About 2:30 in the afternoon, the students of Eric Thomas’ Advanced Placement Biology class begin trickling into the Mill Valley High School parking lot. They tramp across grass and gather outside the building.
“We knock on Mr. Thomas’ window and he comes around and opens the door,” said senior Kelsey Winscott.
It’s Sunday and the school is eerily quiet.
Small sounds whisper inside Mr. Thomas’ classroom. Tarantulas stalk crickets hidden in the sawdust carpets of their glass tanks. Geckos cling to the sides of their enclosures, watching. On a wheeled shelf inside a narrow adjoining lab, mice titter about under the grated tops of their boxes.
Student voices reverberate down the long corridor. They enter Mr. Thomas’ room and plop down heavy backpacks. They are there to dig deeper into the AP Biology curriculum than they can during the weekly 90-minute class period.
A bearded dragon lopes freely between the desks like a family dog looking for some affection.
Most of the lab equipment, tanks and specimens are the results of Mr. Thomas’ entrepreneurship. Some were donated by local businesses and kindred spirits, like the luxurious glass home of the bearded dragon.
Like many teachers of the De Soto School District, Thomas balances the constraints of his small school district with his desire to provide a top Johnson County education by getting a little creative.
The average Leopard Gecko sells for around $100. It took Thomas years of careful breeding to achieve the coveted bold stripe of “footprints” down the back of his gecko that make it worth an extra $50. The corn snake coiled in a glass tank near the front of the classroom sells for $70 at a local pet store; the bearded dragon: $40; chameleons: $70. Thomas has bred and sold all of these species in order to fund his deep-diving curriculum and buy pricey supplies for his high-level science classes.
Thomas also breeds mice. Some he feeds to his reptiles and the rest he uses as an ongoing experiment in genetics. The goal: blue mice. He has a few currently burrowing into sawdust on a shelf in his lab right now. When he opens the lid to their box, their fur glints a bluish-grey in the fluorescent light as they squirm over their bunkmates and furtively scan their surroundings.
“It took about five years to successfully breed a blue mouse,” he said.
Other teachers may host fundraisers to defray the cost of classroom materials, and many, including carpentry classes at both high schools, have networked with local business owners who donate scrap materials and excess inventory.
Despite the size disparity between the De Soto School District and powerhouse districts such as Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley, De Soto is a Johnson County district where education expectations are high even if resources are fewer.
To meet those high expectations, De Soto does a lot with a little. In many areas, it is succeeding. For example, De Soto High School was the highest ranked public school in the 2012 Kansas math assessments and the fourth highest ranked public school in the reading assessments.
The academic and fiscal success of the district is due in large part to a philosophy set forth by the district’s board of education and superintendent to protect the classroom, even in times of economic hardship.
“We do all we can to balance an equation in which funding has been significantly decreased, while expectations continue to be significantly increased,” district superintendent Doug Sumner said.
On one side of that equation, the district responded to slashes in funding by drastically slimming administrative positions. On the other side, the district maintained the highest ratio of teachers to administrators in the county, according to a 2010 dataset compiled by World Media Group.
The De Soto school district has to balance more than its budget. Enrollment in the district’s eastern region of Shawnee far outweighs that of its rural western region.
De Soto High School Principal Mark Meyer says most people don’t realize the majority of the district’s students live in Shawnee.
“The little community of De Soto has a pretty big high school that draws students from a wide swath of the district,” Meyer said. “But Mill Valley (High School) enrolls about twice the students we do from a much smaller area.”
The district’s geography has its pros and cons. The majority of the district is residential with relatively few large businesses. With comparatively little business tax revenue, the district must rely heavily upon private residents to foot the bill with property taxes levied through the district’s mill rate, district spokesperson Alvie Cater said.
“One mill in De Soto school district raises just a little over $300,000,” Cater said. One mill in Shawnee Mission, however, raises $3 million.
These days that tax burden is spread over far more families than it was a few decades ago. In the 1990s the population of the De Soto district nearly doubled as families flooded western Shawnee. The school district responded to the influx of working families with young children by building more schools. Between 1998 and 2010, the district built all seven of its current elementary schools.
