The Little School District That Could . . .

November 2021


By Jack Cashill


What do public schools in tiny Richland, Mo., have that the big city districts don’t? Success.

The Show-Me-Institute, a free-market think tank, has recently published a comprehensive ranking of all Missouri school districts that will come as unwelcome news to the educators from at least half of those districts.

In the way of positive local news, Kansas City Public Schools outperformed its cross-state rival, the St. Louis City School District, ranking 504th compared to St. Louis’s No. 509.

Local officials might have been happier with Show-Me’s rankings had Kansas City ranked 504 out of 5,000. Unfortunately, the district ranked 504 out of 515.

Local suburban boosters have no cause to gloat. Like suburban boosters everywhere, they suffer from a variant of the “Lake Wobegon” effect, namely the belief that their schools are so “above average” they are actually “excellent.” They’re not. Lee’s Summit came in at 60 out of 515, Liberty 118, and Platte County’s Park Hill a disquieting 172. At Park Hill, for instance, barely half the students register “proficient” in math.

Wanting to write an upbeat story, I sought out the No. 1-ranked school district in the state and found it—sorry, Ladue—a long half hour south of Osage Beach, deep in the heart of central Missouri.

Unlike in Kansas City, Richland, Mo., town boosters can boast about their district, and do. Richland, they tell us, takes “great pride” in its two schools—one a primary school, the other a combined high school and junior high. Small as it is, the district has received the Department of Elementary and Secondary Educa-tion’s highest rating, “fully accredited,” a designation that has evaded Kansas City since the Truman presidency.

As a guide to educators everywhere, the following needs to be repeated in full: “Whether local folks are gathering in sup-port of the Bears in basketball, tennis, golf, softball, baseball or soccer; or sharing a Thanksgiving meal at the Annual Senior Citizens Dinner, they are always welcomed because the school belongs to the community.”

Yes, exactly, “the school belongs to the community.” When I asked Superintendent Frank Killian how Richland has avoid-ed the tumultuous protests roiling school board meetings across the country, he had a simple answer: “We never hide anything.”

Readers may notice the absence of football among the teams that local folks support. With 278 students—less than half of them in the high school—Richland is too small to field a team. For Kansas City’s superintendent, Mark Bedell, deprivation like this flirts with child abuse.

As Bedell sees it, high schools with fewer than 500 students are scar-cely worth attending. “Do you think you can offer band? Do you think you can have debate? Do you think you can fill the football team throughout a whole season when you include injuries and you include COVID?” Bedell gripes. “It’s not possible.”

Maybe not football, but everything else is more than possible. Making aggressive use of a national program called “DonorsChoose,” Killian and crew have made it so attractive to attend Richland High that the school has a 100 percent graduation rate. 

In addition to the sports mentioned above, Richland has an aviation program complete with drones, a band, choir, Future Farmers and Future Homemakers of America programs, industrial arts, a history club, a Mu Alpha Theta chapter, and a skeet-shooting team. 

Although Kansas City students might not exactly cotton to a Future Farmers program, my guess is that skeet shooting would be wildly popular—maybe too popular for the community’s comfort level.

As to Mu Alpha Theta, I had to look that up. It turns out to be a mathematics honor society. The Kansas City district does not appear to have a chapter, but with only 21 percent of its students proficient in math, the district might want to invest in one. At Richland, 83 percent of its students tested proficient in math, the best overall score in the state.  

Richland accomplished this despite the fact that two-thirds of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, a poverty-level indicator. The district also had the state’s best performance in language arts, an impressive 86 percent of students scoring “proficient.” “Our kids are not smarter,” said Killian. “They just work harder.”

A self-described “hillbilly” from Southern Missouri with a reassuring drawl, Killian took over as superintendent 11 years ago and cleaned house. Any teacher who did not think Richland could be the best district in the state was ushered out the door, and more forward-thinking teachers ushered in. “Most schools prefer to be off the radar. They’re content to be average,” said Kil-lian. “We want to be on the radar. Average is not us.”

Killian set as an initial goal making Richland one of the five best performing schools in the region. As incentive, he dangled the prospect of teachers’ being able to wear jeans to class and other comfy clothes. That proved to be one powerful motivator. So was merit pay for quality teaching. The initial goal reached, Killian prodded the teachers onward and upward.

With the help of DonorsChoose, Killian and staff saw to it that Richland was as technologically sophisticated as any school in the state. Unlike some districts, they have used their tech shrewdly to reinforce basic learning, not replace it with empty gimmickry. Richland also does low tech. Killian is proud of the school’s two fully trained “therapy dogs” eager to spend time with any student having a bum day. 

For all the down-hominess, Killian rejects the notion that small schools have an advantage in the classroom. “We have the same student-teacher ratios as big schools,” he said, “and it all comes down to the relationship between the teacher and the student.” 

As high school Principal Cindy Rhodes explains, “We try to get out of the teacher’s way.” In Richland, the teacher to administrator ratio is 8:1. In Kansas City, it is 1:1. 

School Secretary Jo Arnold may have best summarized the formula for Richland’s success. When I asked her how the district became No. 1 in the state, she thought for a second and said, “Guess we just stay on top of the little darlin’s.”

About the author

Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for more than 30 years. He can be reached at jackcashill@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.

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