A Sedgwick County judge ruled Friday that a Wichita girl will attend Truesdell Middle School despite evidence that he said showed an Andover school to be “notably better” in terms of test scores, crime statistics and other measures.
“Some schools are better than other schools. … There’s just no dispute about that,” Judge Tyler Roush said as he delivered his ruling.
“So this case basically hinged on the following question: Is Truesdell so deficient that the difference in the performance of the schools outweighs all of the other lifestyle, non-education factors? … And the answer to that question is no.”
The decision, which came at the end of a seven-hour hearing, involved a divorced couple that could not agree where their 11-year-old daughter should attend middle school. The girl previously attended Enterprise Elementary School in Wichita.
The mother, Jeanie Lee, wanted her daughter at Truesdell, a middle school near her home in south Wichita. The girl’s father, Jason Lee, said he moved to Andover primarily because of that suburban school district’s reputation and wanted his daughter to attend Andover Central Middle School.
The parents have joint legal custody of two daughters – the sixth-grader and a younger girl, who will start kindergarten this fall – but they live primarily with their mother.
Rebecca Henry, the father’s attorney, presented evidence including state test scores, truancy rates and crime rates for Truesdell and Andover Central, most of it gathered from a database on the Kansas Department of Education website.
On last year’s state math test, only 11 percent of Truesdell students were on track to be ready for college-level work, compared with about 65 percent of students at Andover Central Middle School. In language arts, 13 percent of Truesdell students scored in the top two levels, compared with about 59 percent at Andover Central.
“Our question to the court is: Wouldn’t a child that thrives academically … be more motivated, be more challenged, at a school where her peers, the people around her, are also striving for the same academic success?” Henry said.
“Why wouldn’t you want to put your child in that type of environment, given that you have two options?”
Roush said he considered the overall quality of schools, but factors such as the girl’s daily routine, transportation time and friendships with elementary school classmates weighed more heavily in his decision to choose Truesdell. In addition, he said, Truesdell is closer to Spirit AeroSystems, where both parents work.
Terry Malone, Jeanie Lee’s lawyer, proposed that the judge ask the girl about her school preference, but Roush opted not to do that. He said most children under 12 aren’t mature enough to consider all the factors involved in such a decision.
Three Wichita school district officials testified as witnesses in Friday’s proceeding, including Terrell Davis, former principal at Truesdell.
Asked about criminal activity at Truesdell last school year – Wichita police were called to the school 28 times, including two weapons-related incidents – Davis said teachers and staff work hard to keep Truesdell safe.
“Our schools are microcosms of the communities where they are,” Davis said. “I think our kids know we want to create a safe environment. They’re loved, there’s high expectations, and it’s a safe place.”
It’s not unusual for divorced parents to disagree about schooling, prompting judges to intervene.
“This is a common problem, especially this time of year,” Roush said. “The last two weeks up here on this floor has been pretty much exclusively school decisions.”
The Lees’ case illustrates a decades-long trend in which many parents flee the Wichita district for what they see as safer, higher-performing schools in the suburbs.
Roush acknowledged the trend in his ruling, noting that homes in suburban districts outside Wichita tend to cost more.
“School districts drastically affect housing prices – not by a little bit – which is a reflection of the public’s perception regarding which schools give their children the best opportunity to succeed,” he said.
“Is it because the students are given more resources at Andover? Is it because the teachers are better at Andover? Is it because of a more established or different curriculum? Nobody knows,” he said.
“And these trials cannot … turn into trying to identify that, because not even education experts agree.”
Neither Jason Lee nor his attorney would comment after Friday’s decision.
Jeanie Lee said she was glad the judge opted for Truesdell, where she enrolled her daughter earlier this week. The girl attended a summer program at the school this summer and already knows several teachers and classmates.
“My daughter’s going to be very excited,” she said.