Emotional last day for Gordon Parks Elementary while school fights for survival

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Students, faculty and parents, many blinking back tears, said goodbye to another school year at Gordon Parks Elementary and hoped it wouldn't be the last.

The state chose not to renew the charter of the 13-year-old school in May, effectively forcing them to close at the end of the school year. The school appealed and a judge will make the final decision on whether the school's charter can be renewed in late July.

The school consistently performed worse on state academic tests than its district peers. A state official said poor academic performance and high staff turnover, along with failure to comply with unspecified federal rules, led the State Board of Education to reject the school's request to have its charter renewed an additional five years.

But officials at Gordon Parks say the state's decision doesn't take into account this year's test scores, still unreleased, or the school's more holistic approach to teaching and caring for students who are almost all living in poverty.

Fifteen percent of students at Gordon Parks have special needs, 5 percent more than Kansas City public schools.

"There are a lot of needs that have to be met in order for a child to even be able to pay attention," teacher Tamara Allen-Williams said.

She said the school sends home food, diapers and even clothing for students who often come from unsafe homes or transitory backgrounds including living in cars or in violent situations.

"You can't pay attention if your stomach is rumbling. You can't pay attention with shoes on so tight. You can't pay attention if you know you go home and there's nothing in that refrigerator," she said.

It's this kind of care that creates loyal supporters of the school, including parents like Virginia Cowlans, who has two children enrolled says weak test scores don't tell the whole story.

"These children aren't a score. They aren't numbers," she said. Her daughter has been forced to attend a new elementary school next fall, given the uncertainty about Gordon Parks' future.

At a fifth grade graduation ceremony today, teachers and administrators spoke out on the school's behalf.

"These ceremonies mark the end of our school year, but I assure you, they are not the end of Gordon Parks Elementary," Doug Curry, school board president, said.

"I'm going to miss Gordon Parks," Gordon Parks kindergarten teacher of 13 years Gladys Grove said, "I don't want to see it closed."

Missouri Department of Education Communications Coordinator Sarah Potter said in an e-mailed statement the school's sponsor, in this case the University of Central Missouri, is "responsible for ensuring the school meets state performance standards," and "ensures clear consequences for failure to meet requirements."

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