Sometimes, money can buy a damn good school system.

Fields of Green 

Sometimes, money can buy a damn good school system.

The winding lane that leads up the hill from 162nd and Antioch Road to Blue Valley West High School culminates in a head-swiveling view of athletic decadence. Three softball fields -- all maintained to standards that might make George Toma proud -- sit to the left. Three full-sized baseball diamonds with painstakingly manicured infields sit to the right. A lighted soccer field lies beyond, with two other practice soccer fields. Behind the school are three football fields -- each sporting a gorgeous green carpet of close-cropped Quickstand Bermuda grass that in late summer is finer than any other football turf in Kansas or Missouri -- better even than the floor of Arrowhead, never mind Faurot Field in Columbia.

Imagine dropping a golf ball on the sideline of your high school practice field and putting it twenty yards out to the team's huddle. "We call it 'Blue Valley magic grass,'" says a laughing Dr. John Laurie, the first-year principal at West who answered the school's phone on the first ring around 4 p.m. last week. The Blue Valley School District maintains its own sod farm, where it harvests the green carpet for the district's athletic fields.

Scott Wright, the Jaguars' head football coach, walks with his offensive line from one practice field to another. When asked if he has ever seen this level of quality at other high school-level facilities, he simply smiles and shakes his head in wonder. "Can you believe this place?" he asks. Wright has spent twenty years in education, and he is very excited about his first head coaching job. "We're not the biggest or most physical team around, but we have some very intelligent kids," says Wright. "We're going to try and use that to our advantage."

If you looked no farther than the jaw-dropping athletic facilities that adorn this one hundred-acre complex, you might come away with the opinion that this is simply another rich, suburban high school where the kids get whatever they want -- and much of what they don't need -- because mommy and daddy can afford it. But of course, after watching the Kansas City, Missouri, School District spend $2 billion since the late 1980s on its way to losing state academic accreditation, this metro area knows better than any that money alone can't make a school district prosper.

Blue Valley West demonstrates just how rich a high school education can be when a community commits itself. Last year, Blue Valley students compiled composite average ACT scores of 23.7 and composite average SAT scores of 1,145, well above national averages. The district's high school dropout rate is 0.5 percent. Its average daily attendance is 95.93 percent. Blue Valley has proved that you can throw money at education and make it work.

"Our athletic facilities are quite impressive, and they are definitely the first thing you notice when you visit our school," says Laurie. "But they are only one-third of our school. Our band receives just as much emphasis here as our football team." Two auditoriums are housed in the fine-arts wing of the $43 million complex. One seats 250 and the other is a three-story concert hall that seats 360. "The fine-arts end of the building will eventually bring us more national and state recognition than our athletics," Laurie states proudly.

A two-tiered gymnasium and a natatorium are housed with the weight room, locker rooms and other indoor facilities in the south wing. The fine-arts portion of the school takes up the north wing. In the center is a three-story academic complex where each class has its own floor. "We have 800 PCs in the school," say Laurie. "We have just a little less wiring in this building than Sprint's world headquarters.

"Many of our students were second-team or second-chair at other schools before making the decision to come to Blue Valley West," says Laurie. "A lot of the senior class [which numbers only 130] took a chance on coming here." It would appear to be an easy decision to attend a state-of-the-art school such as Blue Valley West, but there are some lingering hard feelings from other schools in the district. "That's probably the case," adds Laurie. "It's very sensitive. It created some difficult times for some students who were ostracized [last year at their former schools]. We probably did as well with that as human emotion will allow."

Blue Valley West isn't just a model of sports decadence; it is a model of educational decadence. And in this case, that's a very good thing.

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