by Brent Kalwei
The Uniting at Southwest group is proposing to reopen Kansas City’s Southwest High School as an autonomous public school to be under the umbrella of the Kansas City Public School district. Group representatives Mike Zeller and John Couture laid down some of their plans at the Sixth District Second Fridays meeting on May 12 at the Trailside Center.
“This is not a private school, this is a public school,” Zeller said. “Every child in that building would count as KCPS kids.”
Uniting at Southwest’s plan is to make Southwest into a diverse project-based learning school that helps students identify opportunity, conduct research, and work with others to develop solutions and essential skills in today's world.
“We don’t want to have a 1950s Southwest High. That was a racist, segregated-by-law public school,” Zeller said. “Nor do we want to create a situation like in 2015 where there was a school there, but there was not this vast neighborhood full of homes and children. We want a school that looks like the world that these children are going to graduate into and work in. That’s a school where everybody is there together; not only on racial lines, but class lines, too.”
“This is a time where we can look to be creative in how we view education,” added Couture. “I think this is such a great opportunity for the city.”
Zeller lives about three blocks from the Southwest High School building, which closed after the 2015-16 school year.
“We moved to that neighborhood so that our kids could walk to school up at Academie Lafayette,” Zeller said. “I had every intention of sending our son up the hill to Southwest High until the school closed. My oldest son made the bus trip up to Lincoln College Prep, which was on some days about a 50-minute bus ride. I remember thinking that is a long way. My son is commuting to high school. It just seemed odd at a great American city that a child would have to travel so far to go to a college-bound high school.”
According to Zeller, many people are leaving Kansas City and moving to cities such as Lee’s Summit, Raytown and Prairie Village.
“It’s just unfortunate and unnecessary,” he said. “It pushes down property values and lowers tax rolls. We have a big city with a lot of old infrastructure. We need those tax dollars, and we need those people living in city and contributing to the revitalization of the city.”
When Zeller took the innovative idea to the Kansas City Public Schools district last fall, they indicated that the school was closed because there was not enough demand for it.
“Maybe the supply wasn’t right,” Zeller said. “There’s a whole lot of people that would like to stay living in the city and even more people who would want to move into the city if they had choices that they wanted to choose.”
About 1,200 people have taken the group’s online survey.
“They have indicated that they would strongly consider sending about 1,350 children to this school,” Zeller said.
According to Zeller, quality integrated public education in the city was not a common belief by most parents about 15 years ago. But they do believe in it now.
“It’s a heavy lift to start a high school,” Zeller said. “You gotta start strong. If you trip coming out of the gate, you’re done. Reputation is destiny. You have to plan it really well. You have to hire a leader a couple years in advance.”
The Bloch, DeBruce, McDonnell and Stowers Foundations are funding the Uniting at Southwest group’s research and development efforts.
“We explained our vision to them,” Zeller said. “They said, ‘We’ll back your research and development efforts; and if you can pull it off, we will get behind all of these upfront costs it takes to start a public school.”
Zeller listed the UMKC Dental School of Law and Penn Valley as examples of institutions that are helped out by philanthropic resources.
“In Missouri right now, there is no funding mechanism to start schools like this,” he said. “Missouri’s just a school district model that worked great in the 1940s, 50s and 60s when cities were growing, and we were knocking down cornfields and putting an elementary school at the edge of the metro. Then people would appear and it would fill up. We have a different situation now that requires third-party assistance.”
According to Zeller, if Uniting at Southwest is unable to partner with Kansas City Public Schools, the group plans to partner with an existing charter school or create their own charter school.
“We have the funding to do that,” he said. “It would be a waste of philanthropic and public resources to have to do that, and it would break my heart. But we are prepared to do that if we need to.”
Uniting at Southwest’s plan is to begin with just freshmen during the first school year.
“I think at its peak it had about 2,500 kids at the height of the baby boom,” Zeller said. “We would never want a high school that big. They’re too anonymous. Kids don’t know each other and the teachers don’t know them. We think that the sweet spot is around 800 or 900 kids, and you would want to get to get there slowly. Every year you would want to add one grade.”