Suburbs Brace For Kansas City Students

fromKCUR

Kansas City, Mo., schools are losing their accreditation on Jan. 1. Missouri law allows students from unaccredited districts to enroll for free in nearby school systems, so the suburban districts outside Kansas City are bracing for an influx of students.

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The school district in Kansas City is losing its accreditation on January 1st. It is the latest blow to a school district with low test scores and a plummeting student population. That population is likely to fall further in the New Year. School officials expect many students will flee to the suburbs.

As Sylvia Maria Gross of member station KCUR reports, nearby districts are not sure they can handle the influx.

SYLVIA MARIA GROSS, BYLINE: It's dismissal time on a cold afternoon at Troost Elementary School.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Freeman.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Brandon.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Rykia.

GROSS: Teachers distribute kindergarteners one by one to the line of cars waiting outside.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He's already out. Slaughter.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Slaughter.

GROSS: According to some of the parents, it's not always this orderly inside.

MIESHA HOUSTON: There's a lot of negative going on in the school that other kids are picking up.

GROSS: Miesha Houston has a kindergartener and a fifth grader at Troost.

HOUSTON: The 10-year-old, academic-wise, is not doing well, and I don't think they're helping her. And the 5-year-old, he's doing good academically, but he's struggling with behavior, following the other students.

GROSS: They aren't the only ones struggling. The percentage of students proficient in math and reading here is in the low teens. But parents will have more options when the district becomes unaccredited on January 1st. A Missouri law requires unaccredited districts to pay tuition and transportation for any student who wants to attend school in a neighboring, accredited district. And these neighboring districts are getting hundreds of calls.

JIM HINSON: How many of those follow through, how many would just show up without having contacted us previously, that's really an unknown to us right now.

GROSS: Jim Hinson is the superintendent of the Independence Public School District, which borders Kansas City to the east. He says the uncertainty makes it hard to plan.

We're at the middle of the school year. We are already beyond capacity in elementary school. Are we going to see 500 students? If so, we don't have the appropriate staffing, number of teachers, custodians, nutritional services program.

Hinson and other area superintendents are also concerned that the transferring students will need extra academic help. That concerns officials in Kansas City, too, who argue that students would be better off staying in their district. Stephen Green is Kansas City's interim superintendent.

Encouraging transiency, which we know has a negative impact educationally for most students, particularly for students who are at risk, I don't think it's going to prove to be very helpful.

And Green is worried about the financial impact on his district if a lot of students transfer out. Tuition in the suburban districts averages about nine to $10,000, with hundreds more for transportation. If Kansas City also has to pay the transfer costs of students who currently attend private or charter schools, that would be an even bigger burden. And the squeeze would impact students who remain in the district.

A similar situation in the St. Louis area led to a lawsuit, which won't be fully resolved until March. Meanwhile, Kansas City parents are left trying to decide what's best for their kids.

Parent leader Jamekia Kendrix unfolds a cafeteria table, setting up for a community forum. She's happy with her daughter's school and says the district has been making progress over the past few years, just not fast enough to show up on test scores. Kendrix is trying to convince other parents to stay and work together to make the district better.

JAMEKIA KENDRIX: The way I could describe where a lot of parents are right now is they're looking at this as that place where you're right in between the chaos and the opportunity. And we're all trying to push the conversation to the let's-take-this-as-an-extreme-opportunity rather than a chaotic event.

GROSS: In fact, state officials are calling on Kansas Citians to come up with a new way to run their school district. It's either that or the state might dissolve the district altogether.

For NPR News, I'm Sylvia Maria Gross in Kansas City.

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