The Journal takes readers on a listening tour to explore what changes might be needed in K-12 education.
Jump to a Specific ‘Listening Tour’ Story
Hear an original song inspired by the edition
Michael Franklin, student, Kansas City, Kansas
Kristin Schultz, Olathe district parent/volunteer, Overland Park
Robb Ross, principal, Colby
Aleisha Weimer, early education teaching, Coffeyville
Wade Moore, private school superintendant, Wichita
Tim Clothier, technical education official, Topeka
Marty Long, district patron/farmer, business owner, Ulysses
Cindy Nolte, private school parent, Wichita
Jenny Ridder, counselor, Wichita
By Chris Green
If you could change just one thing about K-12 education in Kansas, what would it be?
It’s a question we should all be thinking about as the Legislature and the Kansas Supreme Court weigh the future of education funding in Kansas. Because when we talk about school finance, we’re not just talking about dollar figures. We’re talking about decisions that will impact what goes on in classrooms and the economy for years to come. What gets decided could end up touching everyone in the state.
In short, there’s a lot on the line for not just school systems and the students they serve, but for all Kansans. The state constitution calls for suitably funding education, but the view of what that means looks very different depending on where you’re coming from.
To exercise leadership on a tough issue (or any issue, for that matter), it’s vital to be able test multiple interpretations and points of view. This essentially means exploring and “renting” different perspectives to better understand the complexity of a situation and to create more sustainable pathways for moving forward.
The problem is that it’s often hard to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You usually know the most about your own situation and much less about what other people think and experience. This lack of awareness of where other people are coming from is, in and of itself, a barrier to making progress.
In hopes of increasing the understanding of our readers around the state, Journal correspondents traveled across the state to capture how the state’s Great School Funding Debate looks based on one’s role, geography, interests and values. The following pages profile nine individuals from northeast, northwest, southwest, central and southeast Kansas. There are stories about a public school parent, a student, a teacher, a technical education director, a counselor, a public school administrator, a private school administrator, a taxpayer without children in the school system and a private school parent.
We asked each person the same basic questions:
What challenges have you faced? What hopes do you have for the future? What are your biggest fears? If you could change one thing, what would it be?
It’s the magazine equivalent of a statewide listening tour, and it echoes the approach of top legislators of the past who, when dealing with their own education crossroads a half-century ago, undertook an effort to better understand the issues then. They appointed an 11-member citizen advisory council.
The group they chose included a newspaper publisher, a labor union representative, school board members, a private college president, a manufacturer, a business representative, a parent-teacher association president, a principal and a Kansas Farm Bureau researcher. Members of the 11-person group hailed from Wichita, Topeka, Atchison, Hesston, Lawrence, Chanute, Kansas City, Larned, Manhattan and Emporia. It conducted a dozen sessions to solicit the ideas of educational and lay leaders, as well as experts.
What they learned and reported helped form the basis of an educational constitutional amendment that voters passed in 1966. Long before the Kansas Leadership Center, our ancestors understood the importance of holding and testing multiple points of view. We should be careful to remember it again today.
Each person featured in the section offers their own interpretation of what needs to change to improve education in Kansas. By holding and testing their stories and prescription, we hope to advance how well Journal readers understand the views of others and the paths forward that should be explored.
Read the stories and the use discussion guide questions to deepen your own understanding or have a conversation with others.
Original Song: “There Stands a Child”
Wanting a chance
Standout KCK debater calls for a level playing field for urban schools
By Dawn Bormann Novascone
On any given Saturday, you can expect to find Michael Franklin at a debate or forensics tournament.
The 17-year-old senior at Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences was ranked No. 1 in Kansas and No. 17 nationally for his skill last winter. It’s a spot that he has regularly earned.
It’s made him the man to defeat. The experience has also given him a rare perspective to ponder the state’s educational system. It’s given him room to see where inequities creep into education. It can be a real window on the haves and have nots. And, he believes, it happens in situations that lawmakers and taxpayers might never consider.
At weekend tournaments, Franklin and his debate partner watch as neighboring school districts from Johnson County have a team of debate coaches surrounding the students to help with evidence and strategy between rounds. One Blue Valley high school boasts a team of 10 coaches – many are experienced debaters hired from Johnson County Community College, the University of Kansas and elsewhere.
“It’s really hilarious to witness. It came to a point that (my partner) and I were outright laughing before the rounds,” Franklin says. “We even make a fake huddle of us two. All right it’s me and you, what can we do?”
The hilarity wears thin, though.
Sumner hires one head coach and one assistant. A local nonprofit sends another their way when funding allows. Their coaches are often required to judge and handle tournament duties rather than energize Franklin and other students with fresh evidence.
Franklin hears legislators and many others say that all students have the same chances, that education is equal across the state. He sees it differently.
Sometimes it’s small yet significant inequities. Sumner debate and forensic coach Jamelle Brown collects cash from each student to pay for pizza at tournaments. Sumner used to pay, but the perk was cut. Many schools have booster clubs or dedicated school funds to handle transportation, food and additional argument evidence. Franklin had time to think about it recently when his competitors hit the road for an out-of-state tournament. Sumner didn’t have the money.
If the teenager could change one thing about education in Kansas, it would be to shift how the state distributes money to school districts.
The state’s funding formula was originally designed to distribute tax money equally based on enrollment and a host of specific factors. Over the years, though, it’s proven easier for wealthier districts to draw more property taxes directly from their patrons to build new schools and stadiums, invest in technology, and offer extracurricular programs. Even though the state has provided some assistance, lower-income school district taxpayers often have trouble keeping up.
Not having access to enough resources has made a big difference for lower-income, minority, English-language learning and disabled students, according to the Kansas Supreme Court. In its most recent ruling, the court found those groups disproportionately struggling to meet state educational standards after the school-funding cuts that followed the Great Recession.
School inequities can can be brought into sharp focus in the Kansas City region, where some of the state’s wealthiest and poorest schools are situated mere miles apart. Johnson and Wyandotte county students regularly spend time in each other’s schools for basketball games, forensic tournaments and more. Years into competition, Franklin is still surprised when he walks into other schools.
“The size of these schools – the updates that they have – it’s unbelievable,” he says.
Franklin sees the sophisticated classroom technology. He strategizes in their carefully designed common areas that bring together students. He even notices that the water fountains – meant for water bottles – are updated.
“Lansing just got a brand new school that’s amazingly nice. While to extend our building, we ended up (adding) another trailer,” he says.
But it’s not just about new schools and technology upgrades, he says. He wins without that. It cuts deeper, he says.
The system has evolved to put the state’s largest concentration of minority students at a disadvantage, he says. Urban schools such as Sumner don’t have the same resources. Franklin’s classrooms get by with old textbooks. His teachers don’t have the same equipment, and the administration can’t offer some of the classes that reach students. Sumner’s teachers, including Brown, his nationally recognized debate and forensics coach, are regularly recruited by other schools.
At one point, Franklin read a story about a school lamenting that gymnastics would have to be cut due to state budget concerns.