Three of the elementary schools as well as a middle school and Mill Valley high are within a two-mile radius of each other along Monticello Road, north of Shawnee Mission Parkway. The district laid out initial plans for the elementary schools when Johnson County was in the middle of a housing boom and the population was skyrocketing. When the recession hit and the housing market burst, the district’s growth screeched to a stop.
Belmont, the newest elementary, was built in western Shawnee to siphon students from the overflowing Mize Elementary to the south in Lenexa. Plans for the school were finalized in 2009 after optimistic voters approved the $75 million bond for its construction the year before.
Belmont is currently at 56 percent capacity and will remain so for at least the next five years, according to a recent school district enrollment study. However, the school remains a bustling learning environment.
“If you walk through our halls, you certainly won’t see empty classrooms,” Belmont Principal Pam Hargrove said.
Extra space at Belmont houses the district’s early childhood program, presided over by Abby Huggins, special education coordinator. The program draws 3- and 4-year-olds from the entire district and admits students year round. Currently, about 140 students are enrolled. Most have special learning needs, so unlike typical elementary classrooms, in which your eyes bounce from stocked toy shelves to craft tables to alphabet posters, cupboards are closed here, shelves are draped with solid fabrics and calmness prevails.
In total, the district’s elementary schools are currently at 78 percent capacity and projected to dip to 73 percent over the next three years.
The recent stagnation in growth has allowed the district to take a breather after the rapid-fire growth of the 1990s. Attention during the past three years has focused on the modification of schools already in existence rather than the construction of new ones.
“In many ways our district is unrecognizable from where it was 20 years ago, but our character, commitment and effectiveness remain the same,” superintendent Sumner said.
For some educators in the district, the ‘90s sudden growth was hard to come to terms with, said Mill Valley Art teacher Erica Crist.
“Originally, the curriculum was for a small school but we’re not a small district anymore,” she said. “We sort of had to catch up.”
One of the ways the district caught up was by adding Advanced Placement classes. The number of AP courses offered is often used as a bellwether for a high school’s quality, and the county’s bigger districts lead the way. For example, Shawnee Mission offers 28, the most in the county.
De Soto now offers 12 AP courses at each high school, up from the eight they offered four years ago.
In 2010, Crist taught the first class of AP Studio Art offered at Mill Valley High School, which brought into balance the district’s long-time commitment to art and its desire to adapt the curriculum to a growing district.
“Involvement with the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skills,” Sumner said. “We have worked hard to protect our art program during the financially difficult times we have experienced over the last several years.”
Such dedication to the arts in tough budget times is unusual, educators said.
“Our program has been allowed to grow all these years so we’ve been able to nurture a reputation that stands with the rest of the academic programs,” said Mill Valley art teacher Jodi Ellis. “They wouldn’t cut AP Art any quicker than they’d cut AP Calculus.”
The AP Studio Art class is fast-paced, which may seem antithetical to the creative process, but students are engaged and passionate about the art they create. The students must be fairly prolific because at the end of the year, Crist helps them cull through their body of work to find 24 pieces to send to the AP Board, a national academic entity, for grading.
Most of her students work on drawing portfolios but senior Elizabeth Brown is building a portfolio of 3D art. So far her portfolio consists of sculptures, but she wants to build an installation and she’s scoped out a wall of the library. She’s surrounded herself with art texts and culls through them for ideas. Her sketchbook is opened to a pencil drawing of a human figure bursting through the wall of the library reaching for a book suspended from the ceiling in mid-air.
“I think that’s how students should feel about reading,” Brown says. With a sheepish smile, she adds, “and an installation would be really good for my AP portfolio.”
While other students manipulate water, marble powder and acrylic paint into landscapes, Brown struggles to flesh out the details of her sculpture. Crist, while effortlessly creating a stunning portrait of a brooding tree in purples and grays, talks with Brown about the space of a library.
“What do you think about when you think about a library?” she says. “Write down some words you associate with a library and then we’ll talk about how your piece may reflect that.”
The same year the district added its AP art class, it also added an Architecture and Construction Career and Technical Education (CTE) track. Now in its third year at both De Soto district high schools, the five courses in the Architecture and Construction CTE track include computer assisted design, architecture, interior design and two levels of residential carpentry. Carpentry students learn every facet of building and maintaining a house in a beefed up version of the discontinued shop class.
Nick Hall, a De Soto High senior, took both carpentry classes and put the training to use when he helped his grandfather build a deck.
