A united front: Three districts from south KC micro region to offer students more opportunities

Students from Center, Grandview, and Hickman Mills school districts meet virtually with their Real World Learning instructors to discuss projects.

Even with learning taking place remotely, a new course is off to a fast start with students and teachers in south Kansas City.

About 30 high school students from the Center, Grandview, and Hickman Mills school districts are discovering the unlimited possibilities and skills of the design field. Some of their teachers are learning right along with them; everybody logs in for a couple of hours on weekdays to learn from a teacher hired cooperatively by the three school districts and stationed at Avila University.

“Attendance has been very good for that class,” said Torrence Allen, principal at Ruskin High School in the Hickman Mills School District. “When kids are enjoying what they do, and they’re engaged in the work and they believe in it, they’re there.”

“I thought having a teacher from the industry was amazing. It helped us get associated with how things really work, and we had a professional to guide the way for us,” said Jordan, a student at Grandview High School. “I really enjoyed working with students from other schools; it gave me the opportunity to be more open, meet new people, and to get out of my comfort zone.”

Students who complete the courses will have the opportunity to take an exam and become Adobe Certified Associates, enabling them to graduate with an industry-recognized credential to take to the job market or college.

“I’m already seeing the work that they’re creating, and it’s amazing,” said Neal Weitzel, director of extended learning for the Center School District. “You can just tell the passion that’s going into it, which is what you want when you’re teaching.”

Recognizing real challenges and commonalities

“Pathways to Design” is just the start of the possibilities the three south Kansas City school districts are mapping out for their students as they embark on a unique collaboration through the Real World Learning regional initiative.

Many larger school districts in the region have the resources to design their own Real World Learning curriculums.

I’m already seeing the work that [my students] are creating, and it’s amazing. You can just tell the passion that’s going into it, which is what you want when you’re teaching.

Neal Weitzel
Director of Extended Learning, Center School District

But Hickman Mills, Grandview, and Center school districts are challenged by the size and demographics of their student enrollments. With 5,600 students, Hickman Mills is the largest of the three districts. Each has just one high school. Many of their students come from low-income families. And, an unstable rental market forces students to move frequently during the school year – often into one of the neighboring districts.

These commonalities were on Kenny Rodrequez’s mind when he became superintendent of the Grandview School District four years ago.

“Why are we not all talking to each other?” he wondered. “Because we’re all sharing students.”

Rodrequez started having regular lunches with his colleagues in Center and Hickman Mills. They began to realize that, while they share the same challenges, they also share opportunity. If they could find smart ways to pool their resources, they could help their students.

Those conversations, which grew to include advisers from PREP-KC and the Kauffman Foundation, have given rise to what educators call the “south Kansas City micro region.”

Collaboration takes many forms, but leaders are most excited about their united participation in Real World Learning.

“I’ve always felt like, here in the Center School District, we do amazing things for our students,” Weitzel said. “But what we’ve created in this micro region is something that I would have never dreamed that our district would have created.”



  • 1 traditional high school.
  • 1100 high school students.
  • 81% of students are BIPOC.
  • 76% receive free or reduced lunch.


  • 1 traditional high school.
  • 665 high school students.
  • 80% of students are BIPOC.
  • 78% receive free or reduced lunch.

Hickman Mills

  • 1 traditional high school.
  • 1200 high school students.
  • 90% of students are BIPOC.
  • 100% receive free or reduced lunch.

Collaborating on pathway development

Starting in the next school year, if pandemic restrictions have eased, Center School District will invite interested students from Grandview and Hickman Mills to participate with Center’s own high schoolers in a new “public safety pathway” in partnership with the Blue River campus of Metropolitan Community College. Besides earning college credits, they will work toward certifications in hazmat operations and emergency medical response.

Other students from the three districts will take classes at Grandview High School, which still has a fully equipped wood and metal shop. Skills learned there will segue into an advanced manufacturing curriculum that the Grandview School District is preparing with Honeywell Federal Manufacturing & Technologies, which has multiple good-paying job opportunities at its massive plant and campus in south Kansas City.

“Grandview has more manufacturing businesses than just about anywhere else in the Kansas City metro,” Rodrequez said. “So that was an easy place for us to start.”

Hickman Mills will invite interested students from Grandview and Center to participate in a “performing arts pathway”. It is envisioned to include opportunities to earn credits in public speaking and theater from the Longview campus of Metropolitan Community College, as well as produce a performance in partnership with the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City.

Performing arts has long been a popular offering for Hickman Mills students, said Katie Roe, executive director of secondary schools.

“It’s one of our strengths,” she said. “But it’s an area where we don’t offer any market value assets to students. We have a huge group of talented students. We have really amazing theater and performance teachers, but we’re not really providing (students) with these tangible opportunities to take with them outside of high school.”

Meaningful cooperation and maximizing resources

Leaders from the three districts also hope to increase participation in an already existing collaboration – their “pathways to technology” program on the campus of Cerner Corp., a supplier of health information technology services. In recent years, about a dozen students from the three districts have spent school days on the campus earning early college credits and participating in internships.