“I just felt gymnastics. That’s never been anything offered (here),” he says. “You’re really complaining about losing a gymnastics class when we’re here not having enough space for the different groups to practice after school?”
He wonders how many Kansans see this view of the state’s education system.
“I think it’s important that you actually need to give these kids of color a chance. It feels like right now we aren’t getting the chance we deserve, because if we ask for things then it’s ‘Oh you just want handouts or you just want something given to you.’”
It’s easy to dismiss it as that, he says.
“But it’s not that,” he says. “What we want is equal opportunity, because we clearly aren’t getting it right now.”
It’s unreasonable, he says, for his urban school to increase taxes to keep pace with Johnson County schools. Wyandotte County taxpayers already shoulder a higher-than-average property tax rate.
“Despite our lack of resources, we’re still able to get things done. We’re still able to have success. But I think it’s clear that there needs to be a new frame in which we actually look at how not only funding is given toward schools. But we need to critically analyze the background of what got us to this situation in the first place,” Franklin says. “And then, only then from unworking those beliefs or epistemologies behind that, can we actually come to an effective solution to make sure that we don’t have this same disparity happen again.”
Back at the forensic and debate tournaments, Franklin and his partner have managed to perfect an alternative style of debating called critical debate that flips a debate question on its head. It’s a source of frustration for competitors, who often complain to judges that it’s unfair.
The mere idea of another team complaining about fairness sometimes infuriates Franklin.
“You can’t talk about fairness,” he says. “You won’t talk about the 10 coaches you have, a brand new school. You only talk about fairness when you’re falling behind.”
Franklin sees the debate room as his place to effect real change. He knows it makes his competitors feel uncomfortable, especially when it comes to matters of race.
“This is the only place where I can raise my voice and talk for eight minutes without you calling the cops on me,” he said at one tournament.
Reform often requires thinking about uncomfortable ideas, he says.
The funding inequities might make some give up entirely. But it motivates Franklin, who will study management and political science at Howard University in the fall.
“It ends up pushing us even more to make a difference,” he says of his forensic team, which has won state five years in a row. “It pushes us even more to want to win, to show up. See we don’t have half the things you all have, but here we are still being more successful than you.”
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Not Us VS. Them
An Olathe parent and volunteer contests assumptions on the challenges of meeting student needs in Johnson County.
By Dawn Bormann Novascone
Kristin Schultz didn’t need anyone in Topeka to tell her that the state doesn’t properly fund schools.
The Overland Park mother of two learned early on as budget cuts slowly affected her children’s schools in the Olathe School District. Schultz paid close attention and asked pointed questions when local and state candidates came calling for votes.
Years later, her daughter Phoebe, 19, is off to college and her son, Oliver, 16, is in a nontraditional high school program. Yet she remains firmly committed to the fight for more school funding, not just because she believes it’s the right thing to do for children but also because it’s the right thing to do for the community and state.
Many Kansans think of Johnson County schools and immediately conjure up images of big houses and wealth. It’s a simplistic view that gets the state nowhere, she says.
“It’s not us versus them. Anybody who thinks it’s us versus them isn’t really thinking about the importance to our society of people who are educated,” she says. “This is our responsibility as a state. We as a state determined that we are committed to public education.”
If there’s one thing she could change, it would be for Kansans to abandon the idea that all children cost the same to educate. Children have different needs, she says. Schultz wishes it could be framed realistically. No one child costs a parent the same amount. One might need mental health care, while the other needs braces.
“Those are our kids. Those are our districts. We can’t make this nice and tidy and simple. That’s just not the reality of human beings,” she says. “At the end of the day, what we’re talking about is addressing the needs of our youngest people in the earliest stages of their lives when their brains are most malleable.”
Years ago, Schultz thought she had planned for every educational challenge her family would face. But it wasn’t that easy. She had to adjust her approach after going through a difficult divorce. Schultz became the sole caregiver. Her daughter, an honor student, battled depression and had to step away from school in her senior year. It’s just one facet of the challenges her family has faced, she says.
Her family got help inside and outside the school system. Her daughter ended up earning a scholarship that was the equivalent of in-state tuition.
What about other families, Schultz wonders. Those who didn’t have a strong support system. It all affects the classroom. It all affects communities.
She’d like to see the state put money into a formula that gives districts flexibility to fund those extra needs.
Olathe is a prime example. It’s the fastest-growing district in the state and the second-largest. The district boasts a graduation rate of 92.6 percent and had 22 National Merit finalists in 2015. Yet many children there live in poverty. Some come to the district not speaking a word of English. The diverse enrollment includes 3,450 students in the English Language Learners program and more than a quarter who qualify for free and reduced lunches. The district stretches from downtown Olathe, where homes are valued in the low-to-mid $100,000s, to some of the area’s most luxurious homes in the Cedar Creek subdivision, where homes sell for as much as $2 million.
These days Schultz serves on the board of the Olathe Public Schools Foundation, a nonprofit with assets of more than $3 million that offers grants, scholarships and recognition for Olathe teachers and students. The foundation funds programs outside those paid for by the district. Yet those programs often provide help at crucial times for students
The foundation includes a Women’s Giving Circle, which allows community members to respond to teacher proposals that otherwise might not get funded. Members contribute $100 and come together to hear teacher presentations in an Olathe home. They then decide where to put their money. The circle was formed to build community and connect people who might not be in the classrooms every day or understand the district’s needs and funding restrictions.
“We wanted people to know the things that were happening in the district and see it up close,” Schultz says.
Schultz knows some lawmakers claim that money isn’t the answer to improved education. She fears a fragmented community could easily believe that narrative. Schultz also knows that many believe Johnson Countians have unlimited funds to spend. She wishes they would take a different seat at the table and hear what she does.
An elementary school teacher gave a presentation to the Giving Circle that many members won’t soon forget. The Westview Elementary teacher had about 35 dual-language books for a high population of English Language Learners. The teacher knew the key to improving literacy for those students was reading at home with their parents. But there simply weren’t enough books to go around.
“What they needed was access to a greater library of these dual-language books,” Schultz says.
The teacher invited a family to read a storybook together so patrons could see the benefits in action.
“One page was in English, and one page was in Spanish. The parent and child were able to read a story together, which would not happen if there weren’t books that could go home and if the books had to stay at school,” Schultz says.
The foundation awarded the teacher $10,000 to fund her proposal, which included acquiring hundreds of books and paying for before- and after-school programs that will reach out to parents for years to come. It also serves parents looking to build on their English skills as well as native English speakers. Schultz asks critics to consider the long-term impact of this one program.
“So the children are impacting parents, which is impacting community,” she says. “So tell that to somebody who is a legislator who thinks that money isn’t having an impact on not just students but parents and parent literacy and community.”
The foundation also helps pay the salary of a mental health clinician who works at a high school and a middle school. The clinician gives students an outlet to discuss anxiety, suicide and other trauma happening in their lives. For years, Schultz says, parents knew suicide and other mental health problems were impacting their children’s ability to learn, but they struggled with how to address it.
“We knew that it was happening, but we put our hands up and we say, ‘What do we do?’” she says.
