Falling Stars

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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."

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