Final Bell: Kansas City's Effort to Save Its Schools

One school district finally decides that the only way to get better is to get smaller. Closing schools in the City of Fountains

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Wesport High is one of more than two dozen schools being shuttered.

Westport High is a magnificent old building, all brick and fine masonry, set high on a hill in the heart of town. It's more than 100 years old, just a few blocks from where Ernest Hemingway lived before he went off to drive ambulances in the Great War. So one might expect an angry roar against its inclusion in a plan to close nearly half of Kansas City's 57 public schools this summer. Instead the vibe is more, What took you so long?

After years of foot-dragging, infighting and wild spending sprees, Kansas City is finally making a last-gasp attempt to save its school district by abruptly cutting it by half. School districts all over the country are wrestling with problems in urban centers, but Kansas City's plan has caught national attention because of its scope. With the exception of New Orleans, forced to start from scratch with its schools after Hurricane Katrina, Kansas City superintendent John Covington's plan to close 26 schools at once and dump 700 of the district's 3,000 employees, including nearly 300 teachers, is considered the most drastic "rightsizing" out there. "Hail Mary — that is a very good way to describe this," says Covington.

The situation in New Orleans "was created by a natural disaster. Kansas City is due to a human-made disaster," says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a public-school advocacy group. There are many factors to blame — white flight, forced desegregation, teachers' strikes, revolving-door leadership. (Covington is the 26th superintendent in 40 years.) Money hasn't been the problem. In 1985, a federal judge ordered the state to pony up $2 billion to address decades of unconstitutional treatment of black children. The district blew the money on a six-lane indoor track, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a mock court complete with judge's chambers and a jury deliberation room. "They recruited Russians to teach fencing!" Covington marvels. Meanwhile kids weren't proficient in the basics — and still aren't. At a majority of the schools, fewer than one-quarter of the students were proficient in math and English last year. On any given day, the buildings are half empty. Kansas City had some 75,000 public-school students in the 1960s. Today it has about 17,000.

Covington, a former principal and teacher, hit town a year ago with the task of figuring out how to cut $50 million in spending and avoid bankruptcy. Within days he put teachers, principals and the bloated administration on notice. "We're not an employment agency. We are a school district," he says. Covington is not about half measures. The district's downtown headquarters will be sold off, and the reduced staff will move elsewhere. Principals had to reapply for their positions. Low-performing teachers must prove they deserve to keep their jobs. Surprisingly, the teachers' union is on board. "Everyone is tired," Covington says of the union's partnership. "We are just tired."

Jennings says Covington's plan is overdue. Cities like Boston, Chicago and Washington already downsized to better serve the schools that remain open. Kansas City and Detroit, he says, are bringing up the rear: "Don't be too depressed about Kansas City. Some of the most exciting things happen when people ... are willing to try new things. As bleak as it is, that's where you find the seeds of improvement."

Across town, McCoy Elementary is also closing. The school was built in 1914; it has termite damage and a warped gym floor, and it needs other repairs. So it's on Covington's list. "They say that's what the goal is — to make the rest of the schools better, but I don't know," says Valeria Jackson, a single mom who moved to this hollowed-out but relatively quiet neighborhood to be down the street from McCoy. Now her three elementary-age kids will have to ride a bus to another school. "If they board up this building, what's that going to do to the neighborhood?" Still, there's one place that would definitely be on her to-close list: Westport, where she attended high school. "That place was so dark," she says. "Schools need to have light."