Community questions possible K-5 classroom closure at Kennedy, district transparency

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More than 80 participants attended the first of two virtual meetings Tuesday evening for the Kennedy Elementary School community to discuss the proposed closure of its K-5 classrooms at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

The Lawrence school district proposes converting the building to an early childhood community center to cut costs. As a result, K-5 students would move to other elementary schools, including Cordley, New York or Prairie Park, according to a scenario proposed by the district and recommended by the Boundary Advisory Committee during a virtual meeting March 29.

The school board is expected to vote on the issue at its meeting April 12.

In the scenario recommended by the committee and shown below as Option 2, approximately 78 students residing within Kennedy’s boundaries would move to Prairie Park; 75 to Cordley; and 19 to New York. That would bring estimated enrollment totals next year to 285 at Cordley; 221 at New York; and 442 at Prairie Park.

Capacity questions

The possible transition has spawned a host of questions, notably about equity, safety and special education services. Kennedy is one of six Lawrence elementaries designated a Title I school, which means it receives federal funding to help close achievement gaps in math and reading.

To qualify for Title 1 funding, families with low incomes must make up at least 40% of the school body. Moving students from Kennedy to other schools could tip the scales at Prairie Park and Cordley, which currently are not Title 1 schools.

According to district figures, enrollment at Kennedy was 172 in mid-March and estimated to reach 188 next year, but moving students to other schools where enrollment could near capacity also raises concerns.

This screenshot shows the three proposals considered by the Boundary Advisory Committee. The committee recommends the school board approve Option 2 at its April 12 board meeting.

During walkthroughs of buildings at Cordley and Prairie Park, district staff said they identified room to add up to five sections at Cordley and four at Prairie Park if needed, should Option 2 prevail. Teachers displaced by the Kennedy closing would have opportunities to be placed in other open positions within the district. 

On Tuesday evening, Superintendent Anthony Lewis answered questions from concerned parents, educators and community members about the proposed plan. At times, frustrations ran high with participants acknowledging an already traumatic year for children and families due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jessica Rohrberg, who works in the early childhood program at Kennedy, asked Lewis about the timing of the proposal and whether it might be delayed.

“All year I’ve really heard (about) the student trauma and I know there’s been staff trauma, and it’s been such a hard and thankless year and for April to hit and be like, ‘We might close your school and you might not have a job,’ and as we’re getting ready to transition our preschoolers to kindergarten and our Kennedy kids don’t know where they’re going to go,” she said. “The timing seems harsh in a very harsh year.”

Lewis said he understood why some might question the proposal’s timing. But Lewis said the $722,000 anticipated savings with the closure of K-5 classrooms at Kennedy is far from making up for the projected $3-million funding shortfall due to declining enrollment this school year and next.

He said the possibility of a school closing is emotional and a tough decision.

“We have families who have bought homes in the Kennedy area for the purposes of sending their kids to Kennedy,” Lewis said. “And so, now what?”

Lewis said the district wants to use the Kennedy building to expand quality, early childhood opportunities for families that qualify financially. The district, he said, is not looking to add to the budget with the transition. 

Lewis said the district could collaborate to expand the Head Start program to include children as young as 3. Center-based services such as medical, dental and behavioral clinics might also be housed in the building.

Why Kennedy?

As for the participants asking “Why Kennedy?” Lewis said the Kennedy site already meets code. And citing the Douglas County Health Report, Lewis said investing in early childhood education in the “disadvantaged” Kennedy neighborhood could improve academic, social/emotional and health outcomes for vulnerable residents.

Kathy Johnson, executive director of finance, said Kennedy’s enrollment was declining the most according to enrollment projections. Additionally, the early childhood education program there is already established and could be grown.

Several participants voiced concerns about how the district would measure accountability should the proposal go through.

“Every adult that comes in contact and is responsible for children has to be held accountable for student outcomes. The board holds me accountable,” Lewis said. “And I’ve told the board, I’ll be the first one to self-select, to leave, when I’m not making the gains that I feel we need to make.”

Online community of concerns

The online “Kennedy Conversation” Tuesday follows myriad concerns shared with The Lawrence Times. Citing numerous alarms about the proposal, Kennedy neighborhood homeowner Kelly Jones has assumed an advocacy role in getting the word out on social media.

Jones, a mother of a first-grader and a third-grader at Kennedy and another child who also attended Kennedy, is not the same Kelly Jones who is president of the school board. All three of Jones’s children attended the district’s peer-model early childhood program at Kennedy as well.

Jones takes issue with the way the district rolled out the proposal, giving the community less than a month to ponder possible plans. She questioned the district’s transparency. She said the original email sent to Kennedy from the district after returning from spring break could have easily gone unnoticed by busy families because it was titled something like “Early Childhood Education” rather than directly related to Kennedy classroom closures. 

Jones felt a strong need to inform fellow families about the possible change and addressed it on social media. She said she’s heard from former and current educators and other residents who’ve shared concerns about the possible closure.

“I do feel like (the district’s) intention was to poise this so if you were against it, you were against a quality, affordable early childhood education for children,” Jones said. “Therefore, there’s nobody that would reasonably dissent to this, and if you did you must not like early childhood ed.”

Budget-wise, Jones said, the district should consider the commitments it made in its 2013 bond issue election, in which voters approved $80 million in school facilities improvements, including a proposed $8.6 million in renovations at Kennedy.

Transportation and safety concerns

Located on the east edge of town, Kennedy’s current boundaries span north from 15th Street to 23rd Street on the south and west past Haskell Avenue and up to Learnard Avenue, leading walkers who might transfer next year to cross major intersections to get to their new school.

Andrew Newberry said his children would transfer to Cordley under the recommended proposal and wouldn’t qualify for district-provided transportation because they live less than 2.5 miles from the school.

“Both my son and daughter either ride their bike or walk to school every day to Kennedy with their friends. And, so as a parent, I’m pretty concerned about the idea of them crossing 19th, Haskell and Massachusetts to get to Cordley every morning. Frankly, that won’t work. And so ultimately, my wife or I’ll have to end up driving, which upsets the morning routine.”

With the vast majority of students not qualifying for district-provided transportation, Lewis said the district could look at the possibility of helping provide transportation during the transition, but he wouldn’t commit to the idea without knowing the cost.

Next steps

The district will launch an online ThoughtExchange April 1 for the Kennedy school community. This electronic medium allows stakeholders to rate and exchange ideas. 

The district has also scheduled another online Kennedy Conversation for 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 7. District administration hopes to put the proposal to a vote at the April 12 school board meeting. 

August Rudisell/@KsScanner Kennedy Elementary School is pictured in this photo taken March 22, 2021.

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