It has been nearly one year since voters approved the transfer of seven schools in western Independence into the Independence School District. Today, The Examiner begins a five-part series on how the transfer has had an impact at one of those schools - Van Horn High School. A few decades ago, Van Horn was a school with much tradition and glory. Now, students, coaches and administrators are restoring the school spirit, and witnessing a rebirth of Falcon Pride.
A bright sun bathed the stands at Independence All-School Stadium on the campus of William Chrisman High School.
The smell of hot dogs and hamburgers filled the air as fans wearing Van Horn High School gear flooded the gates.
As Independence Superintendent of Schools Jim Hinson sat in the stands, he simply looked at the scene and smiled.
What a difference a year makes.
Last year, the Falcons played in the Interscholastic League at a field that featured more security guards than students.
There were no hot dogs or hamburgers, and the atmosphere was more one of apprehension than pride.
When the Eastern Jackson County high school left the Kansas City School district – leaving behind metal detectors and apathy – this is the scene Hinson anticipated.
“Isn’t this great?” asked Hinson, as the Falcons football team prepared to play its first-ever homecoming game at All-School Stadium.
“This gives me, and all the members of the Independence School district, a great source of pride. We couldn’t be prouder to have Van Horn High School as a member of our family.”
John Temple sat a few feet away. Temple’s grandson, Austin, is the Falcons quarterback, and his granddaughter, Katie, was the 2007 homecoming queen.
“I’ve been waiting for this day a long, long, long time,” said Temple, a 1960 Van Horn alum and former football player. “I know Van Horn has gone through a lot the last few years, but now that the school is part of the Independence School District, we all feel good about the direction it’s heading.”
Temple was sporting the same football jersey he wore back in 1960.
“Isn’t it great to see all the Van Horn ball caps and shirts?” asked Hinson, who was sporting a crimson cap with a VH stitched on the front. “I’ve got my gear on. And I know everyone associated with the school will be proud to wear it.”
Almost as if on cue, Van Horn activities director John Ihm leaves the press box to check on some pregame details. He has given up his beloved Notre Dame cap for Van Horn Falcons head gear.
“What a wonderful, wonderful day,” said Ihm, who had been a high school principal in Joplin.
Ihm has a rich background in prep sports. When he heard about the rebirth at Van Horn, he called his longtime friend Hinson.
“It all sounded so exciting,” Ihm said, “and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Ihm applied for the job in early February and received the good news later that month.
“We are so fortunate to have an administrator like John Ihm,” Hinson said. “All the administrators, teachers and coaches at Van Horn are in it for the right reasons. They want to be at the high school, making it a better place for the students and for our community, and they are a big reason there is a new day, a brighter day in the city of Independence.”
Activities directors wear many hats – ranging from the hiring of game officials to making sure there are plenty of chairs at the Booster Club meeting.
“There are going to be many challenges, and I’m looking forward to every one of them” Ihm said. “We’re going to take it one step at a time and count our small victories. The first year or two or three, we might not see the results we want on the scoreboard, but we will have so many small victories that they will add up to something very special.”
Van Horn is no longer a member of the struggling Interscholastic League. It will be an independent for the next two years but will play competitive schedules in 11 sports.
Improvements were needed in the gymnasium, so Van Horn alum and Booster Club member Darrell Driskell grabbed a bucket of red paint, called a few friends and made the gymnasium look like the home of the Falcons.
“When we walked in and saw what Mr. Driskell and the other Booster Club members did – painting it the school colors – we were all overwhelmed,” Van Horn volleyball coach Cristin Nowak said. “The girls have so much pride in the school. They want to play at home, and they love to play before a packed crowd. I heard so many negative things about this school, and I haven’t seen any of it. It’s been one of the most positive experiences of my life.”
Because all the previous coaches remained in the Kansas City School District, Ihm and the administration had to hire eight new coaches.
The new coaches are Sean Akridge, girls basketball; Chris Corrie, boys and girls soccer; Julie Crowell, boys and girls cross country; Danny Marshall, boys and girls track and field; Mickey Murray, boys basketball; Jeff Tolbert, football; Tim Wilson, baseball; and Nowak, volleyball.
Nowak and Julie Crowell taught in the Independence School District. Nowak taught and coached at Pioneer Ridge. Crowell is the former girls soccer head coach at Chrisman.
“You want to talk about an amazing group of people and coaches, just look at our staff,” Ihm said. “They are among some of the best people I have ever been associated with.”
While the football team has struggled, new coach Jeff Tolbert is encouraged by the signs he has seen on, and off, the turf.
“I know there’s work to be done,” Tolbert said. “I have enough work ethic that it doesn’t scare me and enough ego to think I’ll get the job done. When I go home, I may stress. But when I wake up, it’s time to go to work. And you’d better believe I’ll do the work.”
And so will his team.
“No one works harder than Coach Tolbert,” said Temple, the lone senior on the team. “I just wish I had a few more years at Van Horn because we’re building something special. We’ve had so many different coaches in the past, and you know Coach Tolbert and his coaches are here to stay.”