When Southeast High School opened at Lincoln and Edgemoor in 1957, it was the shining new jewel of the Wichita district.
Built to serve families from the city’s burgeoning east side, including neighborhoods around Eastborough and the Wichita Country Club, it quickly became known as one of the area’s finest and most sought-after high schools.
Today, Southeast has the highest transfer rate of any high school in Wichita.
Nearly a third of students who live within the Southeast High boundaries attend other schools – public, private, e-schools or home schools – according to data from RSP & Associates, a consulting firm hired by the district to study housing and enrollment patterns.
That’s a factor district leaders will consider in coming weeks as they weigh whether to expand and renovate Southeast where it is or build a new, $54 million high school at 127th Street East and Pawnee. They’ll ask themselves:
Why are so many families opting out of Southeast High School? And could a new school or location make a difference?
“I do hear that,” said Leroy Parks, principal of Southeast and a 1986 graduate of the school.
Parks, who is black, was bused to Southeast as part of the district’s busing for integration plan in the 1980s.
Now, several years after the plan ended, the school is one of the most evenly diverse schools in the district – about one-fourth white, one-fourth black, one-fourth Hispanic and one-fourth Asian and other races.
Nearly three-fourths of Southeast’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty. Over the past several decades, some neighborhoods around the school have deteriorated and crime rates have risen.
“Some (families) do come in and are concerned about the location as well as the perception” that Southeast is rundown or dangerous, Parks said. “That’s certainly something that we see and we hear about.”
The perception is unfair, Parks said. Southeast, like other Wichita high schools, boasts high-quality academic and extracurricular programs, he said. Many of its graduates earn scholarships and go on to college and successful careers.
Still, thousands of students assigned to Southeast choose to attend other schools – East High, Northeast Magnet or other public high schools, Wichita e-School, or private schools such as Kapaun Mount Carmel, Independent, Wichita Collegiate and Trinity Academy.
Last school year, 2,138 high school-age students lived within the Southeast boundaries, which stretch from Bluff to 159th Street East, north past 21st Street North and south to the Derby, Andover and Rose Hill district lines.
Only 1,476 of those students attended Southeast, according to RSP & Associates data.
Over the past decade, as Southeast’s enrollment has held steady or declined, enrollment in suburban districts and east-side private schools has exploded. Some examples:
Even so, development in the city’s southeast quadrant, particularly near Pawnee and Webb and east to the Butler County line, prompted Wichita district officials to propose a new southeast quadrant high school as part of the 2008 bond issue plan.
Leaders believed then – and still do – that housing patterns would support an additional 800-student, Class 5A high school in the far southeast corner of the district.
But capital outlay funding and base per-pupil state aid has not kept pace with levels predicted in 2008, district officials say. Without the funds to open and staff a new high school, they will have to decide in June whether to renovate and expand Southeast High or build a new, larger school that would accommodate at least 1,600 students.
That leaves Mark Koenigsman and his wife, Jody, feeling somewhat betrayed by what they see as broken promises.
The Koenigsmans’ three children attend Christa McAuliffe Academy, a new K-8 school at 143rd Street East and Pawnee that opened last fall as part of the 2008 bond issue. The couple built their house near 143rd Street East and Kellogg in part so their kids, who used to attend Seltzer Elementary, could go to a new K-8 and the new, smaller high school planned in the bond.
“We made life decisions based on that bond issue,” said Mark Koenigsman, who is active in the site council and PTO at McAuliffe Academy.
“We looked at several houses and options,” including other school districts, he said. “But we wanted our kids to have the benefit of those new schools, and especially the smaller high school.”
Their oldest son, Brady, a sixth-grader, will start high school in the fall of 2015. But because the proposed new school likely won’t be completed by then, if at all, the Koenigsmans – who are Catholic – are considering sending him to Kapaun instead of Southeast.
“One of the reasons is simply the enormity” of Southeast High, Mark Koenigsman said. “We don’t want our kids to get lost in the shuffle of a super-large school.
“To be able to go to those smaller, private schools – people feel like their kids are safer. … Teachers are going to be more aware, maybe know the kids a little better. You have that extra little security blanket that parents want.”
‘A nice, new building’
Tara Czepiel, a Wichita mother of four, said she thinks a new school and location would benefit the school and its patrons.
She said her older daughter, who graduated from Southeast in 2009, got “a great education” and earned scholarships to Wichita State University. Czepiel said she still loves the school and its teachers and encouraged her younger three children to go to Southeast.
Even so, Czepiel’s second child went to the International Baccalaureate program at East and later transferred to Kapaun because he wanted a Catholic education, she said. Her twin daughters attend Bishop Carroll High School, a Catholic high school in west Wichita.
“Part of the problem is where it’s located,” Czepiel said of Southeast. “People might not say it out loud or on the record, but it’s true. It scares them.
“I love Southeast, but I can’t even talk to my friends about it because they just shake their heads. They’re selling their houses. They’re moving to Andover. They don’t want to hear it.”
She said she is “sick of the sentimentality that is ruining what could be a first-class school,” referring to alumni and others who oppose moving Southeast.
Czepiel favors building a new, state-of-the-art Southeast High on acreage that could house a new football stadium, ball fields and other amenities, and she thinks that could renew patrons’ confidence in Wichita schools.
“How about a nice, new building? Why don’t those children deserve the same thing other schools have?” she said.
Old Southeast’s value
Don Landis, lead spokesman for a group that wants to keep Southeast at Lincoln and Edgemoor, said arguments that moving Southeast to 127th Street East and Pawnee would somehow save the school is “bordering on being insulting to the people of the neighborhood.”
Neighborhoods near the site of the proposed new high school include Sierra Hills, Tara Creek, Casa Bella, Cambria and Whispering Lakes. Homes are larger and newer, many of them listed in this spring’s Parade of Homes by the Wichita Area Builders Association.
Landis and other opponents of moving Southeast worry that low-income students who live near the current school would have to be bused to the new location, and it would be more difficult for parents to get there for parent-teacher conferences and other activities.
“I cringe, frankly, at the thought that we can take poor people, bus them way out to that school, and that somehow, hanging out with the rich kids is going to make us better,” Landis said.
“I’d like to look at all the kids who, just because the school was there (at Lincoln and Edgemoor), they decided to stay in school,” Landis added. “They had a chance to participate in after-school activities. Their parents could walk or take public transportation to the school.
“I would submit that there’s far, far more of those stories.”
‘Pros and cons to both’
At Monday’s Wichita school board meeting, Superintendent John Allison is expected to present more information about Southeast High, including options for how the district might use the building at Lincoln and Edgemoor if they decide to build a new school.
Parks, the principal, said he will be there. Both Parks and Allison have children who graduated from Southeast and ones enrolled there now.
“I wish more parents would come and take a look and see what programs and things that we offer and just what we have,” Parks said. “It’s unfortunate that some don’t.
“We lose kids to Northeast Magnet, and I understand that, as well as to IB (at East),” he said. “Quite a few kids use the special transfer process, and there’s a variety of reasons for that.”
Parks said he has a personal opinion on what the school board should do, but would not share it publicly.
“I see it all, and I understand everybody’s perspective,” he said. “I graduated from Southeast, I have kids at Southeast and I’m a principal there, so I hear where everybody’s coming from.
“There’s pros and cons to both. Whatever the board wants to do, I’m fine with it,” he said. “As long as they make an informed, data-driven decision.
“We’ve been waiting, so I’m anxious. I’m just looking for a decision so we can get on with it, whatever it is.”