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 Library books were scarce and out of date.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."

The lack of a solid track record has contributed to a sense that the nation's costliest and most ambitious desegregation plan has essentially missed the mark.

A turning point arrived in June 1995, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision that undercut a central rationale for the city's extensive network of magnet schools.

The court found that the state, which has picked up about two-thirds of the district's $1.9 billion desegregation bill since the mid-1980s, could no longer be forced to underwrite the attempt to attract and pay for white students from the suburbs.

The decision put the case back in the lap of U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark, with clear directions to end the case as soon as possible and return the city schools to local control. That step led to talks between the district and state that resulted in a deal approved by Judge Clark, who oversaw the case from 1977 until District Judge Dean Whipple took it over last year.

The agreement called for the state to pay the district $314 million over three years and then to be released from its obligations. The last of the payments are to be made by June of next year, zippering the deep pocket that has brought so much change to Kansas City's schools.

In light of the agreement, district officials are scrambling to slash at least $55 million from their $301 million budget by 1999. But no one really knows if those cuts will be enough. That's because school officials are banking on state and local revenue sources--to replace some of the vanishing desegregation aid--that just might not come through.

In their budget projections, district leaders are figuring on receiving $30 million to $40 million in new state funding once the current subsidies evaporate. But with many lawmakers fed up with what they see as lavish spending by Kansas City, such aid is far from certain.

Likewise, school officials are counting on the more than $75 million a year they raise through a local tax surcharge that the court ordered over city voters' objections. If court oversight of the district is removed, authority for the surcharge would go with it.

In hopes of plugging the gaping hole that would make in the district's budget, state leaders have placed a statewide referendum on the April ballot to essentially authorize the current tax rate. Again, the outcome is uncertain.

But what is clear is that without those twin funding sources, the district faces fiscal problems of lethal proportions.

"If we don't get the money, then turn out the lights," Williams says during an interview in his well-appointed office in the district's downtown headquarters. "The state will have to take over the district, or it will have to be divided up and absorbed into surrounding districts."

Few observers believe state leaders would allow either of those scenarios to unfold, despite widespread grumblings about Kansas City's schools. Still, the possibility of a financial apocalypse strengthened the district's resolve to scale back magnet programs school leaders here say they can no longer afford. The restructurings approved this month are expected to save some $11 million, mostly in reduced busing costs.

"Dollars are not as plentiful as they once were," Williams says. "So we have to make some decisions based on the amount of money we need to cut."

One place where such painful choices are playing out is the Mount Washington German Elementary School, the district's only magnet school devoted solely to full immersion in the German language.

"There will be some hard decisions made, and we're going to have to adjust ourselves to reality."

Marieta West,
Mount Washington
German School

Adorning the halls of the immaculate red-brick building are large color photographs of Bavarian castles. Next to them hang dozens of student writing samples, every one in German. Most teachers are native speakers of the language, including Katrin Lederer.

On a weekday morning, "Frau" Lederer helps her 1st graders compile palm-sized vocabulary booklets and compose sentences in their notebooks. Like her colleagues throughout the building, she says she's disheartened by the decision to phase out the program.

"It's such a good idea to do immersion programs with this age group," she explains. "And everything here is established. To throw it all away--what for?"

To soften the blow, district officials plan to continue a limited version of the program for one more year. But next fall, Mount Washington will begin its conversion to a comprehensive K-5 school.

Although she was holding out hope until just a few weeks ago that the German program might be spared, Principal Marieta West seems resigned to the change. "I feel that before we had desegregation we were still educating children well," she says. "There will be some hard decisions made, and we're going to have to adjust ourselves to reality."

At Central High School, the jewel of Kansas City's schools, similar adjustments are in store. Often referred to by locals as "the Taj Mahal," the low-slung, 250,000-square-foot structure has become a potent symbol of the strengths and weaknesses of the district's magnet schools.

Since its construction in 1991, the $25.9 million complex has housed dual magnet themes. One stresses the use of computers across the curriculum. The other is a "classical Greek" theme, offering what the district calls "a liberal arts education" reflecting the Hellenistic ideal of a sound body and sound mind. Studying the Greek language is not part of the package.

In line with that theme's emphasis on athletics, the district packed Central High with sports facilities that put many colleges to shame. The fieldhouse boasts an indoor track, handball courts, a weight-training room stocked with equipment, and enough basketball hoops to play three simultaneous full-court games.