“I would just say that our partnership with the other two districts has been invaluable because on our own we’re limited by our own capacity,” Roe said. “Being able to maximize resources across the three districts, in order to promote greater equity and greater access to opportunities for students, is a win-win for all of us.”

Susan Wally, president and CEO of PREP-KC, has worked with key people in the three districts for months, lending expertise with planning and helping the educators forge partnerships with businesses, colleges and universities, and civic leaders.

Our partnership with the other two districts has been invaluable because on our own we’re limited by our own capacity; being able to maximize resources across the three districts, in order to promote greater equity and greater access to opportunities for students, is a win-win for all of us.

Katie Roe
Executive Director of Secondary Schools, Hickman Mills School District

“This unique partnership between three school districts serving lower-income communities is the result of visionary leadership,” Wally said. “With facilitation from PREP-KC, these educators are building new career pathways for their students that would not have been possible if they acted separately. It’s hard work and truly an act of commitment to the students they serve.”

School districts sometimes band together for collective purchasing power or to tap into community resources for professional development, Wally said. But to share teachers and students is a step beyond.

Figuring out the logistics and details of the new shared pathways is tricky and has required a level of cooperation that is rare among school districts.

“One of the biggest challenges to having a program across multiple districts is the communication component,” said Scott Sisemore, the Grandview School District Director of Instructional Technology.

“It really requires us to be able to have a relationship with our colleagues in those other districts that is very much like you would with a regular office colleague. We talk on a weekly basis, potentially even a daily basis, about getting these programs up and running.”

Another crucial element is commitment. Everyone from school board members to teachers must be on board. Sisemore said he sees that happening in Grandview and the other districts.

“Our school board has been a hundred percent supportive,” he said. “It really is a mandate from them that we find ways to make learning more authentic for our students.”

Making the curriculum relevant

Rodrequez said many teachers in his district have quickly embraced Real World Learning.

“It’s a really easy conversation with most of our teachers,” he said. “We’re talking about how we make their curriculum more relevant to our kids and make them more excited and interested in coming to school and being a part of what’s going on.”

The more difficult step, the superintendent added, is equipping teachers with the knowledge, vocabulary, skills, and industry contacts they’ll need to provide their students with meaningful experiences in fields like design and advanced manufacturing. Teachers already are signing up for “externships” and coaching.

A lot of the work here is really helping parents understand the other opportunities [beyond going to college] that are available to their students as well, and that they can have these really fantastic careers.

Scott Sisemore
Director of Instructional Technology, Grandview School District

COVID-19 restrictions on in-person learning and meetings have slowed down planning in the micro region a bit, but architects of the Real World Learning initiative are reaching out to businesses who might be willing to lend expertise or work with students and teachers in client-connected projects.

“We firmly believe that our students are capable of creating things in high school,” said Weitzel, at Center School District.  “I think it’s really valuable for industry to learn, as they seek to understand what their employment may look like moving forward.”

While teachers and students have embraced the Real World Learning pathways, Sisemore said some Grandview parents have been skeptical. They worry that the focus on industry and careers will harm students’ chances of going to college.

“We have conditioned everybody that you can only be successful if you go to college,” Sisemore said.  “And so a lot of the work here is really helping parents understand the other opportunities that are available to their students as well, and that they can have these really fantastic careers.”

Giving all students a path

Grandview superintendent, Rodrequez, said Real World Learning is about giving all students – college-bound or otherwise – a path for moving beyond high school.

“I have students right now that may get a couple of market value assets,” he said. “They may graduate with six or nine hours’ worth of college credit, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily have a path. It means they took those courses.”

For Rodrequez, creating a path means working with students even in elementary school to make learning interesting and relevant, showing them the possibilities that await them in an ever-evolving job market, and equipping them with tools to enter that market.

“I think a path is about that overall journey after you leave high school, to make sure that you know what you really want to do,” he said. “Hopefully we’ve given them tools that even if they graduate and they go into that pathway, they would still have some skills that would benefit them if they make a decision to change.”

Right now, Rodrequez said, only about a quarter of Grandview’s graduates leave high school with a clear pathway. He envisions that percentage climbing over the next 10 years.

“Until I know that a hundred percent of our students that walk across that stage have a path, we haven’t done the job that we need to do,” he said.

Allen, the principal at Ruskin High School, has a vision of Real World Learning changing his school in profound and exciting ways.

“I see Ruskin being a very busy place,” he said. “I see kids coming and going. I see a group of students leaving because they have to go to Avila (University) to meet with them about their college credits. I see students going over to Grandview to work on the manufacturing program, or over to Center. I see teachers being more open to being that facilitator in the classroom.”

All that fluidity will create logistical and security challenges, but Allen thinks the effort will pay off. Based on the enthusiasm of students so far, he anticipates they will be great recruiters for Real World Learning.

“I can see our students sharing that story out there,” he said, “as we change the narrative about who we are as an institution.”