Article 6: En garde: fencing at Kansas City's Central Computers Unlimited/Classical Greek Magnet High School, 1991-1995.
In 1990, Nazlymov packed his bags and boarded a plane bound for his new home in the United States--New York City. Nazlymov's decision to accept a position with the New York Athletic Club, an elite private fencing club, was largely motivated by a desire to be close to his son, Vitali Nazlymov, who departed the Soviet Union in 1990 after accepting a fencing scholarship at Penn State University (Nazlymov 2013). But soon after joining the New York Athletic Club, Nazlymov was looking for a way out. Unhappy with the political nature of his position in New York, Nazlymov began searching for a new job doing what he loved most: coaching (Nazlymov 2013). He found such an opportunity in an unlikely place--Kansas City, Missouri.
No doubt Kansas City was a curious choice for one of the hottest fencing coaches in the world. After all, Kansas City was nowhere near the nation's fencing hub, nor was it even close to a vibrant fencing community. But Kansas City was home to Kansas City, Missouri School District's Central High School, a school that in 1991 was just beginning a fencing team as part of the district's two billion dollar magnet plan. Kansas City's magnet plan resulted in Central High School being rebuilt as the Central Computers Unlimited/Classical Greek Magnet High School, a school that was designed to offer students an opportunity to develop as athletes in a variety of Olympic sports, fencing among them. In 1991, Central hired a fencing coach, internationally renowned Vladimir Nazlymov.
KANSAS CITY'S CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL
Central High School in Kansas City, Missouri, is one of the oldest schools west of the Mississippi and the first public school built in Kansas City. Opening in 1867, all-white Central High School graduated an inaugural class of just five, but by 1891 Central's enrollment had swelled to over one thousand (Central Luminary 1985). Central would remain the city's only high school until 1890 when all-black Lincoln High School was opened (Jones 1999). Following the addition of Lincoln High School, Kansas City, Missouri Public Schools' dual school system underwent tremendous growth. Throughout the early twentieth century many additional high schools would be constructed, but all of them were white. Lincoln remained the city's only black high school until 1936 when the R.T. Coles Vocational and Junior High School was opened (O'Connor 1990, 10). Yet despite the growing number of white high schools in Kansas City, Missouri, during the first half of the twentieth century Central remained the city's biggest and most prestigious. This can be seen in the comments of a Kansas City Journal columnist who wrote the following in 1917:
Today [Central] is only one of five great institutions of higher learning in Kansas City, any one of which is the equivalent of the average college or university of fifty years ago. Today, it looks back over fifty years of effective educational life and it looks forward to an indefinite prolongation of its honorable career. Such a milestone may well be marked with the most elaborate ceremonies, in which the whole community may bear a share for Central belongs by association and memory to Kansas City.
Central's reputation as the city's best remained intact for the first half of the twentieth century, but Central's image began to change in Brown's aftermath.
As the Kansas City, Missouri Public Schools implemented the mandates of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) its schools underwent a rapid and dramatic demographic shift, Central High School among them. Whites, spurred by racism and encouraged by blockbusting realtors, began fleeing their city homes for the suburbs. In 1940 the neighborhoods around Central High School at Linwood Boulevard and Indiana Avenue were 99.6 percent white and in 1950 they were 99.8 percent white. By 1960, however, the same neighborhoods were eighty-two percent black and 17.9 percent white (Social Explorer Professional 2013). As whites left their city neighborhoods and blacks purchased their homes, schools like Central High School reflected the racial residential patterns and went from all-white to all-black in sudden fashion. Central, for example, all white during the 1954-55 school year was by 1959 seventy percent black and by 1962 ninety-nine percent black (Benson n.d.b.). The trend continued throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s as Central High School and the neighborhoods around it remained majority black. Central, however, was not alone. By 1970 all elementary and secondary schools east of Troost Avenue--a street running north-south through the heart of Kansas City and principally serving as the dividing line between white residents to the west and black residents to the east--were ninety percent or more black. It was this pervasive racial segregation in Kansas City, Missouri's schools that resulted in the district seeking solutions throughout the 1970s, and which subsequently led to the district's adoption of an elaborate and expensive magnet-themed desegregation approach. Kansas City's magnet remedy transformed the majority of the Kansas City, Missouri School District's schools throughout the 1980s and 1990s into magnet schools, an attempt to achieve racial integration and improve academic achievement.
