130,000 steps: Public school activists’ grueling march from Merriam to Topeka

Heather Ousley, in red jacket, and Ben Clayton head west toward to Topeka from Johnson County Friday.
Heather Ousley, in red jacket, and Ben Clayton head west toward to Topeka from Johnson County Friday.

Walking 66 miles from Merriam to Topeka? The idea was audacious.

But in Heather Ousley’s opinion, what was happening to Kansas schools was audacious, too. For months, she’d endured a steady steam of bad news: Growing classroom sizes at her daughter’s school. Testing programs that seemed designed to game the system, not put students’ interests first. As a product of Shawnee Mission schools, Ousley had expected the same excellence for her kids that she’d enjoyed as a student. What was going on?

Eventually, she felt like she couldn’t just sit there anymore. She had to do something. So she reached out to Game On, a pro-public education group founded by a group of Belinder Elementary parents. The meetings gave her some reassurance: There were other like-minded parents out there, at least. But outside that group of activists, people didn’t seem to be paying attention.

We need something to get people talking, Ousley thought.

So in early March 2013, Ousley called Game On’s Judith Deedy and pitched an idea: What if I walked all the way from my house to the state capitol to draw attention to what’s happening to public schools?

Just a little too out there, thought Deedy.

“She said, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea and I want to run it by you because you’re a rational person,’” Deedy recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know if you can do that.’…You know those three-day breast cancer walks? Don’t they kind of train for that?”

Deedy wasn’t the only one with doubts. Jarrod Ousley wondered aloud just how his wife would be able to complete the trek. (Heather admits that a sense of direction is not among her strongest traits).

Ousley called Deedy back the next day.

“You’re right,” she said. “We’ll focus on the other things we’re working on.”

But that Thursday night Ousley called Deedy again: “You know what? I’m going to walk. And I’ve got my route all planned out…We’re going to do this.”

Deedy realized there would be no talking her out of it.

“I thought, well, if she’s going to be walking to Topeka, I’ve got to figure out how to get people to see it,” Deedy said. Still, Deedy wasn’t even sure Ousley would make it the full way. Freezing rain fell all day Saturday, creating miserable conditions. It wasn’t until it was clear that Ousley would be able to go the whole way that Deedy organized a press conference in Topeka.

“The whole thing was very last minute,” she said.

That first year, Ousley was the only person to complete the entire walk herself, though she had supporters join her for portions. The trek generated enough buzz that when she announced plans to do it again last year, four others signed on to walk the full length as well.

When Ousley got ready to head out from Merriam on Friday for her third trip, she was part of a group of a dozen walkers planning to make the whole trek. Two television crews filmed as State Board of Education Member Janet Waugh and Reps. Nancy Lusk and Stephanie Clayton wished the group well. Colonial Church Pastor Aaron Roberts blessed the feet of the walkers, a group that included supporters from northeast Johnson County, Topeka and even Manhattan. Two dozen more cheered and wished the group well as they left the park. Social media exploded with messages of support.

People were paying attention, all right.

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Devin Wilson carried a baseball glove that every walker who made it from Merriam to Topeka will sign.
Devin Wilson carried a baseball glove that every walker who made it from Merriam to Topeka will sign.

With two years experience under her belt, Ousley now has a good understanding of the physical demands needed to make the trek

“It’s a lot more painful than you might think,” Ousley said Friday, just several hundred steps into a journey that would take more than 130,000. “The joints get really sore. It kind of starts with your feet and your ankles, and by the third day it’s moved up to your knees and your hips.”

Then there are the blisters.

“The blisters usually aren’t awful by the first day,” she said. “By the second day you know you have them. But the third day, your feet are numb so it doesn’t really matter.”

Dry socks are key, said Devin Wilson, who was along for his second year on the trek. A recreational runner, he’s completed half marathons before and is in very good shape. The strain of the multi-day trip isn’t to be underestimated, though.

“Walking’s a different animal,” he said. “Walking all day, and then doing three solid days of 20 mile walks, is pretty grueling.”

But for Wilson, the attention the walk attracts for Game On’s cause is well worth the price of aching muscles and blistered toes. In fact, it was coverage of Ousley’s first walk that got Wilson involved in Game On in the first place. Much like Ousley, Wilson had watched news trickle in about the state of Johnson County schools that had him furrowing his brow. A north central Kansas native, Wilson and his wife had bought a home in Lenexa in 2000 largely on the reputation of the Shawnee Mission schools his kids would attend. Now that the couple’s two children were school aged, that reputation seemed to be in danger. Wilson became an active presence in Game On. The more people the group can bring to the cause, the better, he thinks.

