Southwest Charter School promised it would be different from Kansas City's troubled public schools -- so far it hasn't made the grade.

Unchartered Waters 

Southwest Charter School promised it would be different from Kansas City's troubled public schools -- so far it hasn't made the grade.

Page 10 of 12

That vote might be coming.

Later this month, the Kansas City school board's three-member executive committee is scheduled to discuss whether its lease with Southwest Charter is worth keeping. "I'm not that presumptuous to say whether the board will not continue the lease agreement," says board president and committee member Helen Ragsdale. "That school, before it became Southwest charter, was for the KCMO school district. We have some equipment over there for the science program, and we had hoped to use the school for administrative [purposes] -- not a charter school."

Ragsdale is joined on the committee by board vice president Patricia Kurtz and treasurer Lee Barnes Jr. Barnes says he's opposed to the charter school's staying at Southwest.

Says Southwest's Lloyd: "The confidence in public schools in Kansas City is so low, with a couple of exceptions. You need good schools in the city. The district won't admit this, but there have been improvements in some of their schools because of the charter challenge."

Ragsdale disagrees. "This continues to cause dissention. There is not a charter school in this district that's successful. Ask them what their baselines are for their test scores. They have nothing to compare their tests with," says Ragsdale, noting that it takes three years to establish a school's baseline scores on the state's MAP test. "This is a contentious situation for me, but they aren't doing anything to the KCMO district."

"There's no doubt they have challenges," says former board member Wiedeman, "but a lot depends on how the parents deal with it. Are they going to complain and leave or are they going to stay and build it? That's what I hope for Southwest. I'm hoping for the best every day."

The Charter's January 17 board meeting indicates the people running Southwest had better worry about their own district before worrying about Kansas City's. At the meeting, the earnest intentions of the fourteen members were overshadowed by their own disorganization and evasiveness.

Bruno got the meeting off to a rickety start by explaining that her 32-page report had a problem -- some of the sheets were upside down and out of order because she'd dropped it on the floor while making copies. The sorry condition of Bruno's homework wasn't a good sign.

For more than a half hour, the meeting's "special focus" was on library development. Jane Elliot Jones, a library consultant, presented a laborious itemization of her "wish list" for Southwest, which has yet to include the library in its school budget: furniture ($25,634); technology equipment other than computers ($3,240); operation ($42,044); nonprint materials ($5,678); and print materials ($142,125) for a total of $218,721.

At the bottom of her report, Jones wrote, "The plan can be adjusted, but this is what I think we need to submit to donors. I was told to plan disregarding costs."

The youngest attendee at the meeting, seventh-grader Lloyd Murray, questioned the rationale of Jones' budget and her emphasis on equipping the school with a technologically advanced library. One of her selling points was to get students using the educational Web site bigchalk.com, but for weeks Southwest had been without Internet or e-mail service because its provider went out of business. Murray's young voice pleaded to Jones: "I think what the library needs are books. Lots of books. Why not more books?"

Perhaps Southwest Charter School could take a page from Murray's book on how to be straightforward. Assistant principal Clark, a teacher during Southwest's first year, gave a brief update on the effectiveness of the school's discipline policies. When another board member asked Clark to elaborate, she continued her spiel that problems were minimal. Yet, due to problems with school suspensions, Southwest was considering in-school and after-school suspensions and revisiting its commitment to the B.I.S.T. model of discipline. ("It's like we are evaluating ourselves, looking at things that are working and not working," Bruno tells the Pitch later; Officer Wagoner says the police department's new acronym with regard to Southwest is a four-step crime-prevention method called S.A.R.A. -- Scanning Assessing Response Analysis.) And starting on January 22, Southwest would impose a uniform policy, much to the consternation of students and parents who might have been better prepared for such a change at the start of the year. In fact, Bruno didn't reveal the school-issued "spirit wear" or logo shirts to the entire board until this meeting.

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