposed to achieve.