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.
But Southwest's prestige dwindled as the drama of desegregation played out and the district's chronic mismanagement took its toll. The district shuttered Southwest for budget-cutting purposes in 1998. A charter school leased the building in 2000 but dissolved in 2005, leaving the building vacant again until 2008.
Southwest's latest incarnation, which opened in 2008, was painstakingly developed under a new, ambitious model devised by the University of Missouri-Kansas City and two educational philanthropies, PREP-KC and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Principal Steve Scraggs was vetted by these partners. In turn, Scraggs chose a motivated, creative group of teachers to join his staff. The curriculum was designed to graduate kids with up to 60 hours of college credit.
English teacher Amy Smith (who spoke on the condition that her real name not be used) was one of Scraggs' hires. She was in her mid-20s, an optimistic recent graduate of UMKC's School of Education. In August 2009, about to start her first year at Southwest, Smith posted a jubilant note on Facebook: "What is happening at this school is something unprecedented in our district .... The leadership and the staff community at the school believes in, sweats over, and invests every day in the idea that ANY student in the District who shows up at our doorstep wishing to go to college can graduate from our school with two years of college credit already earned."
It was like build your own school back then, Smith says. "Everything we did in those first two years was just, like, we were an upstart," she tells The Pitch. "If you wanted something in the school, you had to do it yourself."
The work was paying off. Southwest's ninth-grade math team, for instance, came in first in a 2009 regional math contest. But the school's success depended on its small class sizes and opt-in model — tenets that the right-sizing plan was about to torpedo.
Covington's plan and the district's boundary changes addressed the district's budget problems at warp speed. No one doubted that the rip-off-the-Band-Aid approach would cause pain.
"Except it's not like ripping off a Band-Aid," Smith says. "It has ripple effects that linger. And it's not like a Band-Aid because it's a year of kids' lives."
Josh Lockhart and Dominique Moore, both 16, attended Westport High School as freshmen last year. After Westport was shut down as part of Covington's plan, Lockhart and Moore learned that they'd be attending Southwest.
Lockhart was excited. Before his freshman year, he applied to Southwest's early college program, but it was already full. He was looking forward to this year. "I was like, yeah, I still got a second shot at this, so it'll be pretty cool," he says. "But it was not like that."
The first day of school was a shock to students and teachers alike.
"We knew they were shutting down Westport, and we thought just Westport was coming to Southwest," Lockhart says. "Obviously, that isn't what happened. There's kids from East, Central, Hickman, Lincoln, Paseo."
Southwest was expected to absorb 800 to 900 new students, but the number turned out to be more like 1,200, bringing the school's total student population, teachers there say, close to 1,800.
"They had new staff [from other schools] coming over, but it was just so last-minute," Smith says. "It's just so hilarious. No one knew where they were going to teach — at what school, let alone what grade they were going to teach — until, like, a week before school started or less. We had to move our classrooms around at the very last minute because if you don't know where you're teaching, how can the principal assign rooms? We didn't know where our heads, asses and elbows were that first month."
Just getting the kids though the front doors and past security was an ordeal.
"They dropped us off on the side of the building, and we had to walk around, and you'd see this big ol' line of people," Lockhart says. "Like they're waiting on a premiere or something."
The fights started from day one, Lockhart and Moore say. Right-sizing meant consolidating student populations from all over the district. And anyone who understands gang warfare in Kansas City knows that the neighborhood you claim can be of grave importance.
"It gets pretty chaotic," Lockhart says. "Kids from the 50s, the 30s, the 20s just be all under one roof."
"They'll be so-called 'funking with the side' or something," Moore says, laughing at his awkwardness with the phrase, which means challenging someone based on their neighborhood allegiance.
Lockhart and Moore aren't interested in street life. They wanted to go to Southwest to learn. It caused a few problems for Moore.
"How can I put this — " he starts out. "People who feel that you think you're better than them, in a way, or see that you got stuff that they don't have, they mess with you or try to take your stuff or something. I was a victim of that. But my brother and my friends had my back."