The foundation acted.
Education officials in Johnson County have long acknowledged that not every district has such powerful foundations to supplement programs. But does that mean that they shouldn’t attempt to address ongoing systemic gaps in education funding that improve their community and the state? Does it mean they should sit idly by when teachers know how to reach more students?
Schultz says they’ve turned down several projects that would directly benefit children – projects that teachers know would help. A middle school teacher asked for equipment so the school could stop turning down kids eager to participate in the Science Olympiad competition. The school only has equipment to engage 12 students, but several dozen apply. It’s a critical age when educators don’t typically turn away students from sports let alone those interested in academic enrichment.
“These kids want to stay after school and be part of a science competitive team,” Schultz emphasized.
Yet the proposal was turned down. It’s hard to fund an enrichment program, Schultz says, when you have so many demands on other programs targeting disadvantaged children.
Schultz also points out an apartment building about to be demolished to make way for a convenience store. It’s home to several low-income families, who will all be uprooted. In a smaller community, the students might be able to remain in their school. It’s not practical in a larger district. Many will move to new schools and school districts in search of scarce affordable housing. They’ll leave behind teachers who know their needs and have formed strong bonds with children.
Such transitions can be a traumatic experience for a child. The community is trying to rally around the families and ensure they find a landing spot. That’s what strong schools should do, Schultz says.
“When we determine we’re committed to providing public education, it’s not just math and reading,” she says. “This is the front line, where we can really address cycles of poverty. We can address cycles of illiteracy, cycles of mental health challenges. We can create a sense of understanding in children that the community supports one another.”
It’s part of the reason why funding can’t be tidy and neat, she says. It doesn’t make sense to create a system that doesn’t take into account the true value of educating a child, she says.
“These are all things that happen in the same district where kids are driving BMWs to school,” she says. “It’s that diversity that puts us in touch with how much more expensive it is to address profound need.”
There’s no easy fix, she says. It will never be truly fair. But she thinks providing more money and allowing school districts to account for variables is a good place to start.
“I don’t know what that looks like in Garden City. I don’t know what it looks like in Hutchinson,” she says. “But I trust that we aren’t doing it right right now, because we’re not putting enough in. We already know that.”
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A Man of Many Hats
Administrator wishes for realistic view of education even as he stretches to fill ever-growing gaps.
By Sarah Caldwell Hancock
Even though he’s a 39-year veteran of Kansas education, 26 of them as a principal at USD 315 in Colby, Robb Ross has a fairly straightforward educational philosophy: “Every kid has abilities. We just need to do the most with them.”
It’s easier said than done, of course, but Ross is an optimistic soul. He’s the kind of principal who arrives at school at 6:30 a.m., so kids whose parents have to be at work at 7 a.m. have a safe place to go. He cleans up when a kid is sick in the hallway. He smiles easily, but his powerful voice and stature encourage respect.
On an unseasonably warm February day in northwest Kansas, he goes outside with middle schoolers so they can enjoy the warmth for a few minutes after lunch. Hijinks ensue, and he addresses one of the offenders as he seeks the co-conspirators. He tells a sheepish 12-year-old boy, “I don’t know what your attitude is, but it better improve.”
Ross would probably like to tell some adults the same thing. The K-8 principal says public education is not treated kindly in the media. “If everyone could have a realistic view of education, period – not just public, but education and all it encompasses – I think people would see it’s the best dollars they spend,” he says.
The work that the more than 2,000 public school administrators do isn’t noticed much beyond the students, teachers and staff they work with directly. But some critics allege schools are spending too much on administrators. In recent years, some state officials have pushed school districts to put more of their “money into the classroom.”
If he could change one thing about Kansas education, Ross wishes that state officials and others would put a little more trust in educators. Ross says schools are expected to teach more subjects than in the past. His staff spends a lot of time teaching students politeness and the kind of soft skills that should be taught at home. Subjects are added “every time someone squeals at the Statehouse.”
“Someone didn’t know history, so we’re going to teach Kansas history. My kid doesn’t eat right, so we’ll change the food system. We’ll add personal finance, because my kid didn’t know how to budget and lost his house,” Ross says. He’s careful to note that none of these topics are bad, but all were mandated without funding increases.
“We get convoluted messages about what’s important. Schools have not been given the option to determine priorities; they’re held accountable for all of these things. Unfunded mandates frustrate people as much as anything,” Ross says.
Ross says “continual bashing” is hard on teachers. “My biggest concern right now is the perception of education. I’m the first to admit there are bad schools, but there’s a huge number of good schools, and there’s a large number of people who are willing to work for – I won’t say poor salaries (because) I chose to go into education. As long as we have people who care about kids and are willing to work at a job that I find rewarding, and they must, too – there’s hope for education.”
Smaller, rural districts face particular problems. Other northwest Kansas school districts can tell much bleaker stories of population loss, but this year Colby schools have an enrollment of under 900 for the first time in Ross’ career. When he started, enrollment was over 1,500.
Changes in numbers and how schools are funded have forced some difficult choices. A big issue is funding for fewer students without reductions in required services.
It’s the classic small-school catch-22.
Services for migrant and special education students are examples. Migrant children are those who have changed school districts in the past 36 months to follow a parent who is an agricultural worker. Colby’s ag-centric location means that migrant numbers have increased each year for the last five years. In special education, too, the number of students with severe needs is increasing.
Migrant program director is one of the many hats Ross wears. He’s also the athletic director, coordinator of special education, and serves on the emergency team and the curriculum council as well as other community boards and committees. The district receives migrant funding in accordance with enrollment numbers, but because those numbers aren’t huge, the district struggles to deliver required services. Ross has one paraprofessional to help him, and the school is on the cusp of needing another, but until numbers go up, the district can’t afford it. In other words, until the problem gets bigger, there’s no more money to help solve it.
Past finding efficiencies
Meanwhile, class sizes have been growing, and the number of electives being offered has been shrinking.
Both administration and staff have decreased – by about 15 employees since Ross began his career – and not just because of decreases in enrollment. Ideally classes should be around 20 students, but Ross says some classes are up to 25 to 28.
Best teaching practices also become harder when class sizes inch upward. As a cooperative learning trainer, Ross encourages teachers to have students work in teams, but that’s more challenging with larger classes.
Meanwhile, choices in the form of electives get squeezed. Colby used to have an industrial technology and wood shop teacher all day, but now it’s offered for only one hour. Band and vocal music used to be offered in a rotation with art and PE at every grade level, and the school used to employ a piano teacher. Now middle school students have to choose between band or vocal music, and piano is no longer an option.
School newspaper and yearbook classes used to be offered separately, and now only a newspaper class is offered. A social studies teacher used to teach two drama classes and help students perform plays for the school, but because of staffing cuts, that teacher is now teaching six sections of social studies, which leaves no room for the drama offering. Other enrichment activities have been eliminated, too.
