There are those who will insist that you’re never truly a St. Joseph resident if you didn’t graduate from one of its high schools.
Those of us who didn’t spend four years with the blue, the red or the green — or purple or red again on the private school side — will always be outsiders observing a little world of nostalgic stories and inside jokes. You can get a reunion T-shirt out of this deal, but can you get what really matters: the best chance for your child to succeed in life?
Regarding the St. Joseph School District, this is what administrators, board members and the community will be debating in the next couple of months. The time has come to decide whether one or more of St. Joseph’s three public high schools should be closed.
The St. Joseph School District held a focus group meeting last week on seven scenarios for improving the three public high school facilities in this city. All but one would involve closing at least one of those schools. After months of gathering feedback and data, the school board likely will meet before the end of the year to finalize a plan for voter consideration in 2020.
To be sure, a high school closure would be a bitter pill to swallow, and not just for reasons of neighborhood pride. It would seem to confirm an ugly truth, that St. Joseph isn’t growing and that too many of its best and brightest are leaving. All of the impressive developments of recent years — retail growth, hospital expansions, business diversification and Chiefs camp — none of it changes the equation that too many people vote with their feet if they see a better opportunity for their children elsewhere.
School district enrollment has dropped about 7 percent in the last decade. Even more concerning, about 450 students did not return to St. Joseph public schools this year, with a good chunk of those moving with their families to more affluent parts of Kansas City that feature modern school facilities. These are the kinds of students that St. Joseph dearly needs to keep, not just through high school but for decades to come.
We think further discussion is needed about whether the best model for St. Joseph would be two high schools with around 1,500 students each or a mega school with enrollment of about 3,000. The board will have to determine the merits of building one or two new facilities versus the renovation of existing structures.
Regarding one or two high schools, a strong case hasn’t been made for one concept over another. We do believe that a three public high school model with aging facilities does not position St. Joseph for the 21st century, especially when it’s so easy for parents to live in Kansas City and commute to jobs in St. Joseph.
It will be a difficult discussion. It’s time to have it.