GROWTH OF MAGNET SCHOOLS
Magnet schools were created in the late 1970s when urban districts such as the Kansas City, Missouri School District began seeking alternatives to court-ordered desegregation mandates (Szczypkowski and Musumeci 1993). Following the United States Court of Appeals ruling in Morgan v. Kerrigan (1976), magnet schools became a viable option for desegregation, a way to make schools attractive to parents, students, and educators. The concept of a magnet school was to offer specialized, unique programs, and magnet schools became an extremely popular strategy during the early 1980s, implemented as attempts toward school improvement and desegregation. (Eaton and Crutcher 1996). Magnet schools' growing attractiveness can be seen in their widespread implementation nationwide from 1980 onward, and part of the appeal of the magnet philosophy in Kansas City was the promising outcomes of magnet implementation in schools around the country.
By the 1983-1984 school year, Los Angeles had magnet programs at the elementary, junior high, and senior high level, and evaluations showed students in nearly all of the magnet programs scoring at or above both district and national levels (Raywid 1990). Results in New York were equally impressive. A 1985 study of forty-one of the one hundred magnet schools across eight New York districts provided extensive evidence of magnet school accomplishment in improving educational quality, suggesting that choice was a powerful incentive in the improvement of the New York schools (Musumeci and Szczypkowski 1991). By 1984 the magnet schools of Milwaukee had grown to include twenty elementary and middle schools, as well as five senior high schools. Black students were attending suburban schools and white students were attending city schools (Levine and& Eubanks 1990). Moreover, the San Diego Public Schools had implemented a voluntary desegregation plan and utilized magnet schools, which proved popular and successful (Levine and Eubanks 1990). In Kansas City's own backyard, in St. Louis, Missouri, a magnet plan had been initiated in 1981 that resulted in whites attending many of the city's magnet schools (Goldring and Smrekar 2000). Despite the great optimism that surrounded magnet schools in the early 1980s, however, they were not panaceas; magnet schools were not trouble-free.
Magnet schools were intended to entice parents to remove their children from their home schools and place them in specialty schools possibly outside of their neighborhood school (Smrekar and Goldring 1999). While magnet schools provided an alternative to forced busing and mandatory desegregation, there was a certain danger in the magnet theme that stemmed from their selectivity and elitism. There was a risk of the establishment of a two-tiered system within urban school districts whereby low-achieving students would attend poorly functioning traditional schools and academically-oriented magnet schools would house the highest performing students. Often times this two-tiered system had racial implications.
In order to avoid such a system in Kansas City, the magnet plan's architects, Daniel Levine and Eugene Eubanks, both of whom were professors in the Department of Education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, suggested three key guidelines. They recommended school districts do the following: magnetize as many schools as possible in order to provide maximum opportunity, take steps to improve the effectiveness of education in schools that are left as traditional, and minimize the use of academic criteria in magnet admissions (Levine and Eubanks 1990).
Employing a comprehensive magnet concept, as explained by Levine and Eubanks, would, it was thought, avoid detracting from the quality of instruction in inner-city schools that resulted from the draining off of the best students and teachers, thereby leaving them even more devoid of positive academic leadership than they were in the first place (Levine and& Moore n.d.). Thus, the vision that was being championed by Levine and Eubanks, in particular, was both systematic and transformative. It was one that would transform traditional, low-performing urban schools and the neighborhoods that surrounded them. Houston, Cincinnati, and Chicago served as examples of how magnet schools could attract young middle-class families back into the city. By the early 1980s big urban school districts, the Kansas City, Missouri School District included, were at a critical juncture. While most white families had already left the cities for the suburbs by 1980, many middle-class black families remained. But as housing opportunities opened for blacks in the fringe suburbs throughout the 1980s, middle-class black families began to leave the urban core as well. Thus, the early 1980s signified a time when inner-city schools, already strapped for cash, were faced with a declining tax base, old and decrepit buildings, and an increasingly impoverished population of students.