“We used to do a major problem-solving day four times a year,” Ross says, describing an all-school activity in which small groups of students designed balloon cars or towers from spaghetti and marshmallows then competed to see whose was fastest, sturdiest and so on. “We’re no longer able to do that because we don’t have enough staff to keep the groups small enough,” he says.
Ross recognizes that legislators and taxpayers want schools to be as efficient as possible, but he says his district’s schools are past finding efficiencies. “Is physics an elective? Is a computer class an elective? Yes. Yet do we know those are hugely important?” Ross asks. “As far as making tough financial decisions, schools do that every year.”
Katina Brenn, Colby’s superintendent, shares Ross’ concerns about making sure Colby students are well prepared. She wants them to have the same opportunities as students from more populated areas, but Advanced Placement, college prep, and career and technical education classes have taken a hit because of budget woes.
In a small town, the pain of cutting hits close to home. “The cuts we make are deep. Other districts I’ve been in, you’re having people in and out, so when you cut positions, you know others are coming open and you’re not cutting people,” says Brenn, who is in her second year after coming from Geary County. “In Colby, you’re cutting your neighbor. They’re part of the community,” she says. “A lot of people are related, and we all feel it.”
Strength in small numbers
But community involvement also can be a great source of strength. Brenn says western Kansas administrators like Ross are well-grounded and know their kids, parents and communities well. She and Ross talk through needs. “He says ‘This is why we need this; this is how it benefits students.’ On the other hand, he knows what the state situation is and what our financial situation is. I know when he comes to me, he has a global perspective of programs. If he says, ‘This needs to happen,’ it probably needs to happen.”
Ross and Brenn also see plenty of local support. More than 45 percent of the kids in the district qualify for free and reduced lunches, so Colby stepped up with grassroots support. The parent-teacher organization pumped “probably $10,000 or more into the schools in the last several years,” Ross says, and local groups have made sizable donations to a program Ross and a counselor started in cooperation with a local food bank to supply needy kids with food during breaks from school.
“They want to be there when something is going on. They wrap their arms around the school district,” Brenn says.
Even as he helps solve problems in his district, Ross remains focused on individual kids. He recalls a student whose behaviors warranted a long-term suspension. Instead, Ross worked with the boy and his mother. “Now I get to see him in church every Sunday,” Ross says.
“You’ve got to look at each kid and what they are going to be in future. By making a decision: Am I going to cut off his future or help his future? There are times when you say, ‘Enough is enough,’ and other times when you say, ‘We have to give it one more try. If there’s something you could have done for a kid and you don’t – that haunts you. Those are tough decisions.”
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Bringing ‘light bulb’ moments
Teacher fosters learning in preschool age children, but wishes more was being done to help them along.
By Joe Stumpe
Aleisha Weimer sits across a knee-high table from a 4-year-old girl who’s pointing to letters on a piece of paper, softly pronouncing them and tracing their shapes with a pencil. As the girl spells out her name – Makaylynn – Weimer leans closer, her excitement palpable and building until it seems she might grab the girl in a bear hug.
“Look what is happening, girl!” says Weimer, a preschool teacher at the Dr. Jerry Hamm Early Learning Center in Coffeyville, which is an offering of the local school district. “A week ago you couldn’t read it. Miss Weimer’s going to cry.”
The fourth-year teacher settles for a high five – one of seemingly a thousand she will deliver to her students during a typical day.
Weimer is a part of an educational experiment that is seen as a model in Kansas: an “early learning community” that primarily serves at-risk children (about 80 percent of the 220 enrollees) and their families through partnerships with Head Start, the local business community and area nonprofits. Since its start seven years ago, the early learning center has improved the readiness of its students to enter traditional schools and bettered their performance once they reach them. Absences and behavioral problems have been reduced, too.
It’s one of the first programs of its type in the state, and it gets about $1 million of its annual operating budget from the state’s Children’s Initiatives Fund. That fund was created in the 1990s following a settlement with major tobacco companies over the societal costs of smoking. Kansas has received an average of $60 million annually for the last 16 years from the deal.
Weimer identified her calling early, when she was in kindergarten herself, back in Mrs. Stanton’s class in Garnett. Now 28, she was named the early learning center’s teacher of the year for the 2015-16 school year.
But this winter, as Weimer tried to get her students ready for kindergarten, she couldn’t help thinking about a proposal in Topeka to sell off the revenue stream from the Children’s Initiatives Fund to shore up the state’s budget. “That’s the scary part,” she says. “I’m afraid every time that I turn around there will be more budget cuts.”
Weimer has a twofold wish for the state. “Obviously, in an ideal world, we’d like the budget not to be cut.” Beyond that, she wishes more Kansans would see the importance of early education. “Some people think it’s just day care. What we’re really trying to do is get them ready for their education and give them as many resources as they can possibly have.”
Such insights are backed up by research from scholars such as Nobel laureate economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago, that effective early childhood education from as early as infancy can help disadvantaged children gain some of the non-cognitive skills they’ll need to succeed later in life. But the overwhelming majority of state government’s resources go to K-12 education, as much $27 for every $1 being spend on early ed, based on The Journal’s analysis of state spending data.
In 2016, the Coffeyville school district absorbed a $230,000 reduction from the tobacco fund, just weeks before expansion of the early learning center was completed with contributions from the business community. The center cut expenses and lost the services of employees who had provided mental health counseling and interpreting services to parents of preschool children.
“We got a huge hit on this,” Weimer says. “But you do what you’ve got to do.”
For Weimer, that means dipping into her own purse to pay for some supplies. The night before she made the breakthrough with 4-year-old Makaylynn, Weimer bought baking soda and conditioner that would go into the making of fake snow.
Weimer’s day began before the official start of class, as parents dropped off their children and helped them complete their first assignment of the day, tracing the letters of their names. “Good job, next week we’ll start on your last name,” Weimer told one boy. “Proud of you.
Shalawnda Dumm, whose 4-year-old son Grayson is in Weimer’s class, says the early learning center is one of the area’s few non-faith-based preschool programs where kids can learn something “and not just watch TV.”
Dumm and her husband both work, something that wouldn’t be possible without a place to take Grayson during the day. She says she’s already seen a big change in her son, who did not have much contact with kids his own age prior to coming to the center. “He’s slowly breaking out of his shell and talking more to other kids and is excited to come.”
Weimer spends about equal amounts of time on her students’ mental, social, emotional and physical development, usually with activities that touch on several of those areas at once. After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance – “That deserves a silent cheer,” Weimer exclaims, “that’s the best we’ve done!” – her students wash their hands and sit down for a breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, fruit salad and milk.
Weimer quizzes them on the names of the fruit in the salad. The children, for the most part, raise their hands before attempting to answer; Weimer reminds them to maintain eye contact while speaking. They practice motor-skills, spreading cream cheese on their bagels, passing the bowls of fruit salad and pouring milk from a plastic pitcher; against all odds, only a bit spills. The children brush their teeth to a song based on that topic and move on to their first “lesson station” of the day, where they go over information such as what month and day of the week it is using songs, an activity board with movable parts and other learning devices.
“Today is Thursday, tomorrow is … ?” Weimer prompts.
