When John Covington messed with the Southwest Early College Campus, he messed with the wrong neighborhood association.
The Armour Fields Homes Association covers the area of Wornall Road to Ward Parkway and Gregory Boulevard to 65th Street. If City Hall were swallowed by an especially hungry sinkhole, Armour Fields residents would miss few of the city's services. They pay for private security and contract for their own snow removal. The decorative roundabouts that dot the intersections of some streets were once owned by the city and maintained by the parks department, but for years, the islands have belonged to the association so that their foliage and fountains could be tended privately.
Not surprisingly, Armour Fields residents are the kinds of people who attend public meetings.
So when Covington, the superintendent of the Kansas City, Missouri, School District, held a series of meetings starting in February 2010 to discuss his ambitious plan to close half of the district's 61 schools, Armour Fields was well-represented in the audience. The proposed closures were integral to the cost-cutting course that Covington had set for the district the previous fall. By shutting down the district's costliest buildings, consolidating their student populations at the schools that remained, and axing 1,000 jobs, Covington aimed to close a $50 million budget gap.
The residents in the Brookside-area neighborhoods that ring Southwest knew that "right-sizing" the district, as Covington called it, was necessary. But they were wary about what it might mean for them.
Southwest was special. The magnet school's program started with one class of sixth-graders in 2008; the plan was to gradually build to full secondary-school capacity. Southwest drew its student body from every corner of the city, but many kids came from the blighted, crime-ridden neighborhoods east of Troost and north of 30th Street.
The key to Southwest's success was that these kids weren't required to go there. They chose to attend. Students and parents signed contracts promising to meet the school's academic standards, work hard, participate in class and stay after school for tutoring, if necessary. The contract was nonbinding and largely symbolic. Kicking underperforming kids out of school wasn't part of Southwest's philosophy.
The school's neighbors, understanding this philosophy, opted in, too.
Brookside resident Marsha Ramsey, who doesn't have children, joined a group of volunteers called "We Are Southwest" because she so believed in the mission of the early college program. She went to three of the district's right-sizing meetings, where she heard administrators say Southwest would have to absorb 800 to 900 of the students displaced by Covington's plan. The new students would be held to the same standards as those already enrolled, the district promised, and the character of the school would be kept intact.
"In all those meetings, we were lied to," Ramsey says. "We asked repeatedly, 'Would Southwest remain an early college campus?' Each time we were told, 'Yes.' And we supported it because we believed it would remain what it was."
To lay out its right-sizing goals, the district published a manual — the "Transition Booklet." Anyone consulting the booklet for guidance about how the leaner district would be run instead found 247 pages of rhetoric about encouraging partnerships, engaging parents and neighborhood volunteers, rewarding effective teachers and keeping the whole process transparent. For students, parents, neighbors and volunteers, right-sizing Southwest turned out to be anything but.
A year ago, students stepped off the buses, lined up outside Southwest High School and headed straight inside. Now, some of the kids get off the bus and walk in the opposite direction.
The 83-year-old building, at Wornall Road and 65th Street, is a hulking mass of brick and mortar, with front doors framed by tusklike columns. Among its graduates are some of Kansas City's darlings: H&R Block founders Henry and Richard Bloch, former UMB Bank president R. Crosby Kemper, movie director Robert Altman.