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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."