Johnson County schools used to take in education refugees; now may be creating them

Whither do you flee when the county to which you fled needs fleeing? This is the uncomfortable question more than a few Johnson County, Kansas, residents find themselves asking.

A little background is in order.

Many moons ago, when my wife Joan and I moved to Kansas City and started looking for a home, we had one non-negotiable requirement: the house had to be within walking distance of UMKC, where Joan had been hired to teach. Having but one car, we had to reserve it for yours truly should any unknowing fool outside the neighborhood deign to hire me.

What surprised us was how few of Joan’s colleagues lived in our generally affordable and agreeable neighborhood. When we inquired as to why, we got the same cryptic, one-word response over and over again: “Schools.”

Over the years, we watched the pattern play out in real time. Our friends would have a child or two, and when the oldest child reached school age, it was time to move. When asked why, we got the same sheepish answer: “Schools.”

The destination of choice was inevitably Johnson County. Our friends had good reason to be embarrassed. For years they had been telling us how the supposedly staid, stuffy, homogenous county to our west offended their hip, inclusive, progressive values. 

Like thousands of other Catholics, we spared ourselves this dilemma by sending our kids to parochial school. These schools are the reason why western Kansas City has remained stable and family-friendly, despite the city’s dysfunctional public school district.

What has not remained stable is Johnson County.

Many of the Kansas City refugees have refused to assimilate. To make sure everyone knows where they stand, they post yard signs that explain in fulsome detail the things “this house believes in” that the neighbors presumably don’t. If still feeling guilty about abandoning Kansas City, these migrants run for things such as school board.

A year ago, their newly imported values clashed with indigenous Johnson County values at Shawnee Mission North High School.

Advanced placement English teacher Caedran Sullivan took to the pages of The Lion, a digital education news site, to say the obvious: “We are being manipulated and intimidated by a divisive ‘woke’ ideology that is creating a culture of contempt and disrespect.”

Sullivan elaborated, “Our district is no longer academically focused.” That lack of focus, alas, has accelerated a decline in Johnson County’s most notable asset, indeed the county’s very raison-d’etre, its vaunted “schools.”

Test scores coming from the Shawnee Mission School District would seem to back Sullivan up. At Shawnee Mission West, for instance, according to the Kansas Department of Education, only 33% of 10th-graders were rated “proficient” — meaning college and career ready — in English/Language Arts (ELA). For math, that figure was 20%.

West is hardly an outlier.

At Shawnee Mission South, the numbers were 37% for ELA and 30% for math — at Shawnee Mission Northwest, 37% and 31%. At Shawnee Mission East, the historic apple of the district’s eye, less than half the students tested proficient in math and barely half in ELA.

Do the parents know this?

I pick on Shawnee Mission for a reason. Close to the historic heart of Kansas City, it is the district Kansas City refugees have found least alien. Olathe? De Soto? You kidding? Lately, however, these folks have been taking the Santa Fe Trail to Blue Valley, which, I’m told, is now the district of choice in metro KC.

If a district were judged by the sparkle of its buildings, our migrants have found the promised land. If judged by academics, maybe not.

As a case in point, students at Blue Valley Southwest, which just opened in 2010, tested 38% proficient in ELA and 36% in math. At Blue Valley High, the only high school in its district to test more than 50% in anything, less than half the students are proficient in math.

The problem is not money in either district. In Shawnee Mission, for instance, the operating budget has increased a court-driven 68% over the last decade, twice the rate of inflation — and this, despite an enrollment increase of only about 7%.

The infusion of new money has not goosed test scores a bit. In fact, scores have declined in both math and ELA. Districtwide, less than 30% of high school students are now proficient in math.

At Ms. Sullivan’s thoroughly modern Shawnee Mission North, test scores are particularly anemic. The Kansas Policy Institute rates SM North a “D.” With only 18% of the school’s students proficient in math, the school was lucky to avoid an “F.” 

If the kids paid as much attention in algebra as they do in Social Justice 101, the school would get an “A.” To prove their ability to absorb propaganda, 60 or so of the little darlings stormed out of class last spring to protest Sullivan’s op-ed.

“Our school should feel safe,” read one sign. “We are skipping our lessons to teach her one,” read another. “Take action against Sullivan,” read a third from a student blithely indifferent to the First Amendment.

In October, Sullivan testified before the Kansas Legislature documenting the details of a curriculum that just 10 years ago would have been fodder for a sitcom. A pronoun policy? School district honchos could not deny her charges. DEI was “woven throughout” the curriculum, they admitted. “To provide you access to anything that falls under DEI would be a monumental task.”

As one state after another sweeps DEI into the dustbin of history, Shawnee Mission stubbornly hangs on to it. And just as stubbornly, Sullivan hangs on to her job.

“If parents knew what goes on in our schools,” she wrote, “the majority would be appalled.”

Here is hoping that majority still holds.

(This article is from Ingram’s Magazine, the leading business publication in Missouri and Kansas for 50 years.)

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