In Shawnee Mission schools, sharply shifting demographics see more student poverty, greater challenges in the classroom

Indian Hills students assembled backpacks full of school supplies for SMSD families in need as part of the school's day of service in May. Increased poverty levels in Shawnee Mission have seen demand for such assistance rise sharply in recent years.
Indian Hills students assembled backpacks full of school supplies for SMSD families in need as part of the school’s day of service in May. Increased poverty levels in Shawnee Mission have seen demand for such assistance rise sharply in recent years.

By Ayesha Vishnani

Rushton Elementary art teacher Alexis Burdick finds she’s bringing her work home with her more and more these days.

A district veteran who had taught art at Hocker Grove Middle School and SM East in the past, she returned to Shawnee Mission last school year after having lived in California for three years on account of her husband’s job.

It didn’t take long for her to realize that many students in her classes were living in tough circumstances. Kids would come to class in filthy clothes. Parents had a hard time getting kids to school because there wasn’t money for gas for their cars. A student came to class with a pair of broken glasses hanging from his face, his family unable to afford replacements.

“There are certainly days I went home in either silence or tears because you feel for these kids and for me – and for a lot of teachers who chose to advocate for these kids – you go home, you go home and your day plays over in your head and you rework the situations, rework how to handle different situations,” she said.

For decades, the image of Shawnee Mission schools in the public was one of relative abundance: Happy kids with healthy parents who had the resources they needed to keep their children fed and clothed and ready to focus at school. But that image belies the reality of a district that has seen poverty levels trend quickly upward, putting pressure on teachers in the classroom and forcing the district to find strategies to effectively educate at-risk populations it didn’t have great experience with in its formative decades.

Just 17 years ago, only about 1 in 11 students in the Shawnee Mission district qualified for the free-and-reduced lunch programs, according to Kansas State Department of Education data. Since 2000, Shawnee Mission’s free-reduced enrollment has quadrupled, from 9 percent then to 36 percent — about 1 in 3 students — today.

In 2000, there were no schools in Shawnee Mission that hit the 50 percent mark for free-reduced lunch enrollment. Today, 11 schools in the the district have surpassed that mark, 10 of them elementary schools. Most of the elementary schools with high free-reduced lunch enrollment have attendance areas that hug the I-35 corridor that runs through the middle of the district.

Seventeen years ago, students in free-reduced lunch programs were concentrated in a few schools, including Comanche Elementary, which was at 38 percent, the highest free-reduced enrollment rate at the time. Comanche continues to have the highest free-reduced enrollment in the district, but it’s risen by more than 40 points since 2000 to 81 percent. That 38 percent figure that made it an outlier in 2000 has essentially become the average for the entire district today.

And Shawnee Mission has borne the burden of increased poverty more acutely than its Johnson County peers. Compared to neighboring districts Blue Valley and Olathe, Shawnee Mission has had the highest jump in poverty since the onset of the recession. Olathe is currently at 28 percent, while Blue Valley is at 8 percent. Between 2007 and 2009, the Shawnee Mission district saw a 5 percent increase from 22 to 27 percent.

The financial pressures parents are facing means that the time they have to be with and support their kids is diminished.

“We have some single parents that are working two or three jobs,” Burdick said. “We have some parents that don’t see their kids because they go to work at six in the morning before their kid goes to school. They come home at 3 o’clock, they see their kid for maybe an hour and then at four o’clock they go to their next job. That’s their routine.”

Many lower income parents are drawn to the Shawnee Mission area because of its reputation for great schools, but Johnson County’s relatively high cost of living compared to neighboring Kansas City, Kan., or Kansas City, Mo., make it a difficult place to settle.

“At Rushton we have a lot of kids that don’t have the parent involvement that maybe they wish they had or need,” Burdick said. “It kind of boils down to parents trying to give their kids an awesome education and trying to afford the area for this awesome education and the unintended consequences – lack of parent-child interaction – which plays out in class too.”

Burdick said due to the rapidly changing needs of students, the role of teachers in classrooms has shifted too.

“We have incredible need, incredible need,” she said. “You could very easily make the argument that in our school we need to be both a source of education for our students and also like a social service option.”

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how the district and support agencies are working to address growing poverty in Johnson County.