Central High’s closure is not a failure of Kansas City schools


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It's time for all of us to reinvent the way we teach to meet the needs of today's students.

It’s time for all of us to reinvent the way we teach to meet the needs of today’s students.

Facebook/Central High School

Like many urban school districts, schools in Kansas City had a history of segregation. Facilities for white students were superior to those for black students. When the courts intervened through the desegregation orders of the late 1970s and 1980s, billions of dollars were spent to right these historic wrongs.

Today, some point to the impending closure of Central High School as a prime example of the costly failure of court-ordered desegregation in Kansas City. It is an incomplete point of view.

The failure was to invest billions in an outdated and insufficient model of education.

When I was Missouri’s deputy education commissioner, I visited Central several times. I was amazed by the impressive facilities of its campus. Everything was new, high end and expensive. Many other schools in Missouri had similar amenities, but Central High School was unique.

In retrospect, it seems clear that we invested too much in building school structures and not enough in the people who would ensure academic success. The court and attorneys in the Kansas City desegregation case seemed to believe that if you build it, they will come. They added new paint to an outdated education system to mask its flaws and ensure its failure. It was, at best, a very precarious system and it still is. Rather than attracting middle-class families into the system, it has resulted in a deep drop in enrollment from then until today.

The failure of this $2 billion investment to integrate Kansas City schools is proof that our traditional American education system does not meet the reality of today’s educational demands. There have always been tensions between the needs of our society and the diverse needs of children and families.

Our current system is not responding. It’s a wild ride to keep investing in a system that needs to be redesigned. As Abraham Lincoln declared a month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present.”

To build on our education system for the future, we all need to think and act anew. We need to break away from status quo politics and use this time to reinvent the current system. We need to agree on a new vision for educating all of our children to ensure equitable access and opportunity. All parties must be willing to see educational opportunities in a new light. All parents need better choices to match students’ strengths and interests for a successful educational experience.

We need to challenge vested interests in our current system. Our schools should be designed for the needs of our children. The future of American education hangs in the balance as our children continue to fall behind in international assessments. We need a national conversation about how federal and state education policies and agencies need to be restructured to provide more coherence and drive innovation. They also need to have interdisciplinary teams that understand the science behind how we learn.

We need a strong public-private partnership to fund a national competition to reinvent a new system of schools for all children. New models must be developed, tried and evaluated. It can be an evolutionary process and can help our nation resolve the culture wars plaguing our schools. The world is changing faster than our current system, and we have a moral responsibility to the next generation. Our children can’t wait, and neither can this great country.

I wondered if the court and the attorneys in the Kansas City desegregation case or the school administration had overlooked the people. Support from teachers, students and families is essential to academic success.

Susan Tave Zelman is a former Missouri Deputy Education Commissioner and the author of “The Buying and Selling of American Education: Reimagining a System of Schools for All Children.”

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