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.

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When Southwest staff members went to the school in June, their keys wouldn't open the doors. District officials had failed to notify the charter personnel they were holding the wrong keys -- and at the time, KCMSD board members were considering a state statute that would void the lease agreement.

Another 5-4 vote on August 10 spurred the resignation of a KCMSD board member. At first, Fifi Wiedeman, who is white, hadn't been in favor of the charter school because she feared that charter organizers were attempting to revive "that all-white, privileged school" that Southwest High School had been before the '70s and the onset of desegregation. But during the school's battle to get into the Southwest building, Wiedeman was impressed by the charter's can-do attitude and the fact that 70 percent of the school's population was nonwhite, indicating the school wanted to address the needs of a demographic lacking educational options. Wiedeman threw her support to the school, but the board continued bickering over the lease. She ended up criticizing the board for trying to deny "a quality education" to the white kids in the neighborhood who might have wanted to attend the school. After Wiedeman made her remarks, board members Lee Barnes Jr. and Elma Warrick, who are black, stormed out of the meeting. Minutes after the meeting, Wiedeman resigned.

The board's decision to approve the lease stood, and Southwest Charter School opened on August 23.

In the school's new location, aspirations were high. Enrollment jumped to more than 500 students in grades six through nine (and a half-dozen tenth-graders). Southwest drew its population from 112 local and out-of-state schools, including Central Middle School of Edmond, Oklahoma, where Francis Crow completed the sixth grade last spring.

Southwest Charter's population -- which helped Kansas City's seventeen charter schools make a 30 percent jump in enrollment to 5,600 over the past year -- comes from a diverse pool of students. "We've got students who are in the 99th percentile to ones in the 5th, from well-to-do and traditional families to poor or those living with grandparents," says the charter school's board president, Jim Lloyd. "There is a strong demand for alternatives, not just from families who might be picky about schools, like those in the southwest corridor, but those who want options from everywhere."

Promoting itself as a healthy alternative to public, parochial and private schools, Southwest offers a nontraditional project-based learning curriculum -- students work in teams to complete a variety of projects (such as drawing a city or making a model of a shipwreck) designed to let them incorporate basic skills along the way. The school also emphasizes moral values in its code of conduct. Its mission is "to create a learning community of students, parents, outstanding teachers and staff, and committed adults from the neighborhood and throughout the city that will provide each student with an academically challenging curriculum and the support necessary to reach his or her highest individual potential -- intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically."

But two weeks into the school's second semester, Southwest Charter still struggles with what might be termed the "three Ds" of modern education: discipline, drugs and direction. The school's own annual report noted that its student body suffered from a "not-cool-to-study disease" and that changes needed to be made in 2000-2001.

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