Shawnee Mission's new superintendent brings his Independence lesson plans to a new state 

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"We weren't getting served by Kansas City," Spradling says of the KC district. "Disenfranchised might be a little too strong of a word, but there was that sense."

The money flowing into the Kansas City schools didn't improve academic performance.

"It was one of those experiments we tried and then realized, 'Gee, maybe this didn't work so well,'" Spradling says. "School is a real key sense of community."

Bill Rogers, a Fairmount-area resident who now lives next door to the house where he grew up, worked in Van Horn High School for the Local Investment Commission in the late 1990s and 2000s.

Rogers says students at Van Horn didn't seem to have much connection to the school, and the teachers there perhaps less so.

"They felt it was better if you [students] didn't come, they didn't have to deal with you," Rogers recalls.

While talk stretches back to the 1970s about having the Independence School District annex schools on the west side of town, the effort didn't hit its stride until former state Sen. Victor Callahan undertook some legislative gymnastics to compel a vote in Independence and Kansas City, Missouri, with the support of local businesses and churches.

"It wasn't led by the school district," says Hinson, who arrived in Independence in 2001. "Eventually those leaders came to me to say, 'OK, if we can get this on the ballot and it's approved, how is the school district going to respond to this?' My response was, 'If you get it on the ballot and it's approved, I can guarantee you as a school district this will work.' "

The measure passed easily among both Independence and Kansas City voters.

After a string of lawsuits from the KC district failed to stop the annexation, the Independence district had schools in its boundaries that were in dismal shape aesthetically and academically.

The Independence district issued $85 million in bonds to fix up the buildings.

At Van Horn, volunteers painted many of the classrooms' walls. An old football scoreboard that had been covered in vines was replaced, and the football field reconstructed and surrounded by a new synthetic track.

Hinson ordered that metal detectors be removed from the entrances at Van Horn. "That was a cultural change," he says. "That told the kids, 'We have a different expectation for you and we're going to trust you. We don't need this any longer.'"

There were also staffing changes.

Hinson required that all current employees in the annexed schools interview for their positions alongside new applicants. The existing employees didn't fare well; only 12 from the seven annexed schools stayed on after the interview process.

Hinson says the district needed staffers who were invested in the schools' performance and in the students. This was how he set about reversing the previous district's culture.

"The level of expectation was set high and it was set high intentionally, but the message was, 'Every student, regardless of anything else, can perform at the appropriate level, and there are no excuses,'" Hinson says. "By the way, kids respond really well to that. I think kids respond really well to expectations set before them if you show you care and you're willing to go the extra mile. There had been a culture of failure and a culture of low expectations, a lack of parental involvement, virtually no community or business involvement in the schools."

Performance has inched upward at Van Horn since the annexation. In 2007, the average ACT score was 16; in 2012, it was 18.

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