Kirkwood redistricting raises questions about race
When William F. Hall was 6 years old, he confidently walked into Robinson Elementary as the first African-American student in 1954. Rather than feeling intimidated, he said he felt prepared for the challenge because he was the son of two educators. He had attended the segregated Turner School in Meacham Park until the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which prohibited public school segregation.
“I am fortunate that I was always raised to believe all human beings are made in the image of God,” Dr. Hall, adjunct professor and consultant for the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, said. “There was never any hatred or any feeling that I was better than someone or, certainly, that I was less than anyone.”
These childhood experiences shaped Hall’s views on how the Kirkwood School District (KSD) should redraw its attendance boundaries today as it combats overcrowding.
“The key is, what is going to be in the best interest of the best education of the children?” Hall said. “It is pretty much a no-brainer that in today’s contemporary society, the key to the best education is diversity.”
While Hall said racial diversity is important, he believes other variables need to be taken into consideration, including gender, socioeconomic income and ethnicity. Hall said, however, there should not be more emphasis on one factor over another.
The KSD will start the redistricting process in May 2020, in hopes the plan will go into effect in the school year of 2022-2023. This is the first time KSD has redrawn attendance boundaries since 1975, according to School Desegregation in Kirkwood, Missouri: A Staff Report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The year before Hall walked into Robinson, Kirkwood was in court accused of operating a segregated school system like the one found unconstitutional in Brown. For years Kirkwood had shipped its black high school students off to Sumner to keep Kirkwood white. Even after Brown, many of Kirkwood’s schools, such as Tillman and North Junior High School, remained almost entirely white. The 1975 adjustment of attendance districts was an effort to create greater diversity. What’s uncertain is whether the new redistricting plan will jeopardize that diversity.
Dr. Michele Condon, KSD superintendent, said it is illegal for Kirkwood to redistrict based solely on race. She said it needs to be taken into consideration the concerns of parents and students in KSD and reflect their values in the schools.
“We just want to make sure that all of our kids have an opportunity for an excellent education,” Condon said. “We want to make sure that we hire a diverse staff so that all of our kids in our district have the opportunity to learn what it is like outside of Kirkwood because the real world is more diverse than Kirkwood is at this point.”
Condon said KSD is going to look at how the Webster Groves School District (WGSD) is redistricting because it is ahead in the process. The WGSD Boundary Advisory Committee presented its recommendation to its school board, Feb. 24. The recommendation, which is listed on the WGSD website, includes balancing utilization among all schools and minimizing travel distances for students; however, it creates a discrepancy in socioeconomic status. The schools range from being 4% socioeconomically diverse to 30%.
The KSD redistricting process cannot start until after the community votes April 7 on Proposition S, a no tax rate increase bond issue to address student enrollment growth, including building a new elementary school on Kirkwood’s Lindemann property, according to Dr. Matthew Bailey, KSD assistant superintendent and co-chair of the committee to redistrict. He said redistricting will happen regardless of whether Proposition S passes.
Bailey said there is a Google Form to sign up to be part of the committee, which will include people with different community perspectives. He said there are currently about 100 people signed up, but they want to get as many people involved in the boundary decisions as possible, so there are no surprises with the new layout.
According to Darnel Frost, Kirkwood School Board president, race is not going to be the leading factor in KSD redistricting. However, he said people in Meacham Park believe it is essential that a lot of the decisions revolve around race.
“To me [race] always has to be a factor [in the redistricting process],” Frost said. “Now, how important a factor, is where the discussion needs to be had.”
Stephanie Keller, parent of two kids at North Glendale Elementary, is one community member who signed up to be part of the redistricting committee. She said diversity should play a factor in the process, and it is worth it to split up some neighborhoods to keep the schools balanced.
“It’s important to have a little piece of everybody in each elementary school,” Keller said. “Not just having one school specifically having all of the lower-economic scale families in it.”
Even though some students will attend different schools, Bailey, Condon and Frost agree all Kirkwood schools supply a great education.
“All of the elementary schools are great,” Frost said. “The schools in Kirkwood are very good schools. We have great principals, great leadership. So no matter what school you end up going to, you are going to have a great experience.”