Upstairs, not far from the wrestling and fencing rooms, a fully equipped gymnastics facility stands ready to carry out its planners' original goal of preparing students for Olympic-level competition. Perhaps most impressive is the "natatorium"--with its eight-lane, Olympic-sized pool and 14-foot diving tank.

"You won't find too many high schools in the country that have this," boasts Principal Willie Bowie.

Yet for all its fine trappings, Central's Greek theme has basically been a bust. Achievement is too low and costs too high to justify keeping the program, the district concluded. Although the computer theme will continue, the Greek theme will soon be ancient history.

In Bowie's eyes, what doomed the theme more than anything was the lack of seriousness among many of the students it attracted. "A lot of kids come here for the wrong reasons, just to say they go to Central High School," he says. "They aren't participating athletically, and they aren't doing well academically."

But whatever the cause of the theme's demise, Bowie says he's already scaling back the program. He has done away with such extras as a fencing instructor, for instance, and has dropped the curtain on the Greek plays that took place in a specially designed, 300-seat theater. With his magnet budget scheduled to shrink from approximately $1 million to $388,000 next school year, Bowie says he's considering cutting head athletic coaches' pay from $5,000 per season to $2,500.

But even with such economies, the principal says he still worries about upkeep once the magnet theme is gone, a concern echoed throughout the district as the cutbacks play out.

Across town at Satchel Paige Classical Greek Elementary School, the Greek theme is also on its way out, but the 75-foot indoor pool that accompanied it will remain.

For the time being, Principal Zora Durham expects to retain the swimming instructor and keep the pool open. Whether she'll be able to in the future, however, is not a sure thing. "I'd hate to see the pool just go to waste, be drained, and just sit there," she says. "But I'll have to manage my budget very carefully."

Superintendent Williams says the district has no plans to drain its pools or put the computer labs in mothballs. One reason the district intends to close schools, he said, is to keep the remaining ones afloat. "Certainly there's a gap in what's needed to maintain our buildings," he says. "But with closing schools, we concentrate our resources."

The district's blueprint for scaling back its magnet program is one piece of a broader plan that Judge Clark ordered the district to craft to end the 21-year-old desegregation case. That transition plan will determine how the district intends to live within its new budget constraints and fulfill Judge Clark's 1997 directive to narrow the achievement gap between black and white students.

Most of the schools losing their themes will have traditional attendance zones and become known as "comprehensive community schools."

While that larger plan remains in the works, parties to the lawsuit focused first on the school restructurings to give the district enough time to adjust by next fall. This month, Judge Whipple approved most of the changes, leaving only a few relatively minor issues to be resolved.

Under the district's nearly final plan, three of the 10 high schools, as well as an elementary school and a middle school, are slated to close. Roughly half the magnet themes will be cut. And dozens of schools will be reconfigured.

At the high schools, agribusiness, business, environmental-science, engineering, and health-professions themes are on the way out. At the middle and elementary levels, schools are losing themes including computers, classical Greek, German, Latin grammar, and science and math. In addition, arts and sciences and global studies are getting the ax in the middle schools, and communications will be eliminated at all three levels.

Themes destined to survive at both the elementary and middle school levels include environmental science, French, Montessori, and Spanish. At the elementary level, inquiry-based and applied-learning themes will continue. College-preparatory magnets will remain at the middle and high school levels, as will advanced-technical, military, and law and public service themes in the high schools. Visual and performing arts will continue at all three levels.

Most of the schools losing their themes will have traditional attendance zones and become known as "comprehensive community schools."

A central goal of this plan is to curtail busing. Marilyn Simmons, a member of the Kansas City school board, says that change will be welcome in many African-American families like hers. "All these buses come to our neighborhood to take children to different schools that are already 60 to 70 percent minority," she says. "Kids are getting up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus at 6:30. That's just not constructive."

To Simmons, the busing burden reflected a larger flaw in the magnet program. Themes were catered to "what upper-middle-class white parents wanted," she says. "My interests and concerns weren't even regarded."

Board member Darwin Curls agrees. By building up community schools, he says, parent involvement will grow and neighborhood cohesion will increase. In this way, he suggests, the district's budget crisis has exerted pressure for positive change. "You always hate to see money go," Curls says. "But we're trying to bring about home rule ... and a parent-centered district."

In addition to less busing, however, dismantling the magnets will also mean less integration.

Arthur A. Benson II, the lawyer who has represented the plaintiff schoolchildren in the district's desegregation case, says that's unfortunate. Over the past 13 years, he says, Kansas City has made the most progress in improving racial balance of all major U.S. school systems under court order to desegregate.