Understandably, Levine and Eubanks' comprehensive magnet plan was not cheap. In order to transform all high schools and middle schools, and half of all elementary schools, into magnets, the cash-strapped Kansas City, Missouri School District needed money, and lots of it. And so began the roughly thirty-year legal battle of Jenkins v. Missouri (1977), which resulted in the State of Missouri, state and local taxpayers, and the Kansas City, Missouri School District funding a two billion dollar Kansas City magnet school project.
FENCING AT CENTRAL MAGNET
Nearly thirty-three million of the two billion dollars in expenditures were dedicated to the construction of the district's flagship high school, Central Computers Unlimited/Classical Greek High School, formerly Central High School. Central Magnet's facilities were, by most accounts, among the best in the nation. Central's innovative curriculum in computer technology and Olympic (Classical Greek) sports, as well as its state-of-the art, brand new facility, were designed to lure white suburban students back to the school and district they had left behind decades before. It was thought that robustly-funded Olympic-style athletic programs, with the latest in sport-technology and equipment, would make Central a breeding ground for Olympic caliber athletes and attract top-notch coaches. This, in theory, would attract white students from around the city and work to desegregate Central, a school that had proven difficult, if not impossible, to desegregate in Brown's aftermath. Certainly, Central's hiring of one of the best fencing coaches in the world, Vladimir Nazlymov, was a promising start. But as Nazlymov discovered upon his arrival at Central in 1991, he had his work cut out for him.
The surprise hire of Nazlymov, which was described in a Kansas City newspaper as "the most significant event in American fencing history," was largely the result of perfect timing (Hill 1991). The Kansas City, Missouri School District had just completed their new thirty-three million dollar Central High School facility and Nazlymov, who had a few connections in Kansas City, was looking for a challenge at, what he characterized as, the grass-roots level. Central, he explained, presented a unique opportunity to construct an Olympic-caliber fencing program at a most unlikely place, an urban public school in the heart of Kansas City.
Kansas City, however, was far from a fencing Mecca. In fact, the United States as a whole, in the early 1990s, was well behind the rest of the world in producing Olympic-caliber fencers. Certainly, Kansas City was not anywhere on the fencing radar, at least not until the arrival of Vladimir Nazlymov. Terrence Lasker, who was among the first of Central's students to join the newly formed fencing team in 1991, vividly recalled Nazlymov's arrival at Central:
Oh my goodness. It was, I mean it seems like something right out of a fiction book. He [Nazlymov]. He knew basically a couple of words, greetings, but for the first probably 2 or 3 months, he really just said one word to us, and it was "relax" ... he was always straightening our backs and kind of pulling our arms, kind of stretching us a little bit and, you know all the time--every few seconds or so--he would just say "relax, relax" (Lasker 2013).
Lasker was one of the few African American students who initially decided to participate in fencing, and he knew almost nothing about the sport when he took it up on a whim. Although Lasker lived in the city, he did not live within Central's attendance area, but the magnet approach afforded him the opportunity to select his school--he chose Central for its computer theme, not athletics. Yet the promise of extensive travel persuaded Lasker to take up fencing, and travel they did. Lasker fondly remembered his first trip as part of the Central fencing team, a trip to Vail, Colorado. But Vail represented just the beginning, as Central's fencing program took Lasker, and several of his Central teammates, all over the world on the district's dime. Of course, Lasker enjoyed the travel, but he was falling in love with fencing, and with Nazlymov's tutelage, Lasker in just two years had won the bronze medal at the Junior World Championships and developed into one of the best junior fencers in the world.
Joining Lasker at Central in 1991 was fellow freshman, Jeremy Summers. Summers, a white suburbanite, represented the type of student Kansas City, Missouri School District officials had hoped to attract with its magnet theme and brand new facilities. Summers lived in Independence, Missouri, a suburb located just east of the city. An avid soccer player, he was attracted to the idea of the new Central Computers Unlimited/Classical Greek Magnet High School for its commitment to athletics. But before he could enroll at Central, Summers had to convince his parents, who had spent the majority of his late elementary and middle school years homeschooling him, to allow him to travel to Kansas City's blighted inner city to attend high school.
Central High School endured a media assault throughout the 1970s, which resulted in it being labeled as one of Kansas City's violent all-black schools. It is an image that plagued Central throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and still continues today. Thus, white suburban families were hesitant to send their children into a school that had long been identified as a dangerous black school. Summers, however, was able to convince his skeptical parents that the new Central magnet represented a unique opportunity to develop his skills in the sport he loved: soccer.