The district's alternative schools were closed under the right-sizing effort. But after fights spiked at Southwest, district administrators started plucking students out, placing them in a hastily created program-within-a-program at Manual Career Technical Center, the district's vocational school.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict that a disorganized environment will encourage bad behavior from kids who are prone to acting out. But even simpler predictions turned out to be beyond the district's planning capabilities.
At the start of the year, the district hired Scholastic Scheduling Solutions to create schedules for the students. But the company put kids in classes that they'd already passed, among other widespread snafus.
"The counselors had to call us down and get it straightened out, but it took a couple weeks to get through the list," Lockhart says. "You'd be going to the wrong classes until then. Just wasting time, sitting there learning stuff you already know."
In the classrooms, teachers fought for consistency.
"It drove me crazy," Smith says. "I had kids coming in and out of my classroom, it seemed like daily. Our counselors had to reschedule everybody by hand."
The cafeteria wasn't equipped to handle the crush. There were still students waiting in the cafeteria line when school was being dismissed. "I had fifth lunch, which is one of the last lunch periods," Lockhart says. "It took us a long time to get our lunch, and even then, like, all the ketchup would be used and stuff. They didn't have enough supplies to feed all the kids. So we'd have to get a bag of chips or something."
Amid the chaos, Smith says, Scraggs was negotiating with the district, fighting to hold together the scraps of his early college program. Covington wanted Southwest to use America's Choice, a cookie-cutter curriculum that he'd foisted upon the district's traditional high schools at the end of the summer, just a week before school started. Soon, instructional coaches were sniffing around Smith's classroom and sending her e-mails, reminding her that she needed to follow the America's Choice script.
Smith ignored the warning, and her English class continued reading the novel that she'd chosen for them. In mid-October, she was threatened with disciplinary measures if she didn't start teaching the America's Choice curriculum the next school day.
Smith went to Scraggs. It would be difficult to maintain authority, trust and consistency in her classroom if she told her students to drop everything they'd been working on. A scripted curriculum was not Scraggs' vision for Southwest. But the principal's hands were tied.
Later that day, Scraggs resigned.
Scraggs' replacement, Doug Bolden, lasted two months before he quit.
Southwest's third principal this school year, Ben Boothe, started in January 2011. He has already announced that he won't be back next fall.
The outgoing principals explained that their resignations had nothing to do with the kids or the faculty at Southwest.
That leaves only the administration to blame.
Brian Hand, president of Armour Fields Homes Association, has a blunt assessment of Covington's administration.
"I wouldn't trust them to poop if I found them a box of laxatives," he says.
By December 2010, the Armour Fields Facebook page had turned into a clearinghouse for reports of students cutting class, sleeping on porches, smoking weed in public, and peeing in gardens. Someone chucked a glass jar of applesauce at an 80-year-old woman who was walking her dog. Hand says one neighbor walked outside one morning to discover two Southwest students having sex on the hood of a parked car.
Back in 2009, Marsha Ramsey knew that the community could help Southwest thrive, and she'd done what she could to support the effort. When the district failed to remove Southwest's ancient, rusting bleachers, for example, she hired workers to haul them away.
Southwest's parking lot wasn't striped and wasn't big enough to accommodate staff and students' vehicles. The members of We Are Southwest secured permission from the nearby St. Andrew's Episcopal Church to allow faculty to park in the 70 parking spaces in its lot, off 64th Street. The fire hydrants servicing Southwest didn't work, so the volunteers lobbied the city to fix them. They asked their City Council representative, Jan Marcason, to write an ordinance lowering the speed limit in front of the school. There are freshly painted crosswalk lines and new road signs with flashing lights, thanks to We Are Southwest.
On the first day of this school year, a 30-foot sign was hung over the front doors. It read: "The community welcomes Southwest." More than 100 neighbors lined the school's front walkway and greeted students as their buses arrived. Parishioners of Wornall Road Baptist Church had arranged for an appearance by KC Wolf, the Kansas City Chiefs mascot. Church members handed out free Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The previous night, Ramsey and two other volunteers had walked the grounds, collecting trash.
"The elected board and the teachers and faculty said they'd never been at a school where so many people in the community were willing to help and work," Ramsey says.
