Gordon Parks Elementary School strives to elevate student success

By EllieAna Hale

Being one of the first charter schools in the Kansas City, Mo., area, Gordon Parks Elementary School has a history of continually providing a successful and beneficial socio-emotional curriculum model.

Founded in 1999 by Dorothy Curry and Sue Jarvis, Gordon Parks was named in honor of the renowned African-American photographer, filmmaker, musician and author who endorsed the school’s mission of educating urban core children to reach their full potential.

“But the reason why we’re doing this for Gordon Parks is because of his resilience,” said Kirsten Lipari-Braman, Chief Executive Officer of Gordon Parks. “When he was born, he was born stillborn, and they were ready to bury him and then somebody said we’ll put him in an ice bath. And they did, and he was alive. He’s going to have his 100th birthday this year. So it’s a big deal for us.”

Serving grades kindergarten to fourth grade, Gordon Parks strives to create a healthy and sustainable environment for all students located in the Kansas City, Mo., area. As of the 2022-2023 school year, 150 students are enrolled in Gordon Parks and are continuously excelling and becoming a larger part of their community.

The school provides not only a strong academic curriculum curated to independent student needs, but additionally provides a strong support system and resources for the emotional wellbeing of the child. Their programs are catered specifically for children who have dealt with a variety of trauma in their early life.

“We’re not just a school where you can get the academics but we help the socio-emotional piece because many of our kids don’t know how to express trauma that they faced,” Lipari-Braman said. “Eighty-seven percent of our kids in third and fourth grade have experienced one or more significant traumas in their life, and approximately 60% of them have had four significant traumas. They’re nine. So think about nine years old, you probably have had murders, robberies, parents that you’ve been separated from, that abuse of some kind. It’s really hard to do the academic piece when you’re struggling with those traumas.”

Gordon Parks continually works to meet each individual student where they are at in their academic and personal journey. Each teacher and administrator goes through a series of trauma training and works to implement language that encourages the emotional growth of the young children. The school advocates for student equity and wishes to make every student feel like they belong.

“We are fully inclusive and we just welcome everybody,” Lipari-Braman said.

Academics are individually curated to each student’s need and designed to help the student have a better grasp of real-world concepts.

“We’re kind of moving in a direction from what typically happens and that is that the curriculum becomes the textbooks,” said Dr. Kent Yocum, Academic Officer and Principal at Gordon Parks. “But the curriculum is not the textbooks, it’s the standards, and so we’re moving away from using all of those resources to being very responsive to what the students are interested in. So we still have the standards, but we’re grouping them in ways that they fit together better across content areas and within content areas.”

Additionally, Gordon Parks provides free breakfast and lunch for students, as well as providing school supplies and school pride gear. The school also provides services that are designed to better support the students such as a care team and ELL (English Language Learners) services.

This model that Gordon Parks has taken on is known as the responsive classroom approach. This approach allows for each individual student to have a place in the classroom and allows for the student to feel respected and given the chance to learn trust skills with adults.

Each day at Gordon Parks begins with a morning meeting of the entire student body where students can share the successes and upcoming happenings within each grade. From the morning meeting, students dive into instruction that is framed around the responsive classroom approach where students are continuously discussing their emotions and checking in with themselves.

“All the children come into the building, we all meet in the gym, and one of the important parts of Responsive Classroom is that the morning meeting creates community peace and community building,” Lipari-Bra-man said.

Outside of meeting times and teacher language, Gordon Parks has introduced a technology system that each student can check in on and report their mood and whatever is happening in their personal lives to better prepare the instructor for the day of teaching.

“We’re currently getting them set up for this school year, but through an iPad check system the children will put in and answer questions like ‘How am I sleeping?’, ‘How am I doing?’ and then place their emotion with an emoji,” Lipari-Braman said. “The teacher, within 30 seconds, will get this data… [A] majority of the behavioral problems that we find we are reactive to versus proactive. This gives us a proactive approach in that morning meeting.”

In addition to the responsive teaching model, to better assist the student body and the families of the students, on June 13, 2022, Gordon Parks introduced a year-round extended school model by adding 31 days to its school schedule.

Administrators believe this model will better prepare students for academic content, as well as continually encourage emotional health throughout the entire year by providing continuous support.

“What our kids need is to be able to stay in that consistency, that safety of the consistency of being in school, the processes, the procedures, knowing they’re going to get a meal every day, there’s somebody who’s going to be taking care of them,” Lipari-Braman said. “They’re going to be in a temperature – they’re not going to be sweating to death – they’re going to be good at being physically active. They’re not going to be sitting in front of the TV. We were able to do that, so we added 31 days to our calendar.”

This shift to the year-round model is also designed to benefit the parents and provide support to the family as a unit.

“They needed to know that their kids are taken care of, but it relieves that burden of trying to find summer care and having to pay for it,” Yocum said. “Their kids are here on a full academic day and they’re doing regular schoolwork, so it’s really going to help our kids long-term with their academic success.”

Gordon Parks is one of 16 Kansas City charter schools working together to simplify the initial application process into one form, SchoolAppKC, that can be completed from any electronic device.

The school encourages parents to come and ask questions and take a tour of the school to get an inside look at the resources and possibilities that Gordon Parks has to offer. More information on Gordon Parks Elementary School can be found at gordonparks.org. Interested parents can call 816-753-6700.

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