Back when Raj Chopra was superintendent of the Shawnee Mission School District, 1982-1991, and when the district was considered wealthy and the number of students on free or assisted lunches was negligible, I asked him this question:
If we transported for several years all the students from the Kansas City School District to Shawnee Mission, and transported all the Shawnee Mission students to Kansas City, leaving all teachers and community support in place, what would be the outcome?
His answer was glib and cynical. He said there would be no difference in outcomes. The Shawnee Mission kids would excel, and the Kansas City students would not improve much, if at all.
That was light years ago. Shawnee Mission is a different district today. More than a third of students are impoverished — receiving free or assisted lunch.
So, I posed the same question to Gene Johnson, Shawnee Mission’s superintendent for the past five years, who is retiring at the end of this school year. Johnson has spent 44 years in education.
His answer was somewhat different. Although he said it would be a huge challenge, he believes Shawnee Mission could assist academic underperformers. At the same time, he praised the teachers of Kansas City, saying a lot of them are very good, even outstanding.
Johnson believes, with his strong faculty and community support — along with mentoring — that Kansas City students could be successful in Shawnee Mission. At the same time, he thinks Shawnee Mission students would continue to excel in Kansas City.
It could be Johnson is being overly optimistic. The cultural differences are profound.
Perhaps the reason Johnson is so optimistic is that, with all the diversity changes in Shawnee Mission, the ACT scores have held their own, even increased a bit over the past five years. They are well above the state and national averages.
This has been accomplished while decreased funding from the state has forced $25 million in cuts.
Shawnee Mission has slashed administrative expenses, including custodial costs (classrooms are cleaned only every three days), but small classroom sizes have stayed about the same, particularly in the elementary schools.
Johnson is not only an optimist when it comes to swapping students with Kansas City. He is also optimistic — maybe overly optimistic again — that Kansas will come up with a solution to its school funding problems. And sooner, rather than later.
Johnson believes Gov. Sam Brownback will fulfill his publicly stated commitment to fix a school funding formula that punishes districts like Shawnee Mission, which receives the lowest 15 percent of state funding for schools.
Johnson spends no time whining about the demographic changes in the district or the budget crunches he has had to deal with. He would be willing to take on the challenges of Kansas City, if he were thrust into that situation.
In the meantime, Johnson has a balancing act to perform “without going down a slippery slope,” as he said.
He must make his pleas to Topeka that the district is in a very tight budget situation and facing monumental demographic changes, while he must make certain that the excellence of the district continues to be recognized.
The community will miss Superintendent Gene Johnson, the eternal optimist with the right kind of attitude.
Those traits should be a prerequisite for Johnson’s successor.
| Special to The Star