Ruskin neighborhoods know: Saying 'goodbye' to schools will be hard

To get to the two elementary schools that are closing in Hickman Mills, you have to burrow deep into Ruskin Hills and Ruskin Heights.

Off of the main thoroughfares.

Johnson Elementary opened in September, 1957

Rolling by houses on curving streets, built during what was then 1950s suburbia.

Open Houses for closing schools

Closing ceremonies for the three schools will be held Saturday, June 8, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at each school. Each building will be open for the public to walk through, take photos, and reminisce. 

Johnson Elementary
10900 Marsh Ave.

Symington Elementary
8650 Ruskin Way

Hickman Mills Freshman Center
9010B Old Santa Fe Rd

You find each school — Johnson and Symington — in its own clearing like a wellspring.

“The quintessential neighborhood school,” said Mary Poole, who is coming all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio, to say goodbye to Symington.

The Hickman Mills School District is holding ceremonial open houses Saturday, June 8, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. because people want to come and remember.

“I lived just behind the school, so not only could I walk to school but the playground was all mine after school and during the summer,” Poole said, who attended in the early 1980s. “There was so much to miss about Symington — the great teachers, my friends, the supportive environment. I felt I had to come back to say goodbye.”

Because there are few other neighborhood gathering places, Johnson Elementary, at 10900 Marsh Ave., and Symington, at 8650 Ruskin Way, are important fixtures in the Ruskin Hills and Ruskin Heights neighborhoods, said longtime resident and schools supporter Lillie Walker.

The Ruskin Hills Homes Association has met for many years in Symington, and they held or joined many events over the years in the school and also helped care for Iser Park to keep it a fun sanctuary for children and families of both schools.

“We’re going to miss the safety and comfort that the school is here,” Walker said.

The Hickman Mills school board voted in early March to close the two schools as well as the Freshman Center as part of a reconfiguring of schools and grade levels to cut costs.

Symington Elementary opened in January, 1959

It was a difficult decision by the board and the district administration, said Marissa Cleaver Wamble, the district’s spokeswoman.

“We understand what it means to close schools and the impact it has,” she said. “We know there are people who have strong feelings and strong ties to these schools. Many went to school there. Many of their kids went there. Their grandkids went there.”

The open houses, she said, are meant to give a chance for all “who want to visit them one more time, to walk through the halls, visit with old friends, take pictures . . . memorialize their school one more time.”

The history of these elementary schools, like much of the Ruskin neighborhoods, is indelibly marked by the Ruskin tornado of May 1957.

Johnson Elementary today

Johnson Elementary today

Johnson Elementary, whose construction was set back by the tornado, opened just months later on Sept. 3, 1957. It was named for Hickman Mills civic leader William H. Johnson, a proponent of Missouri’s school consolidation law of 1901 that led to Hickman Mills becoming the first consolidated school district in the state.

Symington opened in January 1959 in what was the heart of the tornado-ravaged Ruskin Heights neighborhood, according to “The Journey to Our Future; The History of Hickman Mills C-1 School District” by Jami Parkison.

Symington Elementary today

The school was named for U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington, who helped the Hickman Mills community secure emergency relief after the tornado.

The schools “were foundations of a strong neighborhood,” said John Sharp, president of the South Kansas City Alliance and a former school board member. “They develop a sense of community.” The loss of the schools “is devastating.”

Sharp and the SKCA were part of those in the community who opposed the closings and urged the school board to manage concerns over its fund balance without the closings.

It was all part of the weighty community conversations the district convened after a consulting firm hired by the district had proposed options that included closing as many as five schools.

The district will continue to work with the neighborhoods going forward as the board will have to determine what happens next for the school properties, Cleaver Wamble said.

“We want to be transparent,” she said. “We’re going to have an open ear.”

The district hopes to bring focus back to the momentum the district has gained toward reclaiming full accreditation from the state. Hickman Mills, which is provisionally accredited, has made improvements in its annual performance report that scored in the full-accreditation range, and another year of high marks would likely earn the state’s approval for full accreditation.

Walker, whose four children went to Symington, has lived on her corner near the school for 40 years, she said.

She paid special attention to the children in the neighborhood and their safety because she had her home designated as a McGruff House — part of the National Crime Prevention Council’s “McGruff the Crime Dog” campaign.

Hers was a certified safe home, and she watched over the children as they marched to and from the bus stop.

She wants her school district to thrive and keep on and she wants financial relief to unburden the schools.

Because the children she sees are the same, from one generation to the next, she said.

“Nothing has changed in the need.”

By Joe Robertson, LINC writer

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