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Eight months later: The aftermath of closing Kennedy Elementary School

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Article updated at 11:35 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 12:

Eight months after the Lawrence school board voted to close Kennedy Elementary’s K-5 classrooms, students and staff are grappling with changes and uneven class sizes.

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Facing an ongoing enrollment decline and a combined budget shortfall of $3 million for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, school officials proposed reshuffling Lawrence’s elementary school population. But opponents cited equity, social-emotional well-being, pedestrian safety and eventual overcrowding at other schools among their biggest concerns. 

Some educators and families urged the district to consider the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on families and how a school closure could add to that trauma. Critics also questioned the quick timeline of the decision: the community received less than a month’s notice from the proposal’s introduction to the board’s 6-1 vote on April 12.

Now, 145 former Kennedy students have nearly wrapped up their first semesters divided among three district elementary schools: Cordley, New York and Prairie Park. 

Here’s a follow-up on some of the concerns and questions community members shared ahead of the closure and where the issues stand.

In this photo from March 22, 2021, a message to “Be Kind” greets the Kennedy Elementary School community. (August Rudisell / The Lawrence Times file photo)

Class sizes

Kelly Jones, mother of three former Kennedy Elementary students, vocally opposed the school’s closure and questioned the district’s transparency around the decision. (Jones is no relation to the school board member by the same name.)

Following up on the Kennedy closure

This article is Part 1 of a two-part series.

Read Part 2: Looking ahead: Plans still in flux for Kennedy Early Childhood Center

Her child is now one of 27 second-graders in Cordley Elementary’s largest class. In spite of that, Jones said her children’s classroom teachers have “done an amazing job with very limited resources.”

The Cordley class is two students above the district threshold of 25.

Meanwhile, a few of Prairie Park’s classrooms approach the thresholds, but New York Elementary’s classrooms all average fewer than 20 students. New York’s two kindergarten classes average out to 12 students each — less than half their threshold of 25.

A large class size “drags down the synergy a teacher works to create in their classroom, and ends up wearing on that teacher,” said Jeff Plinsky, district teacher and vice president of the Lawrence Education Association teachers union. Morale, learning rates and assessment scores suffer, too, he said.

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Plinsky said class thresholds rank highly among teachers’ concerns because they directly impact the ability to deliver quality instruction while maintaining a safe classroom environment. Classes that are too small make it difficult to implement group learning activities; classes too large pull the teacher’s focus in too many directions for them to be effective.

“If the class size prevents a teacher from doing a quality job, it can be quite frustrating,” he said. “We know when we are being ineffective. The students know it too.”

District spokesperson Julie Boyle said the district had approved adding a section at Cordley (as well as Schwegler and Langston Hughes) using pandemic relief grants in cases where sections exceeded 25 students, including upper grades. But with schools across the nation experiencing various staffing shortages, hiring teachers — even with funding available — could still pose a challenge.

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Becky Reaver, interim principal at Cordley, said she felt hopeful the position would be filled from within a pool of December college graduates and “great student teachers” already in the district.

“The second grade team is amazing at Cordley and really strong,” Reaver said. “Those kids have been in really great hands, but it’s really the best for everyone for us to be able to create smaller class sizes, so we’re really excited.”

Still, she noted that there is a lot to consider to be sensitive to all the changes everyone has gone through in the last year and a half. Jones, too, acknowledged the difficulties of changing teachers midyear, yet said she was pleased about the possibility of hiring a new second grade teacher at Cordley. “Now to find one.”

Getting to — and transitioning to — new schools

From Jones’ perspective, the district gave Kennedy families false impressions — or at least hopes — when it came to transitional services. “Lots of things that were stated just didn’t happen,” she said.

The loss of their neighborhood school made transportation an issue for many Kennedy families. Students who live within 2.5 miles of their school typically do not receive transportation services from the district, but students’ new routes include crossing busier streets such as Massachusetts, East 23rd, East 19th, and Haskell Avenue. Adding to difficulties at Cordley, a student was struck by a car and injured near 20th and Massachusetts streets after dismissal Sept. 27. 

Administrators said before the closure that other options could be possible, such as vans to transport some students who changed schools. None of those options have come to fruition. 

“The district provides state-reimbursable transportation for children living 2.5 miles or more from school. Funding is not available for non-reimbursable transportation,” Boyle said.

In addition, during the spring’s school board forums about the Kennedy closing decision, parents and guardians who worked early mornings expressed the need for before-school programs at all receiving schools. 

They have at least one option at two of the three schools: morning Boys and Girls Club offerings were already in place at Cordley, and Prairie Park has implemented a before-school program for the 2021-22 school year, according to the district.

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Growing school communities

Boyle said although New York received only a small number of students during the transition, Principal Sunny Halsted had reported that meetings last school year between Kennedy and New York staff were helpful and that New York staff members “continue to reach out to former Kennedy staff to support students.”

The district provided no additional information about the transition at Prairie Park, which received an estimated 75 students from Kennedy.

Contributed/USD 497 Becky Reaver

At Cordley, interim principal Reaver said, the six Kennedy staff members who joined the staff had taken leadership roles in promoting a new learning model.

Reaver said she was very impressed by everyone who “keeps showing up this year” despite all the challenges. “Parents, students, staff … giving it their best. And it feels good to be at Cordley. Even in the challenges, I know that this community is really strong.” 

Jones said the process had gone well for her family. “We’ve had good interaction with the principal and with the administrative staff and I really get the feeling everyone at Cordley is doing the best they can to be welcoming and to help assimilate kids who are coming over. We’ve been asked several times, ‘How do you feel like it’s going? Is there anything you need from us?’”

“And we’ve never been asked that by the district, I’d like to add,” Jones said.

However, she said she knew it had been hard on others at Cordley, which received an estimated 60 additional students in the transition.

“I know they are working through so many needs for so many kids and trying to help kids be successful in the classroom. And it’s a miracle that it’s going so well, in my opinion,” Jones said.

Reaver views newly planted trees on the Cordley playground as a timestamp and imagines how one day the community will look back and remember they took root in 2021. 

“All of the voices from Kennedy that have come in and contributed in every way, we’re stronger because of the merger, and it’s wonderful.”

Tricia Masenthin/The Lawrence Times The message “Stop bullying with one kind word” greets those entering Prairie Park Elementary on Dec. 3, 2021.

Note: This article has been corrected from a previous version.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

More coverage:

Eight months later: The aftermath of closing Kennedy Elementary School

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Eight months after the Lawrence school board voted to close Kennedy Elementary’s K-5 classrooms, students and staff are grappling with changes and uneven class sizes.

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