“Building a deck is a lot like framing a floor, which is something we learn in Residential Carpentry. So I could help him out a little more,” he said.
Jim Bonar, who teaches De Soto High’s carpentry classes, said it would be ideal for a student to take all the track courses to get a feel for all elements of the industry, but most students take either the carpentry courses or the architecture courses. In the carpentry courses, students learn a variety of skills beneficial to any homeowner, such as how to install and troubleshoot plumbing, how to lay tile, frame a house and repair drywall. The architecture classes are oriented around lecture and book work.
After taking both carpentry classes, Hall earned the national carpentry certification awarded to students who score well on the class’s culminating test. Hall continues to participate in the class as a teacher’s assistant.
When the carpentry students separate into groups to mix concrete and practice pouring wall footers into frames they built the previous week, Hall oversees one group and Bonar the other. This is practice, but in the past they’ve completed real projects for their school. At both high schools residential carpentry students built ticket booths for the football stadiums.
“When we can use the residential carpentry class’s expertise, we do,” Mill Valley Principal Tobie Waldeck said. “It’s certainly cost effective. All I have to do is provide the materials. At the same time, it provides a feeling of ownership for those kids and the teachers.”
At Starside Elementary in De Soto, the school counselor, Paula Henderson, also tries to foster a sense of ownership over the projects her students take on.
Inspired by a craze sweeping Europe, a parent came to Henderson with the idea to add an all-natural playground to the recreational area behind the school. Henderson liked the idea, so she applied for numerous grants and eventually raised enough money to build the playground.
Located behind the expansive regular playground with its metal and plastic jungle gyms, the all-natural playground is cozy and unassuming. Anchored to cement, the logs and stumps arranged in circles, squares and stars weave through adolescent trees and tufts of prairie grass. When Henderson told her students about the playground plans, they came up with design ideas that the landscaper then used.
To an adult, it might look like a stump-ridden patch of mulch. But to little hands and little feet, the logs, evergreens and grasses provide the perfect locale for a giggle-inducing game of “hot lava” or hide-and-seek.
Starside, the only district elementary school that receives Title I federal funding because of its percentage of impoverished students, was the first of the current elementary schools to be built in 1998 and Henderson has been working there since it opened its doors.
During her 14 years at Starside, Henderson has established a variety of programs. She has sought, applied for and won thousands of dollars in grants to fund solar panels, wind turbines, iPads and a student garden.
“After we fulfill one goal, we set another goal,” she said.
Recently, Henderson reapplied for a five-year 21st Century Education grant and added a request for iPads and iPods. Starside soon received 70 of each and excited teachers quickly built the gadgets into their lesson plans.
“In our second-grade science class, students are learning about alligators. They built alligators with Legos and then used the iPad to program the built-in motors so the alligators moved around. Then they used the iPads to do some research about alligators — like where they lived and how their babies hatch. It’s really cool,” said Henderson.
Michelle Hite, principal of Prairie Ridge Elementary, wants to provide similar opportunities to her elementary students. Prairie Ridge is ranked No. 1 in a nationwide online Clorox contest, which ends Dec. 19. Hite plans to put the $50,000 prize money toward new laptops and tech gadgets that will allow her students and teachers greater access to technology resources in classrooms.
Kelsey Winscott, a senior at Mill Valley High, is enrolled in both Crist’s AP Studio Art class and Thomas’ AP Biology class. She plans to study pharmacology at the University of Kansas but hopes she can make some extra money by selling her art.
After a bell announces the end of her AP art class and students filter into the hallway, Winscott and a few others remain in the paint-spattered classroom. She mixes colors on a palate that had been a serving dish in a previous life. They would use their study period to continue painting and drawing. The room soon fills with students, who crowd around the desks and vie for the last remaining stool. Another bell rings.
Winscott keeps working quietly, occasionally nudging animated students with bulging backpacks away from her workspace. In about 30 minutes she creates a landscape in hues of green, yellow and orange from a sketch she’s drawn.
“I should probably be working on my AP bio homework, but this is so much fun,” she says.
Winscott enjoys the dual challenges of her high-level art and science classes. She says art kept her sane after her family moved to Shawnee from Los Angeles, but she wants to pursue a more secure occupation so she signed up for advanced science classes as well.
Like the school district she’s a part of, she has found a balance.