“October!” one child says.
At least a half-dozen times a day, correct answers get one of Weimer’s many stock bits of praise: “Kiss your brain!”
As the kids break into pairs for a play break designed to improve motor and social skills at one table, two kids take turns pounding plastic nails into a foam board – Weimer pulls a boy aside for individual work and testing. The school does a lot of testing, she says, so that kids who need more help get it.
“We’re watching who can do what, and who struggles a little more.”
Through a cooperative arrangement with another agency, speech therapy is offered at the school to children who need it. Three days a week, a clinic is open at the school for any child to visit with no out-of-pocket expense to their families. Children can go to the center for either a half day or full day. There’s also an after-school program at the center that’s run by the Boys & Girls Club.
After Weimer’s teacher’s aide, Amy Magana, gives the children a lesson in the Spanish words for colors, the class marches single file down the hall to the gymnasium. Weimer joins a handful of kids following dance moves playing on a big video screen, while around them other children ride tricycles, bounce on trampolines, throw balls and slide down slides with all the frenetic energy 3- and 4-year-olds can muster.
“If you ask them, they’d say we play all day,” Weimer says. “That’s what we want them to think.”
But Weimer embraces the theory that children retain more of what they during their first five years of life than in all the rest combined; about 85 percent of their brain structure is formed over the same period. “This is the foundation of learning,” she says. “If I can get them excited about school, it’s going to carry on.”
Back in the classroom, her students make fake snow by mixing the baking soda and conditioner together while Weimer tells them how rain clouds form and dispense precipitation. She has little luck getting them to remember and repeat that word – precipitation. Soon, a couple of students help set the table for lunch – meatloaf and baked beans – and another lesson on food and manners begins.
But Weimer knows there will be many more chances to run the concept of precipitation by them, thanks to the center. And eventually they’ll get it, giving her a professional thrill she doesn’t try to hide.
“I like the light bulb moments,” she says. “I just love being that person for them.”
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Closing a Gap, With a Choice
School founder believes that giving families an opportunity to choose private schools could boost achievement.
By Chris Green
Growing up as one of nine children, Wade Moore attended public schools and felt like he “kind of fell through the cracks.”
He and his siblings were kind of “just pushed along” through school, he says. He experienced a similar feeling when he sent his son to public schools. Now, as the pastor of a south Wichita church, Moore says he keeps seeing the same things occur with children and families he works with.
He means it more as a reality check than a criticism. “The public schools, they do a great job where they can,” Moore says. “And I understand there is so much red tape and so much stuff involved in educating the child, to where sometimes, their hands are tied.”
The truth, from Moore’s point of view, is that a lot of kids would just be better off if they could get more individualized attention to suit their needs. So, Moore, the pastor at the Christian Faith Centre, decided to do something about it by starting a private, tuition-based school that aims to improve education, particularly for African-American students.
“I just kept seeing this same cycle over and over. I wanted to give families and children an opportunity for them to be able to choose their child’s educational journey,” Moore says, “especially a school that would give them that individual attention and that would help them progress – help them learn – rather than (schools) just pushing them along and them not learning anything.”
The Kansas Supreme Court’s recent ruling on education funding suggests the state is experiencing a significant achievement gap. The court’s order cited data showing nearly one-half of the state’s African-American student population, about 15,000 students, is not proficient in reading or math, and proficiency levels have fallen significantly in the last four years. Another 33,000 Hispanic students, about one-third of those in the state, are not proficient in reading and math, as are more than one-third of students who receive free or reduced price lunches.
Moore’s Urban Preparatory Academy, a K-7 school that operates out of a midcentury building formerly owned by the Wichita School District, opened in 2014 with 13 K-5 students. Attendance tripled the following year and has reached 53 students, with the school adding a grade level each year. The school, which sits in a part of north-central Wichita with a significant black population, operates independently of the Wichita school district, with Moore as its superintendent and main benefactor.
In fact, Moore says he funded the school’s first year on his own, before finding partners to help with support in subsequent years. Although the school charges an annual tuition of $4,500, Moore works with parents to ensure they pay what they can afford.
The school has benefited from a measure signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2014 that created tax-credit-funded scholarships for low-income students. The law, passed as part of school funding legislation that year, allows corporations, insurance companies and financial institutions to reduce their tax liability through donations to private schools that fund up to $8,000 scholarships for at-risk students. Just more than 100 students, mostly in Kansas City, Kansas, and Topeka, received tax credit scholarships in 2015-16, according to a report published by The Topeka Capital-Journal last August.
Moore says the program has been extremely helpful for his school, and he would like to see it expanded to allow individuals to donate and receive tax benefits. But he fears that lawmakers, facing a significant budget shortfall and a court order to address public education funding, will move in the opposite direction.
“If the state of Kansas, if they try to take away the tax credit scholarships, then that would really take away hope for a lot of children and a lot of families,” Moore says.
Moore is also an advocate for school choice measures, including a school-voucher program and a law allowing for the creation of more privately managed charter schools that receive public funding. In Kansas, charter schools currently operate under the purview of a public school district. He’d also like to see the education dollars that the state allots for each student follow them to a school of their choice, rather than go only to the public school.
Moore says he believes such a change would create more opportunities for students without hurting public schools all that much. He cites a studies from Florida showing that only about 2 percent of the eligible student population takes advantage of the voucher program there.
“People have this fear that the public school system is going lose all these students, which they would not,” Moore says. “Of course, there’d be some families that take advantage of it. … You’re not going to have this mass exodus of students out of the public school.”
The elevation of a voucher advocate, Betsy DeVos, to be U.S. Secretary of Education could further public discussion of school choice programs, but Kansas officials have long resisted such programs.
For his part, Moore says he gets along well with his own local district and would like to collaborate more (he says he already has a partnership with the Andover district for testing). But if the state wants to narrow the achievement gap among its students, he thinks that officials should consider trying to do things differently.
Funding in his view, is not the issue, because the achievement gap is growing at a time when spending per student in Kansas even though funding per student has been increasing. Some studies suggest it will never be closed, Moore says, which is a tragedy.
“You’re telling this child they will never have the opportunity to earn the salary that their counterparts will be earning — that they’ll never have the opportunity to live where their counterparts live,” Moore says. “They’ll never have the opportunity to have a life like their counterparts.”
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Building a Future Workforce
Director working to change perceptions about technical education in Kansas
By Kim Gronniger
It’s one of the state’s better kept secrets. But if Tim Clothier had his way, the Washburn Institute of Technology would be a little less of a secret.
Clothier, the director of Washburn Tech’s Business and Industry Center since 2012, says technical colleges play a key role in developing the technicians that support the growth of the Kansas economy. But there remains an undercurrent of skepticism about technical education in Kansas.
Students often understand the economic advantages to be gained from a state-funded certification program to cultivate a portable, high-demand skill set, Clothier says, but their parents may be skeptical.
