Brenda Thomas and her husband bought their house in Marlborough the 1990s because they wanted to send their daughter to a magnet program in Kansas City Public Schools.
“We’re a well-kept secret,” Thomas says matter-of-factly. “We’re south town, but not all the way to 95th Street or Bannister. We have quite a few historic homes here in our area.”
But after Thomas’ daughter graduated from high school, the neighborhood began to change. As older homeowners died, investors bought the properties – and renters moved in.
“There are a lot of families who are – for lack of a better word – transient,” says Thomas. “Sometimes those families move from one rental house to another because the conditions weren’t very good in one.”
Crime increased. Sometimes, Thomas would hear gunshots and screeching car tires on her block.
“I’ve heard people say well, you know, you get used to that. No you don’t. No you don’t, and you don’t have to settle for that,” Thomas says.
What’s happening in Marlborough is the same thing that’s happening five miles south in the Hickman Mills School District. Here’s the difference: homeowners are driving the slumlords out of Marlborough. They’re rehabilitating rundown houses and making the neighborhood a nice place to live again.
That’s had a stabilizing effect on schools.
The Marlborough Community Coalition comprises five neighborhoods from Gregory to about 87th Street, from Troost over to Prospect. It straddles the boundary between the Center School District and Kansas City Public Schools.
Thomas, who is president of the coalition, says she wasn’t going to be run out of her own neighborhood. She still had a mortgage to pay and a daughter to put through college.
“It takes a lot of research because you’ll have people who are registered here but they’re not actually the owners,” Thomas says. “They’ll refer you to a company that may be in Australia or New Zealand, all kinds of crazy places way out of the way.”
But if they can figure out who owns a property, there’s actually a chance they might be able to do something about it. The Marlborough Community Coalition has gotten the Land Bank to turn over several houses it owned for rehabilitation.
“What we’re trying to do through our housing committee is to rehabilitate as many houses as we can within a model block area and then offer that as a resource for the Center School District,” Thomas says.
The Community Coalition lets the district know which houses have been rehabilitated by responsible landlords, and Center passes that information on to parents. According to U.S. Census data, 68.8 percent of homes in Missouri are owner-occupied. Today, Marlborough is about 51 percent owners and 49 percent renters.
“The 51 percent,” says Thomas, “is what we’re trying to increase.”
But oftentimes parents don’t have a choice when they move.
“Sadly, one of the last things a family has the luxury of considering is whether this housing is in my child’s school’s attendance area,” says Jim MacDonald with the United Way of Greater Kansas City.
MacDonald oversees the Family Stability Initiative, a program serving families in the Kansas City and Independence school districts.
“We take referrals exclusively from the school districts, classroom-level staff or school counselors, social workers who identify families that are struggling with school attendance,” he says.
Attendance is often directly related to financial stability – or, rather, housing instability.
Low-income families can’t always afford quality housing, so they settle for substandard housing. Family Stability Initiative case managers can offer really individualized solutions. If a mom’s spending a lot on takeout, it might be because the kitchen in her rented apartment is infested with bugs. Short-term financial assistance pays for an exterminator and to buy a new fridge.
“This is one small intervention that helps one family at a time,” MacDonald says.
There’s enough money to serve 400 families over five years. But this is a city with thousands of highly mobile families. MacDonald says it’s going to take a system-level approach.
“One idea that came up was what if the school districts had access to the utility company database in the same way that many social service agencies have access to it?” MacDonald says.
That would allow schools to check residency in real-time, possibly cutting the number of days kids miss when their families move.
Other districts are implementing systems of their own.
“We’re very conscientious of the fact that we do have student mobility and turnover in our student population,” says Leah Copeland, principal at Winnwood Elementary in North Kansas City. “Teachers are very proactive ... because we know it’s going to happen, so we might as well plan and prepare for it.”
Winnwood has a mobility rate between 40 and 59 percent. Every new student meets with the school counselor and the community resource specialist.
“One thing we do here that really works well for our students is we have a new student orientation group to become acclimated to our school culture and how things work at Winnwood,” Copeland says.
If for whatever reason a student has to leave Winnwood, a teacher will usually reach out to the receiving school and offer to share interventions – or the Individualized Education Program, if the child has one. But most of the time, Copeland says, families don’t want to leave.
“I’ve had multiple families come and say, ‘I don’t want my child to leave Winnwood, so we’re going to look at moving to a different apartment complex in your attendance area,” Copeland says. “That is 100 percent based on their child having a good educational experience.”
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.