The volunteers spent time inside the school, too, helping organize boxes of haphazardly packed books and filing paperwork in the front office.
"We found out that there was a massive number of boxes of school records that had never been filed," Ramsey says. "Students' records, in boxes, sent from all the other schools. They didn't have the manpower to sort through it, so they were going to have the volunteers do it. To this day, they may not have been filed."
Just before winter break, Michael Rounds, the district's chief operations officer, announced that volunteers were no longer welcome at Southwest — for their own safety.
"I'm a 50-year-old woman," Ramsey says. "If it isn't safe for me, how is it safe for the kids? They blatantly lied because they did not want volunteers seeing what was going on in that building."
Hand, president of the homes association, repeatedly asked to talk with the superintendent. He finally caught up with Covington by phone in December.
"I talked for 25 minutes," Hand says. "He talked for two minutes, and then there was about three minutes of awkward silence. The awkward silences were after I would ask him a question, and he would sit there for a minute and then say, 'I'm listening.' I couldn't get him to talk. And now he's blaming the volunteers."
The district's answer to the problems of the first semester was to shake things up once again, splitting Southwest's students into three academies: a resurrected early college program, an academy of health- and science-focused studies, and an individualized curriculum called "School of One."
Smith was assigned to teach in the School of One. She describes it as a computer-based remedial program.
"Here's the hilarious part about it," Smith says. "Right now, we don't have enough computers to do it. The even more hilarious thing is that we never will have enough computers."
The changes seemed to mute unrest at the school. But the calm didn't last.
"You know when something's too good or something's too quiet?" Lockhart says. "That's how I was feeling in, like, January. I did feel like it was a matter of time before somebody just pulled the fire alarm or tried to get in a fight."
February 11 was an unseasonably warm Friday. Just before noon that day, firefighters raced to Southwest and extinguished two burning lockers. They checked a teachers' break room on the second floor and found a ream of paper on fire, sending flames close to the ceiling.
Fire-alarm evacuations were nothing new at Southwest. But this wasn't a prank or a drill, and everyone who had class on the second floor was directed to the school's auditorium upon re-entry. Inside, Lockhart and Moore met up, and they saw that the adults had lost control. "We were just sitting there, and we see all these crowds of people just being chaotic and fighting," Lockhart says.
Principal Boothe announced over the public address system at 2:20 that buses had arrived. Students were sent home an hour early.
Since then, the district has doubled the number of security guards, installed 75 new cameras in the building, and maintained strict supervision of students at all times.
"If I tell you that I have a facility. It's made of stone, it has guards all over the place, and cameras and metal detectors, what would you say that is?" Hand asks. "You'd say that's a prison."
Since the February fire, a few hundred kids have transferred or dropped out.
Lockhart and Moore aren't returning next year. "It feels like I'm backtracking," Lockhart says.
Teachers are leaving, too.
The district has contracted with Teach For America to supply 250 teachers over the next three years. TFA's teachers are typically young and earn low salaries. Replacing experienced faculty with TFA teachers could save the district millions.
The motive for going the TFA route is no secret to anyone in urban education, Smith says. "Our district would be an anomaly if they weren't doing this. Not that I don't think it's newsworthy — it's a great way to de-professionalize and de-unionize a large, politically influential group of workers."
Gus Jacob, program director at UMKC's School of Education, was involved with Southwest's early college program from its development. Watching its decimation has been "a crushing blow," he tells The Pitch.
"One of the most emotional experiences for me," Jacob says, "has been writing letters of reference for teachers who are the absolute reason that school was headed to great success, as they either choose to leave or have to leave because they can't depend on there being a job for them next year.
"I am still very angry," he continues, "because it [the early college program] should have been allowed to grow and be nurtured. It was great for the students, great for the staff, great for the district. It was a win-win for everyone. Why this had to happen — it's just incredibly short-sighted."
In recent meetings between the district and Southwest's founding partners, there has been talk of restoring a strict early college format to the school by the 2012-13 school year.
It's the closest that anyone at the district has come to admitting that a mistake was made at Southwest.