“There are still many moms and dads who think a bachelor’s degree is the only avenue for their children,” Clothier says. “Even then, a technical certification can complement college. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”
Educational attainment can have a profound impact on a person’s lifetime earnings, and a bachelor’s degree – not to mention higher professional degrees – can pay off over time as an investment. But some economists suggest that they don’t pay off equally for everybody. Yet some students and parents fear that not going to a university may limit rather than expand horizons.
Technical education offers several advantages and options, but as with any significant investment of time and money, prospective students should consider several factors before making a decision. “Preparedness, finances, career interests, aptitude and family obligations are all things individuals should assess before pursuing an advanced education,” Clothier says. “No pathway to success is without risk, but performing that due diligence work on the front end and weighing your options can help ensure a positive outcome on the back end.”
Changing people’s perceptions about the caliber and versatility of technical education permeates everything Clothier does at Washburn Tech. “We’ve found that curious, creative thinkers flourish in technical education. And once they get their certification, they tend to stay in the state and make a difference in their communities.”
Founded as a vocational technical school in 1964, according to its website, the campus operated for years as Kaw Area Technical School. In 2008, the management of the school shifted from the Topeka school district to Washburn University and the Kansas Board of Regents. Today it’s the managing partner of a consortium that includes 17 school districts.
Technical education aims to support the Kansas economy by populating companies with workers prepared to contribute from the first day of employment. As student debt for obtaining traditional four-year college degrees continues to rise, technical training at Washburn Institute of Technology is gaining traction as a viable opportunity for people of all ages – high school students, veterans and seasoned workers who want or need to change fields.
Employers are also keenly interested in the school’s programs, both to train incoming employees and to provide continuing education to keep the skills of experienced craftspeople sharp so their companies remain competitive.
State policymakers have taken an increasing interest in technical education in recent years. In January 2012, Gov. Sam Brownback announced a secondary/postsecondary technical education plan. Senate Bill 155 provided state dollars to pay tuition and transportation costs to technical centers for high school students, who simultaneously earn college credits and an industry credential valued by employers. After high school graduation, students can enter the workforce or put the credits toward a four-year degree.
“Technology has transformed manufacturing plants during the last 40 years, resulting in environments that are much cleaner and more collaborative in their continuous improvement efforts,” Clothier says. “Our students leave here, often debt free, ready to work in safe environments with opportunities to continue to learn and advance while earning annual salaries of $50,000 or more, depending on the field.”
But even he admits that, as a parent and a former Topeka Public Schools board member, he didn’t used to fully understand the value of technical certification programs for students. “Now we try to expose those Shawnee County governing bodies to information about how our programs enhance individual earnings and economic growth. We’re not a technical school. We’re a technical college that prepares students for careers.”
A Prairie Village native, Clothier arrived at Washburn Tech from the world of business. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Emporia State University, joining Volume Shoe Corp. (Payless ShoeSource) as a merchandise distribution analyst in 1979. He left the company in 2006 as director of the customer support center. He’s also the former owner of a Cold Stone Creamery franchise, a past board member for the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce and former interim president of the Emporia State University Foundation. He tries to bring all those experiences to his liaison role at Washburn Tech.
Clothier meets with companies to identify their current and expected needs and then works with instructors and students to align capabilities accordingly. Westar Energy, BNSF Railway and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. are just a few of the companies Washburn Tech collaborates with to create customized training experiences.
The school’s successful partnerships include four nationally recognized programs: the Midwest Training Center for Climate and Energy Control; a heavy diesel construction program; a diesel locomotive technician program undertaken with BNSF, the Board of Regents and the Kansas Department of Commerce; and one of the first 10 Fiat Chrysler service technician training centers in the country.
Washburn Tech also developed a call center certification program in response to a critical need for Shawnee County emergency dispatchers and sought national experts to assist in facilitating a training program for the Mechanical Contractors Association of Kansas.
Students who earn certifications and choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree can supplement their income with part-time jobs that may pay more than retail and service positions with the benefit of pertaining to a future field of study such as nursing or engineering. One graduate earned a certification in welding, followed by bachelor’s and law degrees from Washburn University and Washburn University School of Law, respectively.
With one of the highest postsecondary graduation rates in Kansas, Washburn Tech’s reputation plays a pivotal role not only in supporting existing businesses but also in attracting new companies to Shawnee County. One of the many factors that Mars Chocolate North America considered when selecting Topeka as the site of its first new U.S. plant in 35 years was the availability of top-notch training resources for its workforce.
“We’re strengthening the backbone of our state, and my prayer is that the governor and legislators understand and appreciate the impact of their investment and the dividends that will come if they stay the course with funding,” he says.
Clothier says the vast majority of Washburn Tech’s 1,800 students, half of whom are in high school, possess a strong Midwestern work ethic and a commitment to excellence across more than 30 certification programs, from climate and energy control technology to cosmetology to carpentry to culinary arts. A new East Topeka campus situated in one of the city’s economically disadvantaged areas will provide expanded programs to equip students with workforce opportunities. Regional SkillsUSA competitions give students a chance to showcase their abilities, with several advancing to national contests each year.
In addition to hands-on learning, instructors – all with industry experience –, emphasize work-readiness attributes such as being punctual, responsible and drug free. Students wear color-coded attire appropriate for their specialty and comply with the school’s stringent safety protocols to foster “a seamless transition when they go to work,” Clothier says.
In 2014, Washburn Tech initiated the nation’s first Technical Letter of Intent Signing Day, drawing more than 500 students to participate. The past three years, the initiative has been undertaken in partnership with the National Coalition of Certification Centers. Attendees receive a hat and the opportunity to meet with the governor and local and national business and industry representatives. Other technical education schools around the country have followed suit with their own signing day programs.
Initiatives such as this, combined with a campus environment that celebrates the dignity of work, complement Clothier’s efforts to position technical education as not only a viable career path but a desirable one.
“We want these kids to know they are valued,” Clothier says. “Our graduates fuel the state’s workforce, and we take a lot of pride in helping each individual find the right place for him or her.”
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Doing the ‘Best We Can’ – With Less
County commissioner advocates for returning to previous school-funding, tax approaches.
By: Laura Roddy
Farmer and businessman Marty Long has spent his whole life in southwest Kansas and cares deeply about his community. He no longer has a direct interest in public education – his kids are grown – but he believes it is vital for the health and future of Grant County.
He is persistent about helping attract new businesses to Ulysses, a county seat with about 6,000 people and the only incorporated city in the county, and has done his part by starting a couple himself.
Long, 60, graduated from Ulysses High School in 1975 and attended Kansas State University for a year before returning to the family farm, where he grows dryland wheat and grain sorghum. In 2009, he diversified his holdings with a 45-room hotel in Ulysses and more recently opened a bar and grill.
Long also has served on the Grant County Commission since 2004. It was smooth sailing for the first six years. “My job was easy,” Long says. “I made decisions that were pretty typical of the day.”
Then around 2010, property values in the county started falling. “The first year they fell, we were a little bit surprised, but it was far from a panic,” he says. But since then, Grant County, which has a population of about 7,800, has lost a little more than half its value.
“It made my job as a commissioner all of the sudden extremely difficult,” he says.
