“right-sizing” impacts museums as well as school districts

Kansas City makes the news for all sorts of reasons, but our most recent turn in the national spotlight is due to the  Kansas City, Missouri School Board’s  decision to support Superintendent John Covington’s plan to “right-size” the Kansas City, Missouri School District (KCMSD)

I had to pause when I heard that phrase.  What does that mean, exactly? Is it the opposite of “super-sizing?”  In the business world, it is a substitute  for “down-sizing”–a phrase that far too many of us are intimately familiar with–but without the  inherent negative connotations (let’s not be fooled, though – a lot of people are losing their jobs and schools will close.)   Although “right-sizing” implies that the KCMSD was not the proper size to begin with, it describes (in theory) efforts to “improve student achievement by allowing the District to place its limited number of staff and resources in fewer buildings.”

Like many large, urban school districts (Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C.) the KCMSD has experienced over the past decade a 50% decrease in enrollment which led to 48% of school buildings not reaching their maximum capacity.   Add to that a projected deficit of $8.5 million dollars for 2011 and it doesn’t take an expert economist to know that something’s gotta give or face decertification and takeover.

Putting a school district on an extreme slim-fast plan is never an easy decision.   I experienced a near school closure in high school when the order of nuns that supported our school decided to get out of the education business.  It is terrifying for any young person to realize that the place to which their identity is so closely linked may cease to exist.   For several stressful months I had to consider where I would go to school, if my credits would transfer, if I would be able to graduate on time, if the new school would have similar classes and being separated from friends and cherished teachers.   My small school was ultimately saved by a coaltion of parents and community supporters, but that was a campus of just under 600 students. 

With an enrollment of over 19,000 students, the task before the district’s leadership  is mind-boggling.  Once the Metropolitan area’s educational big dog, it is now dwarfed by suburban school districts , charter and parochial schools that have absorbed its former students as facilities crumbled, test scores declined and a perception of total failure enveloped the district.   Despite winning a legendary desegregation case, which brought a massive influx of federal funding and explosion of new and revitalized magnet schools and programs,  its student population never reached its mid-1906s high and  is more segregated than ever.

This is undoubtedly a hot topic in my community, and I am repeatedly asked for my thoughts on the subject.  However, when I run down my list of concerns, I have been told that I don’t have a dog in this fight for the following reasons:

  • I don’t have children.
  • I don’t live in Kansas City, Missouri.
  • I didn’t attend public schools as a child.
  • My family was not “disadvantaged.”

Hm.  So I counter with:

  • I work in Kansas City, Missouri and my city and state taxes support the school district.
  • I am a certified youth worker who helps provide services to the district’s students on a daily basis.
  • I volunteer with several local organizations that serve the district’s students.
  • I live in large metropolitan area that is connected in a myriad of ways and what affects one part of town affects us all.
  • My parents (neither of whom were born with silver spoons in their mouths) are proud graduates of a district that no one wants to claim anymore, and I have a problem with that.
  • I care.  Isn’t that enough?

So why,  you may wonder, am I even writing about this?  [I thought this was a museum blog!]   Without being hyperbolic, museums would be in serious trouble without the support of school districts.  Tours, art education, outreach and educator support programs all rely heavily on the participation and support of district teachers, families and students.   Many visitors have their first museum experiences via school field trips.   Museums are inextricably woven into the community fabric and cannot divorce themselves from the impact of sweeping district changes.  It is imperative that museums  establish partnerships that support students, families and educators.

As school districts contract, evaluate budgets, trim staff and strive to achieve mandatory state and federal testing standards, out-of-school time steadily decreases.  That yearly field trip to a museum that we took for granted is an often unobtainable luxury for schools.  So what can museums do to help?

  • Offer enhanced website content, providing the ability for schools to make virtual visits until funds can be secured for the real thing.    These tools are helpful for all visitors, but extremely necessary in order to engage the young people who will become your future visitors and donors.
  • Bring the collection to them.  Send your museum educators and/or trained volunteers into schools to share art-related materials with students on their home turf.
  • If there is an admission fee, allow neighboring school districts free admission or pursue external funding that covers the costs of admission and/or transportation fees.
  • Offer events that familiarize teachers with your museum’s educational opportunities.  It is very likely that they are unaware of the resources you provide for them and their students.  Teachers can be your best advocates!
  • Develop partnerships that strengthen your museum’s presence as a vibrant, active community leader. 

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