Under the restructuring plan, more schools are expected to join the list of 16 district schools that are all black or nearly so. Others are poised to become majority white, something not seen since 1992 in the district, whose students are now more than 80 percent nonwhite.

Among the most integrated of the magnet schools is Holliday Montessori, a 6-year-old school where 65 percent of enrollment is African-American. Accommodating students from age 3 through 7th grade, the school has among the district's highest test scores and attracts white students from some of the city's most well-heeled neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, Holliday's principal says he has always considered the improvement of educational opportunities for minorities to be his foremost mission. "Montessori is a European model that is new to minority parents and it's here because of the desegregation program," Becker notes. "But the black parents are sold on it."

"We're sorry it's happening, but we can't just roll over and die."

Elinor Wilson,
Troost Elementary School

Because Kansas City schools have lost so much of their white enrollment since the desegregation case was filed in 1977, a primary aim of the magnet plan was to attract children from the suburbs. With the exception of a few schools, that strategy was never an overwhelming success. Still, more than 1,400 white out-of-towners attended Kansas City magnet schools before the 1995 Supreme Court decision that undercut the transfer plan. As the district cut off transportation for those students in the court order's wake, that number has dwindled to approximately 200.

Among them are Jolia Poltorak's two sons, who continue to take advantage of the district's French-immersion programs. One of the boys, Alexander Poltorak Ergo, is a kindergartner this year at Sugar Creek French Elementary School, which is slated to revert to a neighborhood school next fall.

"We've been ecstatic about the program since the first day," says Poltorak, who lives in nearby Independence. "A lot of people who are against it in Kansas City don't understand what a great gift this is. My son is already saying he might have a job in Paris someday."

But some of those critics, including Simmons, the African-American school board member, say they see no reason why the city should bestow such a gift on suburbanites. Particularly galling to Simmons were the free taxis that formerly ferried suburban youngsters to central-city schools. "That was a total waste of my tax dollars," she says.

Gail Noren, another suburban mother with a kindergartner and a 3rd grader at Sugar Creek, does not disagree. When the district cut taxi service for her children, she quit her job as a nursery school teacher and began driving them herself. "We felt the least we could do was provide transportation," she says.

Noren adds that she understands why some resent her children's presence in the district, but she feels they contribute more than their skin color. "Some people come in and get a free ride," she says. "But last year I volunteered in the school every day from 9 to 4. It's a two-way street."

National experts on school desegregation who disagree on nearly everything else can find common ground on this: Kansas City simply went overboard when it came to magnet schools.

"There were never enough white students to justify making all of those schools magnets," says David J. Armor, a research professor at the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "They got too much money, and they spent some of it on facilities that will never have the demand to justify them."

Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University and a strong defender of traditional desegregation remedies, rarely finds himself on the same side of an issue as Armor. But he, too, believes that Kansas City overdid the magnet concept, and that a good deal of the money that flowed into the program was misspent.

"You dumped this tremendous amount of money into a school district that did not have the will or the capacity to spend it very effectively or monitor itself," he says. "Then all of a sudden the plug was pulled."

A 1996 book by Orfield and other members of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation found that the magnet program had shown only limited gains. "Touted as the solution to both poor achievement and racial segregation, the plan achieved only modest advances in both categories," it concludes.

Armor says the wrenching cutbacks now taking place were as predictable as they are unfortunate. "The system became acclimated to a very high, unrealistic level of funding," he explains. "The reason they've been able to avoid these hard choices is they've had an artificial situation. It's very, very hard to go back now to normal funding."

At Troost Elementary, parents and educators know all about such difficulties.

Victoria L. Noteis, Kansas City's director of city planning and the mother of a 3rd grader at Troost, says she is impressed by what teachers have done with the magnet resources they have received. She says Adams, the computer teacher, is a case in point.

"She's had them on the Internet with climbers in the Himalayas and talking with kids in Australia about Stella Luna," Noteis says, referring to the popular children's book. "There are things like that going on throughout this district and nobody knows it. Why we would destroy that is beyond me."

But Elinor Wilson, the school's principal, vows that she and her faculty will do all they can to retain the best of what being a magnet school has brought them. "We have to say, 'How can we keep it going?'" the principal says. "We're sorry it's happening, but we can't just roll over and die."

Vol. 17, Issue 24, Page 34-39

Published in Print: February 25, 1998, as Falling Stars
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