ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Desperate measures in Kansas City, Missouri. School officials there voted last night to shut nearly half of the district's schools. That's more than two dozen buildings, including their district headquarters, all in an attempt to keep the district from going bankrupt. School districts across the country are closing buildings and laying off teachers, but none has yet taken such a radical step.
From station KCUR in Kansas City, Sylvia Maria Gross reports.
SYLVIA MARIA GROSS: Almost every school year, Westport High School junior Antonio Martin has seen change - a new principal, a different curriculum, even a new superintendent.
Mr. ANTONIO MARTIN: Every year it's changing. The system's changing, where they're trying to, you know, put us in a predicament. It's kind of hard to just stay focused.
GROSS: This year comes the biggest change of all. Martin's school is one of 26 in the school district that will be boarded up. This follows one of the most ambitious attempts in the country to integrate schools. A court order desegregation plan in the 1980s and '90s poured $2 billion into this district. It created elaborate bus routes, magnet programs and some of the best facilities in the country, including an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a planetarium.
But families continued to flee to the suburbs and to private and charter schools. The district's population has plummeted from 70,000 in the 1960s to about 17,000 now. The new superintendent, John Covington, proposed closing about half the buildings and laying off about 700 employees.
Mr. JOHN COVINGTON (Superintendent, Kansas City School Board): Right now, we're failing students in large percentages, in large numbers, and that doesn't have to be.
GROSS: It's all an effort to redeploy resources. Covington calls it right sizing, but opponents say it's anything but.
Unidentified Man: I say the right size plan is the wrong fit. I say the right size plan
Unidentified People: Is the wrong fit.
GROSS: At forums across the city over the past few months, many parents and community members protested plans to close schools. The superintendent was determined that all schools would need to consolidate, even some of the district's better performing ones. Ajamu Webster, who founded the city's three Afrikan Centered schools, disagreed.
Mr. AJAMU WEBSTER (Leader, Afrikan Centered Education Board): Our campus is a growing institution, and a growing institution needs space.
GROSS: The district's flagship, Lincoln College Prep, was recently named among the top 150 public high schools in the country by Newsweek, but even Lincoln Prep is slated to merge its middle and high schools. Dan Domenech is director of the American Association of School Administrators. He says districts and cities like Washington D.C., Cleveland and Chicago are all closing under-enrolled schools.
Mr. DAN DOMENECH (Director, American Association of School Administrators): The economy being what it is, and as school districts having to make major cuts, increasing class size, eliminating sports programs, cutting back on transportation, they don't have the luxury of maintaining a facility open unless it's 100 percent occupied.
GROSS: In Kansas City, civic institutions, the chamber of commerce and even the teachers union supported the school closure plan, though almost 300 teaching positions will be lost. This morning, Superintendent Covington laid out more details, such things as longer school days, an extended year and an end to social promotion. He wants to use evaluations and early retirement incentives to keep only the best teachers.
Mr. COVINGTON: I think in five years the Kansas City, Missouri community, I think they'll beam with pride as to where our schools have come.
GROSS: As for the buildings, the school board hopes to sell them or some could be razed to make way for city parks. Either way, residents here hope that this radical public school plan leads to radical change.
For NPR News, I'm Sylvia Maria Gross in Kansas City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.