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Kansas City Public Schools work to involve community in middle school project

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Dr. Cynthia Johnson shares images of the proposed renovations to Center Middle School. (Photo by Lindsey Foat)

As the Kansas City school district prepares to reopen two middle schools next fall, Lead Middle School Principal and Project Leader Dr. Cynthia Johnson is seeking community input on everything from uniform colors to school boundaries to supportive services, like social workers, for students.

One way Johnson is reaching out is through a series of meetings at elementary schools this month. Tuesday night at Melcher Elementary, two people attended the meeting — a principal and a representative from the District Advisory Board, which is composed of parents.

“We’re so very excited to bring middle schools back to Kansas City Public Schools,” Johnson said at the beginning of the meeting. “Middle school is the critical link between Pre-K education and college and career. If students have a successful middle school environment, they are more likely to be successful in high school and beyond.”

Six months ago, KCPS Superintendent Stephen Green hired Johnson, who  has spent the last 28 years in education as a teacher and administrator in Missouri, to lead the middle school project.

Johnson said that her work up until now, as well as her own experience as a struggling middle school student, have helped to inform her approach to the project, which, in large part, focuses on building relationships.

“The buildings that are being renovated — Central Middle School as well as Northeast Middle School — it’s more than just brick and mortar, because everything is being put in place to ensure that at both of those campuses we will create villages of hope for children,” Johnson said. “It’s more than just math class, science class, social studies class and English language arts, there will be an advisory class that just focuses on building relationships and having an advocate for (students) to come to.”

To further aid students in forming relationships in schools that will eventually hold 600–800 students each, Johnson has a designed a “neighborhood approach,” where 100–120 students will share the same teachers and attend all of their classes in the same area of the school.

Johnson is working with architects to refurbish both schools to accommodate the neighborhood concept and create collaborative work spaces like those created in three schools that were rebuilt in Joplin, Mo., after they were destroyed by the 2011 tornado.

In addition to gathering feedback about the middle school plans at presentations and meetings, Johnson is encouraging people to check out the virtual tours of the newly designed spaces for both Central and Northeast Middle School online.

By trying to met parents and community members both places, Johnson hopes to continue the community that generated the return to middle schools in the district.

“When Dr. Green came to the district, one of the first things parents asked him to do was to take middle school students out of the high school,” said Johnson. “So here we are, two and a half years later, and he’s responding to that feedback that he received.”

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