The county’s tax revenue was heavily dependent on oil and gas operations, which experienced a huge downturn, resulting in the burden being shifted to residents and businesses.
“Declining values have hurt the school system, too,” he says. “As far as I can tell, they’ve been able to do more with less money, just like the rest of us. … It’s tough on them. It really is.”
Long says counties had to raise their mill levies and cut budgets to compensate for the decline. The commissioners identified core functions of the county and put their focus there – the hospital, EMS, the sheriff’s department. They continue to work on economic development to diversify and add new businesses, but the efforts have not been as successful as they would like.
As in the rest of Kansas, there’s a lot of talk in Long’s circles about the so-called LLC loophole that passed the Legislature in 2012. It eliminated income tax in Kansas for limited liability companies, S corporations, partnerships, farms and sole proprietorships. As a result, according to the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, a nonprofit that has proposed a tax model that includes an elimination of the exemption, the state has lost $290 million a year in revenue.
“In talking to other business owners around my area, Grant County, we feel like it would be fine for us to pay the LLC taxes because we do hold education as a core value in our communities,” says Long, who has an LLC himself. “Even though I don’t have kids in school, I know how important it is to educate our children and spend an appropriate amount of money on that. If it means LLCs pay more taxes, at least in my area, I believe that they would be happy to do so.”
Although Long has worries for Grant County, he also sees a brighter side.
“One of the things we’re optimistic about is we’ve had a turnover in the Legislature,” says Long, a Republican. “We have replaced ultraconservative senators and representatives with more moderate people, and that in and of itself shows some optimism that things can change, that things can get better. … We’re paying more attention to who we elect in our Legislature, and we’re hoping for better times to come.”
If there was one thing Long could change with regard to the ongoing school funding debate, it would be to get rid of block grants, a temporary lump-sum funding system that in 2015 replaced a decades-old school-funding formula. Kansas school districts are in the second – and last – fiscal year of block grants while lawmakers work on a new school funding formula.
Under block grants, schools are allocated a set amount for the year that is not adjusted if enrollment numbers change. Previously, the formula was based on per-pupil enrollment and weighted according to such factors as socioeconomic status, special needs and district size.
“The formula is important not only to Grant County but to all the school districts,” Long says. “I understand there were some problems with the old school finance formula, but from talking to educators and school board members, it appeared like that formula could have been tweaked or rewritten and most of it left alone.”
As a county commissioner, Long pays close attention to health care. He has seen the trends toward regionalization and knows a lot of small rural hospitals won’t survive the next five to 10 years. Long says southwest Kansas hasn’t yet seen the same trend with schools, but he is concerned.
“Communities our size, if they lose a hospital or they lose a school, it’s almost a kiss of death,” Long says. “We’re trying to do everything we can as commissioners to make our county a great place to do business, a great place to live and a great place to educate your kids. We’re just doing the best we can with less.”
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Choosing Private but Still Supporting Public
Although she and her husband selected a private school for their son, Cindy Nolte wants to see public schools flourish in Kansas.
By Brian Whepley
Cindy Nolte and her husband wanted the same things in a school for their son that they remember growing up in El Dorado and Great Bend: close to their home, a sense of community, smaller classes.
“Part of the appeal of this neighborhood and this particular house we bought was because it was so close to a public school,” says Nolte, who lives in east Wichita and runs her own public relations firm. “We both grew up in small towns. You walked to school; you knew all the kids. We just thought that was the way it was going to be.”
As their son, Reed, now a high school junior, approached school age, the Noltes became concerned that he could end up being transferred away from close-by Price-Harris Communications Magnet Elementary for a year at some point. The Wichita district doesn’t bus students now, but it did at the time. They liked having a school nearby, and even a temporary transfer didn’t feel very neighborhood-like to them. They also liked the idea of smaller middle and high schools, so they took a hard look at private schools. “I wish we would have felt like we had a better option,” Nolte says.
The Noltes found what they were looking for at The Independent School, a K-12 school of approximately 600 students located about a mile and a half from their home. There, over the past 12 school years, they’ve bonded with other families, and Reed has had a chance to play sports – basketball and tennis – in an everybody-can-join system that might not have been possible in a larger school. “It’s like going to school in a small town, which we loved,” she says.
And it has “smaller class sizes. That was huge for me,” Nolte says. “When I went through Leadership Wichita years ago, I sat in on a government class at North High and the desks were banged together. It was such an eye-opener. The kids were great. The teacher was great. But it’s got to be a bit harder to learn and teach in that environment.”
Nolte knows she and her husband, Keith, are fortunate to have the resources to send their son to private school. With high school tuition topping $10,000, it’s still a sacrifice, one they likely couldn’t make if they had two or three kids. Though they chose private school, she doesn’t think that should put her – or other private school parents – into a position of either-or when it comes to viewing and supporting public schools.
“I’m a product of public schools, small-town public schools, and would like to see our public schools flourish. I just really have a passion for our public school system, which seems odd because my child is at private school,” she says.
“I am a taxpayer, so I do help support the public schools. Our school system has a lot of value to our society, and I’m sometimes puzzled why there’s so much friction and divisiveness over school funding,” Nolte says. “People don’t always understand the services that are available across the board besides just classes. If your child needs speech therapy, you can go to a public school and get a program for that, whether you’re a private school parent or a public school parent.”
Nolte’s husband also owns his own business, one that installs commercial playgrounds at schools, churches, military bases and elsewhere. “Another critical reason for making sure our schools are healthy and well-funded is that, to a business owner, it is a value to know that people entering the workforce have a good, solid basic education. It’s significant, it really is, in terms of our economic growth,” she says.
Pride and perception matter, too. “I do public relations for a living, and I’m aware that to people outside Kansas we’re not looking so good right now,” says Nolte, who is hopeful about recent political shifts in the state.
Nolte has seen inside a large public high school and volunteered at a high-poverty elementary school, and she says that if she could change one thing, it would be class sizes.
“Overcrowding in classrooms, it’s a hot button for me. Having sat in one of those rooms, I thought, ‘This isn’t right; this isn’t how kids can learn.’ If you have a group of 30 kids, you’re going to have a group over here who are just straight A’s, motivated, and you have a few over here who struggle. They get the teacher’s attention for opposite reasons, and you’ve got this whole middle section that just gets along. It would be utopia if we could get to the point where the kids who have trouble could be guided in a positive way, but if we also then could focus on the ones in the middle, because, who knows, they could end up taking off like a rocket.”
Just as there’s no uniformity of opinion in the community or in the public schools – there are teachers who vote for politicians pledging tax cuts and guidance counselors who see merit in charter schools – there’s a wide range of views and approaches among private school parents. Some have a child in public school and another in private. Some have children in several different private schools, with parents choosing a school based on its “vibe” and fit for a particular child just as a public school parent decides a “traditional” magnet is the best match for their student.
As the Legislature considers a school funding solution, vouchers for private school are expected to be part of the debate. Nolte is skeptical.
“When the school voucher system comes up, I know I should be in favor of it, because we could benefit. But I just can’t, because I don’t want it to take away from the public schools that so desperately need every resource they can cobble together,” she says.
