THE IMPORTANCE OF PERCEPTION IN WICHITA PUBLIC SCHOOLS
If you were a parent researching the schools in your area, you might end up on one of several online resources dedicated to grading schools based on data analysis and parent reviews. One such site, Niche.com, assigned Wichita Public Schools an overall grade of C+. Based on your personal experience with public schools, or stories you may have heard, that grade may be higher or lower than you expect.
Wichita schools — and public schools in general — are often maligned with negative perceptions, mostly from parents who spend the money, or even move, to send their kids elsewhere.
Despite these negative perceptions, public schools deserve our support and investment simply for the future of Wichita.
Many of you may send your kids to private schools — and there's nothing wrong with that. But the vast majority of kids in Wichita attend public schools, meaning a large number of your kids' future co-workers, bosses, employees and acquaintances will be educated in public schools.
Education is a complex topic that encompasses social, political and cultural issues we could never fully cover in one place. This article is an examination of the impact and idea of public schools and why they're worth supporting in the Wichita community. It is by no means a comprehensive overview of the funding issue facing our state, or the politics surrounding education in general.
PUBLIC SCHOOLS AS ECONOMIC DRIVERS
Each year, USD 259 graduates 2,600 students.
"That's not a small number — that's our community," says Dr. Alicia Thompson, superintendent of Wichita Public Schools. "Public schools matter because they really are an economic engine for our community."
While private schools also graduate students in Wichita, Thompson says 91 percent of school-aged children in Sedgwick County attend public schools. Of those, 59 percent are in Wichita schools.
Even if voucher programs were available tomorrow, there wouldn't be enough private schools in Sedgwick County to put a dent in that number.
Thompson grew up in the Wichita public school system and is very familiar with the challenges it faces. She attended Carter Elementary, Chisholm Trail Elementary, Brooks Middle School and Heights High School. After attending college in Oklahoma, she returned to complete her student teaching in Wichita and has been here ever since.
She has experienced all levels of Wichita’s public school system as a student, teacher, administrator and, since 2017, superintendent. Superintendent Thompson has led efforts to develop a strategic plan for the district, which includes a focus on increasing graduation rates, third-grade reading proficiency and the percentage of students completing concurrent college credit while in school.
Public schools matter because they really are an economic engine for our community.Alicia Thompson
All of these things, Thompson says, contribute to a school's quality and value, along with safety, school culture, quality leaders and facilities, rigorous academics and opportunities for personalized education.
"I think that those are opportunities that parents look for as they decide where they're going to send their kids," Thompson says.
Notably missing from that list is test scores, which have long dominated discussions about school quality and effectiveness. Now, Thompson says, schools are focusing on a more holistic approach to education, which focuses not just on outcomes but also on things like diversity and opportunities for new experiences — things Wichita Public Schools has in spades.
"You want well-rounded students," Thompson says. "Test scores are just one data point that people look at, but the parents at Wichita Public Schools do not just use one data point to determine the schools they send their kids to."
Focusing only on test scores also fails to recognize the other factors that contribute to those outcomes, including poverty, a lack of opportunities for learning outside of the classroom and parents with lower levels of education.
PUBLIC SCHOOLS & POVERTY
Poverty is one of the most important factors contributing to a student's performance in the classroom, as well as negative perceptions surrounding urban schools.
According to a 2013 article from the American Psychological Association, poor students, or those who fall in the bottom 20 percent of family income, were five times more likely to drop out of high school than high-income students, or those who fall in the top 20 percent of family income.
Some schools have a higher percentage of impoverished students than others. These Title 1 schools, as designated by the State of Kansas, are eligible for additional federal funding to, ideally, offset some of the challenges brought on by poverty.
Wichita has more Title 1 schools than any other district in Kansas. Of its 93 schools, 48 are Title 1. While USD 500, in Kansas City, Kansas, has a higher percentage of schools in Title 1, Wichita has 14 more in its school district.
