People holding signs. One reads 'Effort is in our hearts, for James Elementary. WHAT IS IN yours?!?! DON'T CLOSE JAMES!!!'
People hold signs in support of keeping James Elementary School open during a Kansas City Public Schools school board meeting Nov. 16. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

As Kansas City Public Schools began its school year with full accreditation for the first time in about a decade, preliminary data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows that enrollment ticked up slightly, by less than 2%. 

Combined with a more than 1% decrease in charter school enrollment, the change puts the district about 300 students ahead of charter schools in K-12 enrollment. Kansas City’s 20 charter schools narrowly outpaced KCPS enrollment for the first time last year. 

But KCPS enrollment isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels. And some members of the public think the district needs to do a better job of promoting its accreditation status and other assets.

“The charter schools are eating your lunch in regard to marketing,” Gregg Lombardi, who directs both the Lykins Neighborhood Association and Neighborhood Legal Support of Kansas City, said in a public comment at the district’s Dec. 14 school board meeting. 

Lombardi has been a vocal opponent of closing certain schools in Kansas City’s historic northeast.  

As KCPS considers revising an initial proposal to close 10 schools, some as early as next year, community members urged the district to give itself more time to tout its accreditation and improve neighborhood-focused outreach. 

Residents worried the closures would cause families to leave their neighborhoods and the district, with many moving to charter schools. Several speakers referred to the district’s “rightsizing” closures a dozen years ago. 

“The district lost accreditation a year later, student achievement declined, enrollment declined, community trust in this institution eroded,” said Spark Bookhart, a convener with the Parent Power Lab of Kansas City. “And here’s the sad part. The consultants at the time did not warn that this would be a result. But this community did.”

KCPS enrollment and charter schools

Charter schools are independent public schools that are free to attend but not part of regular school districts or run by publicly elected boards. In Missouri, they are only allowed within the Kansas City and St. Louis public school districts under most circumstances.

When they became legal more than two decades ago, charter schools gradually began enrolling higher percentages of Kansas City’s public school students. Meanwhile, KCPS’ enrollment dropped for decades. 

Enrollment settled out between 14,000 and 14,500 for five years before dipping below 13,500 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Preliminary enrollment reports this school year show KCPS has 13,473 students. 

The district first reported the enrollment increase at an Oct. 26 school board meeting during which some community members railed against the proposed long-term plan, unveiled Oct. 12, that the district has framed partly as a necessary response to a lengthy trend of declining enrollment. 

Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released preliminary enrollment numbers for all districts and charter schools Dec. 8. 

On Dec. 12, KCPS sent out an email announcing the board would not vote on the proposed school closures in December, as originally planned. Instead, the administration plans to bring revised recommendations to the board during its Jan. 11 meeting. 

The new recommendations will be based on community feedback, the email said, and will include plans for further dialogue. 

Opposition to closing schools 

During community meetings The Beacon attended, much of the feedback about closing schools was negative. Some expressed support for other district goals such as improving academic programs and extracurricular offerings — goals that would be largely funded through the increased efficiency brought by school closures. 

Initial opposition focused on Central High School, a large building not far from the intersection of Linwood Boulevard and Indiana Avenue. The building, constructed in the 1990s, is one of the district’s newer schools. But it is enrolled far under capacity and hasn’t aged well, according to the district. 

Later, objections to closing several schools in the historic northeast, particularly Whittier Elementary School, James Elementary School and Northeast High School, began to gain momentum. Speakers at the most recent meeting also mentioned support for Longfellow and Faxon elementaries in midtown. 

One parent who spoke at the Dec. 14 meeting mentioned that this was her first year sending her children to Longfellow, and she had witnessed other families moving in from charter schools, signature schools and other districts. 

“I found that families around me are willing to consider our neighborhood school after dismissing it for so many years,” she said. “Accreditation is certainly playing a role in putting neighborhood schools back in the game. KCPS hasn’t had time yet to even promote that accreditation.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.