Nolte says it’s far more important to her that we make “public schools excellent academic options, that kids have a safe, high-quality education. “I’m afraid that if we try vouchers, it may decimate the public school system. It certainly doesn’t help the public schools. They don’t get more money. And in Kansas, they need more money.”
Nor does she want to see “across the board” privatization of schooling. Her ultimate goal would be to have Kansas be seen as a national leader in terms of education.
“I would love it if Kansas had the reputation for being a place to educate your kids, if we were known for being a great place for public education, and we’re not,” she says. “I would love it if Kansas had that going for it, that we had a good strong system, that kids were being taught what they needed to flourish and succeed.”
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Straddling the Divide
In a middle school with a diverse mix of students, a counselor says her ‘big beef’ is for needy students to have access to more resources.
By Brian Whepley
Titles of previous occupants are stenciled on the door of Jenny Ridder’s office at Wichita’s Robinson Middle School: social worker, psychologist, speech and language clinician.
None of the descriptions match Ridder’s job title – counselor – but all seem to apply at some point during busy days trying to keep tabs on 400 sixth- and seventh-graders, her half of Robinson’s 800 students.
On any given day, she’s mediating disputes between students, setting schedules for new students and planning the master schedule for next year, giving tours of the building, making hall sweeps for tardy students, and following up on teacher reports about kids’ math and language arts interventions.
Then there’s lunch, a highly orchestrated, four-session affair in which students file into the limited seating in order and friends get separated. During her two sessions, Ridder waves kids into tables like an airport worker guiding planes into gates, tells some boys “that needs to stop” and holds IDs for restroom-bound students.
“I like doing lunch duty because I can see them in an informal setting and (see) who hangs with who, and who does what,” says Ridder, reflecting the same observational approach used on a morning swing through the sixth-grade hallway with calls of “How you doing?” and “You can do it!” to girls laboring up stairs.
It’s all part of a day that starts at 7:30 a.m. and often stretches to 5:30 p.m. or, on AVID College Night, until 7:30. At Robinson, Ridder is also co-coordinator of AVID, a program for about 40 seventh- and eighth-graders with the potential to handle high school honors and Advanced Placement classes but need tutoring and other support to get there and, perhaps, on to college.
Ridder grew up in Wichita, going through Catholic schools and receiving her teaching degree from Wichita State University. She taught social studies and coached at her alma mater, Kapaun Mount Carmel High School, before moving to Wichita Northwest High School.
After a dozen years in the classroom, she took her master’s in counseling to Wichita North High School, one of the biggest, most diverse and poorest high schools in the district, where nearly three in four students are poor by federal poverty measures. By comparison, about 11 percent of students in nearby Andover, a prosperous Wichita suburb, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Ridder is no stranger to the challenges poverty often delivers to students – less support at home, less access to early childhood education, moves from school to school, lack of money for binders and even clothing, and more. She’s also no stranger to how additional resources – money for supplies, teaching materials and tutoring – can make a difference.
Robinson is stuck in the middle on that kind of help. Many of its students come from much higher poverty Washington and Adams elementary schools, but Robinson, where nearly 59 percent of kids are low income, doesn’t reach the threshold that the district uses to determine which schools get federal Title I assistance, which aims to narrow gaps between low-income students and their wealthier peers.
She thinks parents and kids should have “some skin in the game” for school and the work and resources it takes. But if she could change one thing at her school it would be gaining “access to funds for kids that are needy. That’s my big beef.”
The Wichita district, with state funding flat and costs rising, added a half hour to each school day and chopped 15 days from the calendar in 2016 to help cut $23 million from its budget. “Those sixth-graders are kind of elementary kids. They’re pretty tired at the end of the day,” she says.
Other cuts reduced Robinson’s building budget – which pays for computers, paper and other supplies, field trips, library books, desks, chairs and a host of other things – 10 percent in each of the last two years. Other district cuts have affected training and support for teachers. The school hasn’t lost teachers. But instead of recruiting its own to fill retirements and departures, it’s taken transfers from other district programs that were cut. “You have teachers being assigned from schools that were maybe a learning center or something, and then going into a middle school. That is quite a transition.”
Robinson is not without resources, including some that come with one-third of the school’s students being in the pre-International Baccalaureate (IB) track that preps students thinking about applying for Wichita East High School’s rigorous academic program. Many pre-IB students bring the individualized education plans (IEPs) required for special education, including gifted service. The school’s approximately 225 IEPs require monitoring and paperwork, which is why Robinson has a full-time social worker and a full-time psychologist, part time positions at most middle schools.
There are a lot of things Ridder would like to do. She would like to go into classrooms and get kids thinking about careers earlier, if she had the time and teachers didn’t feel squeezed by days lost to budget cuts. She would like to apply for grants and programs that might bring additional resources. She would like to know the names of more pre-IB students but doesn’t “because they do what they’re supposed to do.”
Instead, “sometimes it feels like we’re just doing triage,” as she and fellow counselor Lindsay Halstead adjust schedules, welcome new students, referee conflicts over boyfriends and girlfriends, counsel kids having trouble with teachers or family, and run to the nurse when a student is harming herself. It’s a scramble that can leave counselors saying, at noon, that they haven’t gotten to their desk yet.
“I work with a lot of the naughty kids,” Ridder says of issues ranging from inappropriate sexual discussions to students expelled elsewhere who are getting a “fresh start” at Robinson. “It’s a pain in the rear, but at the same time you don’t want to see middle-schoolers kicked out of school. That doesn’t help society at all.”
Ridder may wish her office was located near the administrators so that she didn’t make 20 trips a day on the stairs of the sprawling three-story school, which opened in 1932. And she’s glad Robinson is getting a new bond-issue funded auditorium and a practice gym/safe room. But more than anything, she’d like more co-workers and smaller classes.
“A class size of 30 sixth-graders is ridiculous. Everybody knows that, but we’ve got them. How do you teach them social studies and civics when you’ve got 30 kids in there? And if you took out 10, just 10, it could be so much better.”
And it might mean that there would be room in art class – where “we just don’t have another chair right now” – for a new student, the one who likes math and is getting a “fresh start” at Robinson.
“The issue isn’t stuff; it’s people. If there are 800 kids, I have 400 kids. I don’t know all their names, and I don’t have a connection to all 400 of them. The idea is they should have somebody, at least one adult they’ve connected with, so hopefully they do.”
She’s willing to consider most anything that gives kids a decent shot and has a “somewhat conservative view” that makes her open to vouchers, allowing government money to go to private school tuition. But she’d like them held to the same take-all-comers approach public schools must follow.
“It does seem like there’s a total assault on public education.” Her fear is that “they’re going to gut public schools. And we’re going to be trying to teach some of the hardest kids that the other schools don’t want.”
“I’m more scared than I am hopeful, unfortunately,” she says of the current environment.
Without continued support, there’ll be greater poverty and “giant gaps” in education and society, Ridder says. “It’s going to create a larger divide.”
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This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.