This means that kids in Wichita Public Schools are highly likely to attend schools dealing with poverty and the stigma that often comes with it.
But Title 1 isn't just about stigma. The additional federal funding can go a long way to provide more opportunities to the students who do have more obstacles to overcome.
"Our community and our schools help remove those barriers, so that when kids come, we hope their main focus will be gaining the skills and the knowledge they need academically and socially to be able to leave us and be prepared for a career, or to go to college," Thompson says.
Holly Francis, assistant superintendent for USD 402 Augusta Public Schools, says poverty also impacts absenteeism, which is a leading cause of falling behind in school and, eventually, dropping out completely.
"Think about a student who is living in poverty, and they don't have insurance," she says. "They can't go to the doctor, so they're out with an illness for a week. Maybe another kid is only out for a day because they were able to go to a doctor and get an antibiotic."
We don't have neighborhood schools, so there really isn't a stigma that comes along with the Title 1 schools.Holly Francis
The American Psychological Association also cites community poverty as a factor in student success. These communities are typically defined by high levels of joblessness, family instability, poor health, substance abuse, poverty, welfare dependency and crime. They could also have relatively few resources like playgrounds and after-school activities and fewer positive role models.
Since schools in larger districts are typically designed to serve the neighborhoods they're closest to, Title 1 schools often carry the same stigma carried by lower-income neighborhoods. People tend to believe these schools and neighborhoods are unsafe or lack the resources to provide a proper education.
Francis says Augusta Public Schools were able to mitigate this stigma by doing away with the concept of neighborhood schools. Rather than being assigned to a school solely based on the neighborhood in which a parent lives, Augusta school officials do their best to consider class sizes and enrollment numbers before making a final decision on where a family attends.
"We don't have neighborhood schools, so there really isn't a stigma that comes along with the Title 1 schools," she says. "If we were to talk about the four schools, [many parents] wouldn't really know that Garfield and Robinson were Title 1 unless their children attended there."
Perhaps because of their lack of stigma, or the additional resources each are afforded, Augusta's Title 1 schools are actually perceived by some parents as better than some of the non-title schools, Francis says.
"If somebody was to enroll, and maybe they had heard something, they would call and request Garfield, or maybe Robinson, ... because they heard good things," she says.
Augusta schools show us that poverty doesn't have to be the defining feature of a school, and Title-1 schools are often undeserving of the stigma. With the right resources, and by telling the right stories, schools can become defined by their strongest attributes rather than their weaknesses.
SUPPORTING WHAT'S HERE
A C+ score isn't great — and maybe it isn't totally warranted. Either way, it's not an excuse to write-off Wichita schools or the idea of public schools.
Better schools don't just benefit those who use them. Better schools mean better workers, better voters and better community members. They mean a better Wichita for everyone.
So, even if you don't have kids in public schools — or maybe don't even have kids at all — Wichita's public schools need your support.
"Keep fighting every day to help people to know us, the Wichita Public Schools," Thompson says. "We have students who graduated that work at NASA. We have kids who are going to John Hopkins University on full-ride scholarships. You have powerful people in our city who are graduates of the Wichita Public Schools."
Sharing this message isn't just important for the parents already in the Wichita community — it also impacts potential incoming transplants.
I think it's all of our responsibility in this city to advocate and to engage and partake in the wonderful school district that we have.Alicia Thompson
Quality schools play a large factor when new families are considering where they want to live. Realtors can also influence their decision by sharing their own perceptions of community schools. If realtors don't even mention the things happening at Wichita schools, parents could get the wrong idea about the school district before they're even familiar enough with the community to formulate their own decision.
"If you don't even mention [Wichita Public Schools], it creates a perception," Thompson says. "So I think it's all of our responsibility in this city to advocate and to engage and partake in the wonderful school district that we have."
What are your perceptions of Wichita Public Schools? Are they based on first-hand experience, hearsay or rumors? Start a conversation on social media to explore ways we can bolster the image of public education in Wichita.