In her second year as principal, Amanda Kingrey has grown used to people cringing when she tells them she works at Gordon Parks Academy.

“We have a negative reputation in the community,” admitted Kingrey.

However, that negative reputation is something she’s determined to change and, she realizes it’s going to take more than a few small changes to turn the school around. That’s why she’s promoting a complete overhaul of the school.

“I don’t want to walk in here next school year and we’re doing the same thing,” Kingrey said. She’s proposing a “rebrand” for the school.

She’s been working on a new plan for the school with her staff, site council members and parents. Last week, she invited community leaders in to hear what they’ve come with. She loaded those in attendance with a dose of reality about where the school is, and where she wants it to go.

A Bright Start

When Gordon Parks opened nine years ago, everyone was optimistic about the possibilities. The brand new building, built with bond funds, was a rare K-8 school with half of the slots designated for neighborhood students and the other half for magnet students. Initially, students outside the neighborhood were attracted to the school by a promising pre-International Baccalaureate (IB) magnet theme.

Spots in the District’s IB program at East High school are highly coveted, and District Administrators thought and Pre-IB designation would attract talented students from across the district as well as provide neighborhood students with a rigorous curriculum that would help them excel.

That didn’t work. In nine years, the school has become almost totally a neighborhood school with few students attending for the Pre-IB program. Academic achievement has consistently declined, the school’s scores are consistently at or near the bottom on standardized tests at all grade levels, teacher turnover is outrageously high and there is a high incidence rate of behavioral issues.

“If it is not working, it’s time for a change,” Kingrey told the community members, before introducing the school “rebranding” plan.

The New Brand

More than just changing the school’s curriculum, her goal is to change the culture of the district. That’s an awful big goal, but here are the changes she’s proposing.

One of the biggest changes will be the curriculum. Kingrey said, the students aren’t engaged by the Pre-IB curriculum and the programs lack of structure leaves Park’s teachers struggling to find ways to make the concept work in their classroom. The new plans proposed replacing the Pre-IB curriculum with the popular AVID curriculum. AVID stands for Advance Via Individual Determination. It teaches students strategies and skills to be successful at the next level and gets them college and career ready.

In addition, Kingrey said the curriculum is well developed and would be easier for teachers to implement.

The proposal included a unique magnet theme built around the career and interest of the school’s namesake, Gordon Parks. The new theme would focus on music production, photo journalism, writing, film directing and production. Kingrey believes the students will find the more “hands on” focus of the magnet engaging.

“When kids are engaged, we don’t have the behavioral issues that we currently have,” Kingrey said.

To help fund the technology, Kingrey and her team are applying for a grant from the Magnet Schools Assistant Program. If approved, the grant funds would be available for the 2017-18 school year.

Several schools in USD 259 have applied for and received grant funding through the program. In 2013 Mueller received a $2.13 million award to implement Project Discovery – an engineering and Aerospace themed magnet. For the 2014 school year, USD 259 applied and received $12 million in funding to implement magnet programs at Buckner, L’Ouverture, Spaght, Brooks and Jardine.

Finally, to help attract magnet students, GPA is establishing a relationship with Northeast Magnet, the district’s only Magnet High School. Northeast typically has a waiting list to get in. Establishing Parks as a feeder to Northeast should help attract magnet students back to the school.

With these changes, Kingrey said she hopes to see enrollment at Parks grow from 450 to 600 students

“I want to see us with a waiting list,” said Kingrey.

Another addition to the school, funded through the grant, would be a “leadership coach.”

Kingrey said she thought long before settling on the title leadership coach, versus “behavior coach.” The idea of leadership coach aligns with the change in culture she wants to see at the school. “We’ll be developing leadership at Gordon Parks.”

Finally, what she and all the staff say they’d like to see more of, are community members volunteering in the school.

“We’d like to have members of the community come in and help some of our students who are struggling,” said Kingrey. “It’s an immediate need that costs nothing but time.”

The school is going to schedule several volunteer training sessions on site. Individuals are required to attend the training before they’re allowed to volunteer in District schools. Usually the training sessions are held downtown at the district’s administrative offices. By holding them at Parks, she hopes it will encourage more volunteers to sign up and participate.

Once they’re scheduled, we’ll the training dates and times in The Community Voice.

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