“It’s amazing to see it snowball like this,” he said. But Wilson acknowledges that the current nucleus of power in Topeka is at odds with Game On’s objectives. The prevailing sentiment in the capitol seems to be that schools are still spending too much, not that they’re starved for classroom resources. And he knows Game On has a long way to go to

“It’s not something that’s going to change overnight,” he said. “It’s a lot of pieces that will have to come together. It’s not just winning one battle. It’s about putting us back in a direction that’s the right course.”

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Brian Koon followed the walkers in a support vehicle.
Brian Koon followed the walkers in a support vehicle.

The logistics of getting Ousley to Topeka in 2013 were relatively straightforward. She stayed with a family in Eudora the first night and then a college friend in Lawrence the second night.

But with 12 walkers from all over the state participating this year, logistics became a real challenge. Deedy and other organizers arranged for hotels rooms, rally events along the way and support vehicles to ensure the walkers’ safety.

Shawnee Mission parent Brian Koon manned one of those vehicles Friday, a red Smart Car filled to the brim with CostCo muffins, bananas, bottled water and boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. The state of public schools is important to Koon on two fronts. His wife is a teacher in the Shawnee Mission district. And the couple have two children, a son who attends Crestview Elementary, and a 4-year-old daughter who will enter the school system next year.

It was HB 2506, a bill that stripped due process rights from teachers, that piqued Koon’s interest in getting active in the politics surrounding schools. But that interest has only intensified as Koon has gotten more involved in his son’s education. Koon volunteers at Crestview for about an hour and a half each week, doing some of the duties — preparing craft and project materials, for example — that used to be filled by paras and aides a few years ago. Many of those positions are gone now, victim of the funding cuts Johnson County districts have endured in recent years, he said.

“I hear people talk about, schools are overfunded, and if we just keep cutting, it will be magical, we can have our cake and eat it too,” said Koon. “And, you know, it’s just not true. I don’t know how much longer we can keep going the way we’re going and achieving at these very high levels with this very low level of funding.”

Koon, a graduate of Blue Valley North, said his family chose to settle here based largely on the experience he had in Johnson County public schools growing up. Today, there seems to be more focus on saving a few dollars in the short term over keeping one of the state’s most prized institutions vibrant, he believes.

“It just kills me,” he said. “We are shooting ourselves in the foot as a state. They think that it’s a better idea to save a dollar today even if it’s going to cost them 20 tomorrow. And they just don’t care about the long term. It’s so frustrating.”

If legislators want a look at what a tax policy that doesn’t support strong schools looks like, they don’t have to look far, he said.

“If I wanted to have marginally lower taxes and significantly worse schools, I’d go live in Missouri,” he said.

The economic argument for keeping funding for public schools strong resonated with Ben Clayton, husband of Rep. Stephanie Clayton, who walked the first leg of the journey Friday.

“People are now moving to where they want to live,” Clayton said. “And business is following the talent. And if Kansas thinks it can afford to deemphasize education and to throw away all the things that have traditionally been good about Kansas — and education’s been primary — then we’re going to lose those people and the businesses that come with it.”

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Stretches of the walk wound through the desolate landscape of early-spring Kansas. Photo via Game On Twitter.
Stretches of the walk wound through the desolate landscape of early-spring Kansas. Photo via Game On Twitter.

In the walk’s first two years, the monotony of plodding west across the still-brown Kansas plains was broken only sporadically by visits from friends and well-wishers.

This year, it was as if the stream of supporters never stopped.

In addition to the 12 walkers who set out to make it the whole distance, approximately 50 more joined for long stretches or whole days. On Saturday morning, 100 people came out to a rally in Eudora, where Eudora School District Superintendent Steve Splichal gave a speech supporting the group. A Eudora PTA group made the walkers breakfast and coffee. Families joined the walkers as they made their way through town. A police car gave them an escort through the Eudora streets.

“We had a bunch of kids leading the parade through Eudora,” Ousley said. “That [big turnout in Eudroa] didn’t happen last year. It was really cool.”

And a few hours later a group of nearly 200 turned out at Lawrence’s South Park for another rally, this time with Reps. Tom Sloan and John Wilson lending their support. Reporters kept showing up along the journey to interview the walkers.

Today, the group will gather near Topeka High School at 9:30 a.m. and walk to the state capitol for a final rally. Fairway Rep. Melissa Rooker will speak, as will Rep. Jarrod Ousley. A press conference will follow.

The goal, all along, was to get people paying attention, to get people involved in Game On — a small advocacy group that started with Belinder parents and has grown to take on a statewide profile.

In the past year, Game On’s Facebook page has picked up 4,333 followers. That number continued to tick up as the group made its way to Topeka over the weekend.

“People really feel like they’re not being heard, and this gives them the opportunity to do something and to make noise,” Heather Ousley said. “I think camaraderie from the walk is really good. Because otherwise you’re thinking, ‘Am I the only person who’s feeling this way?’ And then you come together and realize, ‘Oh no, there’s quite a few of us out there.’ You can’t be cynical and think, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ That’s absolutely not true.”