Which middle school is better? Sedgwick County judge could decide

Truesdell Middle School in south Wichita
Truesdell Middle School in south Wichita File photo

A divorced father is asking a Sedgwick County court to decide where his daughter should attend middle school this fall, arguing that an Andover school is better than the Wichita school near her home.

Jason T. Lee and his attorney plan to present evidence at an Aug. 11 hearing showing that Andover Central Middle School ranks above Truesdell Middle School in south Wichita on multiple measures, including state test scores, graduation rates, truancy rates and crime, according to court documents.

The mother, Jeanie Lee, says she wants her sixth-grade daughter at Truesdell, where the girl has friends, knows teachers and learned her way around the school during a recent summer enrichment program.

The case illustrates the tricky business of judging a school’s overall quality, and it reflects a decades-long trend in which many parents flee the Wichita district for what they see as safer, higher-performing schools in the suburbs.

“It’s interesting, particularly as the state is debating the appropriate level of education across the board for all of our students,” said Melanie DeRousse, an associate professor of law at the University of Kansas School of Law.

DeRousse, who teaches family law and directs KU’s legal aid clinic, said debates over where a child should go to school are common among divorced couples. If both parents have legal custody and aren’t able to agree – as in the case involving the Wichita sixth-grader – one parent can ask a judge to make the call.

“Certainly all parents want what’s best for their child,” she said.

“Many parents will assume the best academic program is what’s best, and oftentimes it is. … But that’s not always what drives the court’s decision-making in these situations.”

‘Best interest’ standard

Jason and Jeanie Lee, the Wichita couple, divorced in 2014 and have two daughters who live primarily with their mother.

The elder daughter recently completed fifth grade at Enterprise Elementary School, near 31st Street South and Seneca, and plans to enroll at nearby Truesdell, the neighborhood middle school. Both schools are part of the Wichita district, the state’s largest with about 50,000 students.

“I’ve been really happy with Enterprise. The teachers genuinely love the kids,” Jeanie Lee said.

Last month, she said, her daughter attended a summer enrichment program at Truesdell, where she got to know several teachers and classmates and learned her way around the school. Two Truesdell teachers visited with Jeanie Lee and “kind of raved about my daughter, telling me she was a great kid and they were really happy to have her,” she said.

“It made me feel good about sending her there.”

Katherine Chlumsky, Jason Lee’s attorney, said her client wants his daughter to attend Andover Central Middle School near his home because he thinks it would be in her best interests. Andover, a suburban district that includes parts of east Wichita, serves about 5,300 students.

Jason Lee declined a request for an interview.

The Andover school “has a higher proficiency rating from the State of Kansas, it scores higher on state assessments, has 100% graduation rate from high school, has a low truancy percentage rate and a low crime rate,” according to Jason Lee’s petition for a court hearing.

“All of the factors should be considered in light of what would be considered the best interest of the child,” Chlumsky said in an e-mail. “That is what we always come back to: the best interest standard.”

Comparing schools

Compared side-by-side, data from Truesdell and Andover Central middle schools illustrate the vast differences between a large urban district like Wichita and a more affluent suburban one.

Of the more than 1,000 students at Truesdell, nearly 86 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty. At Andover Central, which has about 600 students, only 19 percent qualify.

On last year’s Kansas state assessment tests, nearly half of Truesdell students scored below grade level, and only about 12 percent were on track to be ready for college-level work. Andover Central students scored well above state averages on the tests, with only 4 percent below grade level.

And then there are stories like one last December, in which a student brought a gun to Truesdell and showed it to classmates on the bus ride home. While such incidents are rare, and although the district has spent millions upgrading security, some parents worry that Wichita schools aren’t as safe as their suburban counterparts.

Meanwhile, some point to Truesdell as a shining star among urban middle schools. The school was named 2016-17 Middle School of the Year by the Kansas Association of Middle School Administrators. Its principal, Terrell Davis, who recently took a job in district administration, was named Middle School Principal of the Year.

Two of seven Wichita teachers who received this year’s Distinguished Classroom Teacher Award teach at Truesdell. And last spring, a rocketry team of Truesdell eighth-graders was among the top 100 teams invited to compete in a national competition.

“I would challenge anyone who has concerns to come and see the school – come and see any of our schools – because it is unfair to judge them on a single point,” said Wendy Johnson, spokeswoman for the Wichita district.

“So many times, people come into our buildings and say, ‘Wow, I had no idea this was happening.’ And we say, ‘Yeah, we’ve been trying to share that with you.’

“To judge us based upon a headline is not a fair way to filter and judge a school, and unfortunately it happens far too often.”

Nicole Gibbs, spokeswoman for Andover schools, said district officials don’t normally get involved in family court cases, “nor do have knowledge of (a case) rising to this level.”

If any staff members are subpoenaed to court, “they will attend such callings if requested,” she said.

Multiple factors

Sedgwick County District Judge Tyler Rousch is expected to review Jason Lee’s petition at a hearing scheduled for Aug. 11.

According to court documents, the father plans to call several witnesses, including the principal of Andover Central Middle School and an administrator from Truesdell. He also plans to present data such as truancy and crime rate reports.

But that’s not all the judge likely will consider, says DeRousse, the KU law professor.

“One of the first things they’re supposed to look at under the best-interest factor is the child’s attachment to their home school and community, and the stability the child will have in a given living arrangement,” she said.

“So while a school may be marginally better in some respects – perhaps academically, or giving opportunities for better extracurriculars or college-prep – it may not be the best choice for that particular child.”

Judges typically consider the strength of a particular school program along with factors such as daily schedules, commutes and a child’s attachments to classmates or teachers, DeRousse said.

“Maybe the family or the child will benefit more from the diversity in a particular school, or the friendships she has, or the really wonderful mentor teachers there, or special needs that are better served in the school where she is,” she said.

“There are so many facts a judge can look at, depending what the circumstances are.”

Jeanie Lee, the Wichita mom, said she’s not familiar with differences between city and suburban schools but says her daughter thrived at her Wichita elementary and is looking forward to starting middle school.

“I really believe that it’s more about how you raise your kid,” she said. “If education is a priority in the home, they’re going to do well.”

The transition to middle school can be a little scary – for kids and parents – no matter what school a child attends, Jeanie Lee added.

“I’d never want my kid to be in the bad crowd, but … I think they have their bad crowd in Andover, too,” she said. “It’s in every school. Your kid will be around kids everywhere.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias