Falling Stars

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The nation's foremost experiment with magnet schools faces rough times ahead.

Kansas City, Mo.

A few years ago, back when it was a neighborhood school and not a "communications academy," Troost Elementary School wasn't much to write home about.

Students spent their time in crowded, dingy classrooms and dimly lit halls. Library books were scarce and out of date. And teachers had to dip into their own wallets for basic supplies.

"We didn't have any technology other than filmstrip projectors," recalls Mary Elizabeth Adams, the computer teacher. "And the building was sadly in need of repair."

But all that was before a far-reaching federal desegregation order had worked its particular brand of magic on Missouri's second-largest school system.

Thanks to a $2.5 million makeover in 1992, the 76-year-old elementary school now boasts a state-of-the-art computer lab, a skylit television studio, and a telephone in every classroom.

At a Glance:
Kansas City, MO., School District
Enrollment: 35,000
Racial composition:
African-American: 72%
White: 19%
Other: 9%
Schools: 72
Magnet schools: 58
Teachers: 2,800
Superintendent: Henry P. Williams
Note: The number of schools and enrollment figures do not include district-run preschool centers and several small alternative schools. The count of magnet schools does not include two African-centered schools not considered magnets for desegregation purposes.

Source: Kansas City School District and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

To help them implement the school's communications magnet theme--a drawing card designed to attract students from outside the school's neighborhood of mostly poor, black families--teachers have been trained in everything from video production to desktop publishing.

"A tremendous amount of effort and a tremendous amount of dollars went into it," Adams says proudly.

Despite this investment, however, Troost's days as one of Kansas City's fleet of specialized magnet schools are numbered. Partly because its test scores and its nonblack enrollment have proved disappointingly low, the 400-student academy is slated to revert next fall to what will be essentially a neighborhood school.

Painful as this anticipated comedown is for the school's parents and educators, they'll have plenty of company. As district leaders here grapple with budget problems of potentially colossal dimensions, a good part of the elaborate mosaic of magnet programs pieced together in Kansas City over the past dozen years will soon be dismantled.

Next fall, under a restructuring plan largely approved this month by a federal judge, well over half the district's nearly 60 separate magnet programs are slated for extinction. While only a dozen of the district's 72 regular schools are now typical neighborhood schools, that number should climb to nearly 40 by this time next year.

The original goal of those who created Kansas City's one-of-a-kind network of magnet schools was a high-quality, integrated system of urban education driven not by mandate but by parental choice.

Most observers now agree that while that vision has been realized in some select schools, it has not become a reality districtwide. Consequently, even strong proponents of the magnet schools believe that some winnowing out of less successful programs is in order. And despite the cutbacks ahead, many of the city's most successful magnet programs are slated to survive, at least in the short term.

Still, given the huge fiscal uncertainties facing the district, their long-term viability is far less certain. Many parents and educators are staggered, moreover, by the sheer scope of the changes immediately in store for them. By some estimates, as many as 20,000 of the district's 37,000 students will enroll next fall in a school they have never attended before.

"There's a lot of instability in the district," observes Douglas Becker, the principal of the Harold L. Holliday Sr. Montessori Elementary School. "All of us have a lot of anxiety about it."

Few districts ever face a retrenchment as sudden or as drastic as the one now confronting Kansas City. But with more and more districts struggling to find the right mix of magnet and neighborhood schools, how it weathers the storm is of interest well beyond the borders of Missouri.

The roots of Kansas City's unusually extensive magnet program extend back to 1984, when a federal judge laid the task of remedying the ills of the city's past system of racially segregated schools on both the district and the state.

"We wanted a glitzy school district, and we have that. But somewhere along the line, we missed some opportunities to do some really great things for the children."

Henry P. Williams,
Kansas City, Mo.

Faced with that decree--and backed by a reservoir of state and local funding mandated by the court--district officials took a gamble. Rather than simply assigning students to schools across town in a bid for racial balance, the district bet that it could achieve the same effect by creating schools so attractive that families would cross racial boundaries on their own.

The result: a plan to convert all of the district's middle and high schools and most of its elementary schools to magnets. The twin goals were to promote racial mixing and upgrade educational quality and achievement. Over a seven-year period that began in 1986, dozens of schools developed specialized themes--ranging from agribusiness and environmental science to foreign-language immersion and the arts.

The state and the district invested nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in facilities alone--out of a total desegregation price tag of nearly $2 billion--with 15 new schools constructed and more than 60 renovated. Custom-built classrooms, well-equipped laboratories, and other state-of-the-art facilities quickly became the norm.

But while those improvements were undoubtedly blessings in their own right, achieving the programs' integration and achievement goals has often proved elusive. The lack of a solid track record has contributed to a sense among many observers--including lawmakers, school board members, judges, and academics--that the nation's costliest and most ambitious desegregation plan has essentially missed the mark.

"We wanted a glitzy school district, and we have that," says Superintendent Henry P. Williams, who arrived here in 1996. "But somewhere along the line, we missed some opportunities to do some really great things for the children."

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