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Big Bucks Education Experiment: Taj Mahal or Inner-City Model?

Kansas City spends $1.3 billion on schools, but critics see few results

By Laurel Shaper Walters / January 10, 1995



KANSAS CITY, MO.

IN this inner-city neighborhood of small homes with cluttered porches and trash-littered lawns, Central High School looks like a misplaced giant.

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The sprawling, modern campus is a $32 million monument to the reinvented Kansas City Missouri School District. For 25 years, it was an all-black school operating out of a threadbare building. Today, the school population is about 20 percent white and a new building completed in 1990 showcases an Olympic-size swimming pool, well-equipped weight room, 2,000-square-foot field house with indoor track, and 900 computers for 1,000 students.

Supporters consider it a success for offering suburban-quality education in an urban environment. Critics call it the ``Taj Mahal'' of American high schools.

These two views frame a debate that underlies one of America's most ambitious experiments in education: Can almost unlimited money and new facilities attract suburbanites to the inner city and ultimately revive urban schools?

Kansas City has become the nation's premier test case - a place where $1.3 billion has been pumped into the local school system in 10 years as part of an attempt to integrate its classrooms.

Some scoff at the notion of investing so much in such an unlikely location. ``I don't know what they are trying to prove putting these suburban-style schools in the worst parts of the city,'' says John Bryant, a local police officer who says he would never send his children to the public schools. ``I don't want to send my kid to a school where if he misses the bus, he could get his throat slit.''

But others, even some people living in the suburbs, are attracted by Central High School's facilities and dual magnet programs offering sophisticated computer instruction or a ``Classical Greek'' emphasis on academics and sports.

Linnie Cowart, a junior, left her suburban school to attend Central, and she is convinced that it is improving her chances to get into better colleges. ``I'd never go back now,'' she says.

Linnie's friends at home wonder why she isn't scared to attend a school that is 80 percent minority. Her old school had only four black students. ``I've never been scared,'' she says. ``I've got lots of black friends, mostly from sports. It gives you more of an understanding of different cultures.''

But Linnie knows many people disapprove of her decision, particularly suburban residents across Missouri who see their districts losing funding while Kansas City receives about $200 million a year from the state. Every morning, the school district sends a taxi to transport Linnie 40 miles to school. ``I get dirty looks on the highway since the cab has a Kansas City logo on the side,'' she says.

Teachers and administrators at Central and other Kansas City schools feel the pressure to prove that the $1.3 billion is making a difference. ``We know that there are expectations that we have to meet,'' says Peggy Ann Graves, a math teacher at Martin Luther King Latin Grammar School.

King is one of the Kansas City success stories. Five years ago it was 98 percent black and ranked at the bottom academically. Today, it is the city's No. 1 middle school academically and has a 47 percent white student enrollment. Students wear uniforms and parents sign contracts binding them to participate in their child's education.

Out in the hall between classes, Principal Everlyn Williams walks up to a boy with an open-collared shirt and asks: ``Where's your tie?'' He mumbles about leaving it at home. ``The biggest challenge is the tie,'' Ms. Williams says. The principal beams with pride when she tells about King students winning honors in Latin competitions against private and suburban schools. Students take Latin from the time they enter King in sixth grade.

Despite the massive investment at Central, the story is different there. ``Our test scores have not gone up the way we would have liked,'' says Assistant Principal Dorothy Phillips. ``But there are other signs of improvement,'' she adds. Central graduates are succeeding in college at higher rates and striving to go to schools nationwide rather than limiting themselves to just the Missouri system.

Ms. Phillips argues the test scores may never improve. She considers standardized tests culturally biased. From her perspective, the investment in the schools has been worth it. ``We've got a lot of kids that need an education, and we can't just abandon them because it's expensive,'' she says.