SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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SIMON: It's a mid-week winter's night in Kansas City, Missouri. At the lecture hall on the University of Missouri campus, a debate on the city's future is set to begin.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I thank you all so much for coming to our debate here tonight.
SIMON: There are no politicians or pundits - instead, three neatly pressed accomplished young college debaters, earnestly discuss some of the ideas for the future the public school system from which they graduated.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I believe that the best place to kind of start this dialogue on my end would be state of the district.
SIMON: The debate is not strictly academic. The Missouri State School Board revoked the Kansas City Public School District's accreditation on January 1st. The district met just three of the 14 standards of the Missouri Board of Education. It flunked the minimum proficiency standards for math, English and science, attendance and graduation rates.
An eighth-grader Yak Nak told a Missouri state Senate committee why his family sacrificed to send him to a parochial school.
YAK NAK: Even though it was a struggle for my family, the reputation of the public schools in my area was not as good as my parents would have hoped.
SIMON: And Yak Nak and his family are refugees from Sudan.
All Kansas City public schools families have to struggle with that decision now. Should they try to afford a parochial or private school, move, or keep their children in the system that has been marked a failure, and hope their children don't lose out if they stay?
FIFI WIEDEMAN: We have a city that every year just goes well...
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WIEDEMAN: ...check them off; we lost them. We don't want to deal with this but somebody's got to do it.
SIMON: Fifi Wiedeman is a lifelong Kansas Citian and former Kansas City School Board member who thinks she can trace where the district began to decline.
WIEDEMAN: My father was a real estate appraiser, and in 1969, when the Kansas City Star announced that the district was now half black, I remember him saying that's the end.
SIMON: Her father meant white middle-class families would leave the city for the suburbs, taking their children out of Kansas City schools.
By the mid-1980s, Kansas City, like other urban centers, had a few good public schools in mostly white, middle-class neighborhoods and underperforming schools in poor minority neighborhoods. So in 1985, a federal district judge took control of the Kansas City School District and ordered that nearly $2 billion be spent to bus students, to integrate the schools and improve them.
The district went on a binge, building 15 new schools, lowering classroom size, raising teacher salaries, even adding Olympic-size swimming pools, a robotics lab and a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary - all to try to bring middle-class families back.
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SIMON: We're in front of Southwest High School, which has a roster of famous alumni, including the founders of H&R Block and Calvin Trillin. The district built a planetarium here for this school, but middle-class families turned out to want better test scores, not bright stars. And the school district continued to shrink, from about 77,000 students in the 1960s to just under 16,000 today.
To reduce costs in 2010, the district closed almost half the schools in Kansas City. You see boarded-up schools in almost every neighborhood now, looking like dead brick dinosaurs.
Some schools were merged. They weren't always good matches. FiFi Wiedeman says Southwest High School swelled from 500 students to 1,800.
WIEDEMAN: With no real plan. Absolutely no plan. It didn't take a rocket scientist to know that there was going to be major, major - it was bound to explode.
MALE REPORTER #1: A troubling day at Southwest High School in Kansas City, Missouri. Police had to be called and the school locked down after series of fights broke out.
FEMALE REPORTER #1: Three fires and a fight. Today's chaos and damage at Southwest is so bad...
MALE REPORTED #2: Also, the police department reporting in: 81 calls just this school season, two of them false reports.
SIMON: An instability at the top school levels inflamed many problems. Andrea Flinders, president of the Kansas City Teachers Union, lists some of the school superintendents she's known over the last decade.
ANDREA FLINDERS: We have Green, then there was Covington, Coleman, Amado, Taylor, Garcia.
SIMON: So in the time that more or less, "American Idol" has been on the air...
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FLINDERS: A good point.
SIMON: There have been six, seven or eight school superintendents?
FLINDERS: Yeah, that's probably right.
SIMON: She says each new superintendent brought in their own new systems, new goals and new people. This created confusion, constantly changing standards and an atmosphere of chaos.
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SIMON: Dr. Stephen Green, Kansas City's interim superintendent, brought us to Ms. Taylor's second grade class at Primitivo Garcia Elementary School on the city's west side, which seems a picture of success - attentive students and a patient teacher.
NORITA TAYLOR: We know who the characters are. We know what the setting is. Now we're talking about a plot.
SIMON: But Dr. Green acknowledges that the Missouri School Board pulled their accreditation only after 20 years of decline.
DR. STEPHEN GREEN: Accreditation is the state's way of saying that we are putting you on notice that you have two years to get this matter corrected. Not the same as a university, in which a university is unaccredited and that means its diploma does not carry the validity that it would. It is a definite signal of alarm and concern.
SIMON: His predecessor, Dr. John Covington, won public support to close all those schools, then abruptly resigned at the start of this school year and took a job in Michigan – after he pledged to help bring stability to the district. Hard feelings may remain.
May I ask, have you talked to Dr. Covington?
SIMON: Any advice you can share?
SIMON: So now the crisis in the Kansas City schools presents each parent with a personal decision: how long do you keep your child in a school system that's gotten a failing grade? But if you leave, will anything be left to save?
SUSAN MARTINEZ: They just get out of the bus right here, and then we'll...
SIMON: The Martinez family lives in a handsome home on a hill in the Coleman Highlands neighborhood. It's the kind of secure and cheerful home where children's paintings are framed and their playmates come and go through an unlocked back door. They've got two children in the Kansas City district and would like them to be able to stay. But the Martinez's say they watch every day for warning signs like...
MARTINEZ: The good teachers leaving, my children not enjoying school, coming home upset because of things that might have happened at school. We scratch our heads and ask ourselves all the time if we're doing the right thing by leaving them in a district that has so many issues and troubles.
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SIMON: Uzziel and Adriana Pecina came by. They have four youngsters in Kansas City public schools – from a kindergartener to Ximena, a high school sophomore who also joined us. The Pecina's say they're committed to keeping their children in the Kansas City schools.
ADRIANA PECINA: We think there's some things here that we should fight for. Because if we all run away, we'll never fix the problems.
SIMON: But Ximena Pecina is more openly anxious. She's had to say goodbye to friends.
XIMENA PECINA: Many students are leaving. There's kids saying, oh, well, I'm going to this private school. I'm going - I'm actually moving out of this state. I'm going to Kansas, and it's tragic.
SIMON: So we risked another question in front of Ximena's clearly loving parents: Does she sometimes wonder why her family keeps her and her siblings in Kansas City public schools?
PECINA: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I have cousins and a lot of friends that aren't part of the district. I get jealous at times. I get asked a lot, well, doesn't your school do that? Our schools do that. And I get asked questions that just make me feel really sad. And they make me feel like I'm part of a school that doesn't really have anything. Like, I feel really poor.
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SIMON: Ximena Pecina and her parents, Uzziel and Adriana Pecina, among the many Kansas City families who now face hard personal choices about if they'll be part of the future of the Kansas City schools.
Next week, part two of our story and contending proposals for the future.