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Examiner
  • Van Horn turnaround surprises community

  • When Independence Superintendent Jim Hinson first sat down with state Sen. Victor Callahan to discuss the possibility of annexing western Independence from the Kansas City School District into the Independence School District, he had no idea that the positive changes would have happened so quickly.

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  • When Independence Superintendent Jim Hinson first sat down with state Sen. Victor Callahan to discuss the possibility of annexing western Independence from the Kansas City School District into the Independence School District, he had no idea that the positive changes would have happened so quickly.
    “I knew we would see changes, but those changes happened quicker than I thought,” he said. “The people of western Independence were waiting for decades for these changes to occur. The level of frustration was high. The community saw the challenge, and I think wanted to be involved even more. That is why we are seeing positive changes happen in western Independence. It is because of the community.”
    Seven schools were annexed into the school district in 2008 – five elementary schools, one middle school and Van Horn High School. One of those elementary schools, Mount Washington Elementary, was not reopened because of the immense expenditure it would have taken to renovate the more than 100-year-old building.
    The other four elementary schools are now excelling and some are well over capacity. The site of a new elementary school, funded by an $85 million bond issue approved in November 2009, was recently announced to be built in Sugar Creek. It will help to address some of those overcrowding issues.
    But one of the biggest surprises is the turnaround of Van Horn. Attendance at the high school has increased over the last three years. The graduation rate has also changed dramatically, increasing from 68 percent to almost 95 percent.
    Another increasing number is in the Missouri Assessment Program scores. Communication arts scores were as low as 16 percent under the Kansas City banner, but have increased to as high as 70 percent since the transition occurred.
    Hinson said if the enrollment trend at the high school continues at the same pace, Van Horn could reach capacity in as little as three years.
    “We are so pleased with what is happening at Van Horn,” he said. “Before you know it, there will be no more room at Van Horn.”
    Pastor Bob Spradling, of Maywood Baptist Church, remembers watching the first Van Horn homecoming parade after coming into the school district. He said it was “heartwarming to see” the elementary students, cheerleaders and football players joining together as members of the community lined the streets cheering.
    “This kind of community action originates from the positive vision of the leadership of Van Horn’s principal, assistant principal and key teachers,” he said. “This is a small sample of the many values that are present by a vibrant, active community-based high school.”
    Among the most recent changes at Van Horn is a complete renovation. From new heating and air-conditioning units to a brand new football field and front entrance, the look of the high school is one of the most noticeable changes in the community.
    Page 2 of 2 - “The new look of Van Horn is stunning,” Spradling said. “The football field has transformed an eyesore into an eye-catching addition to the neighborhood. The best aspect of Van Horn, however, is the graduation rate. Who would have dreamt of such a profound change in graduations in such a short time.”
    Greg Netzer, principal at Van Horn, said what he tries to focus on is creating a positive and enriching environment for students. That, he said, ultimately leads to success.
    “We try to revel in the energy of adolescents,” he said. “Our students, like most adolescents, are interesting, engaging and always full of energy. Alumni of Van Horn are also an integral part of the makeover. They continue to contribute to the school and the well-being of our student population.”
    Hinson said the complete feeling of western Independence has changed since the annexation occurred. He said there continues to be the belief that “anything is possible.”
    “It is really inspiring that the community has helped to make these changes possible. The response has been absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “I think the first moment I saw what could be possible was the turnout at the first Extreme School Makeover. The neighborhoods want to see the schools succeed, so they are making that happen.”
    Spradling said that with the community’s involvement and people moving into western Independence, more businesses should inevitably follow.
    “The Chamber of Commerce informs us that retail is dependent on rooftops,” he said. “In addition to many services that extend beyond education, the school district change has spurred relocation of families to affordable housing in western Independence. Excellent schools and affordable housing are one of the reasons why attendance has grown. This indicator should translate into better business opportunities in our area.”
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