When Summers traveled from his suburban residence in Independence, Missouri, to Central, in the heart of Kansas City's urban core, for his freshman year in the fall of 1991, he was uncertain of what he would encounter. He hoped to find a vibrant soccer program that would prepare him for a successful collegiate soccer career. But just as the 1991 school year commenced, Central's soccer coach bailed and Central's soccer program was in trouble before it even began. Disillusioned with Central's Soccer program, Summers had endured enough. He subsequently quit soccer and took up fencing the next day; it was a decision that would change his life.
Summers joined fellow classmate Terrence Lasker on the fencing team and the duo quickly became Central's best. Neither Summers nor Lasker initially had a passion for fencing, but everything changed once they met Vladimir Nazlymov. Within one year Summers, like Lasker, was ranked nationally in the top three in his age group. By the 1994 season both were competing at the Junior World Championships and traveling all around the world. Both boys were solidifying their place among the best junior fencers in the world, despite having only two years of fencing instruction and training. Summers attributed much of his and Lasker's success to Nazlymov: "We had some skills, some personal skills, but he [Nazlymov] got us there one hundred percent" (Summers 2014). By their senior year, Nazlymov's vision was to prepare both Lasker and Summers for Olympic competition, and they were both committed to seeing their Olympic dreams realized.
While Nazlymov's fencing program was living up to the district's vision of preparing Olympic-caliber athletes for worldwide competition, Central's swimming, weightlifting, and track teams were also producing top-tier athletes, but athletics was only one component of the program design. The Classical Greek Magnet was also intended to provide students with a strong liberal arts education that featured philosophy, debate, forensics, and pursuit of Greek culture. Student achievement at Central, however, had long trailed district-wide and state-wide averages and the data suggest that the magnet approach did not improve student achievement. Summers spoke bluntly of academic rigor during his time at Central, stating that he was not challenged at all academically (Summers 2014). But for Summers, academics had become secondary. He continued to perform well academically, but he had set his sights on making the 1996 Olympic fencing team--fencing took priority. Lasker, too, was eyeing the 1996 Olympics. So by their senior year, 1995, Summers and Lasker were traveling the globe attempting to qualify as members of the United States Olympic Fencing Team.
Upon graduating from Central in 1995, Lasker and Summers continued training with their beloved coach, Vladimir Nazlymov, but the decision to stay with Nazlymov required them both to remain in Kansas City and spurn opportunities to fence in college. Both Lasker and Summers recalled receiving interest from top-notch schools like NYU, Stanford, and Notre Dame. Yet neither of them thought seriously about leaving Nazlymov to fence under the guidance of a different coach, even if it meant a scholarship to attend school. So, Lasker and Summers enrolled in community college classes in Kansas City and continued training with their coach free of charge and traveling to international competitions; however, their travel was no longer funded by the school district, as it was when both were students at Central. Thus, Lasker and Summers had to pay their own travel expenses beginning in the fall of 1995. Despite working odd jobs, the month-long fencing excursions to Europe, Canada, or South America became too costly and neither Summers nor Lasker could adequately finance the extensive travel required for international fencing competition. Sadly, they both fell short of qualifying for the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games, albeit just barely. Lasker's financial troubles prevented him from attending a crucial World Cup competition, which would have all but solidified his position on the 2000 Olympic team. An International Olympic Committee rule change that narrowed the number of Olympic fencers for the 2000 Olympics ended Summers's hopes of qualifying. But despite their Olympic dreams being shattered, fencing would continue to play a significant role in both Lasker's and Summers's lives.
In 1995, the same year that Lasker and Summers graduated, the State of Missouri began pulling funding from the Kansas City, Missouri School District's Magnet program. The transportation budget was the first expense to be cut, which meant white suburban students like Summers, who had enjoyed door-to-door taxi service from their homes to school and back, would have to find their own transportation. As a result, forty percent of all suburban students withdrew from the Kansas City, Missouri School District in 1995 (Benson n.d.a.) The transportation cuts represented the first of many, and ultimately signified the end of the state's commitment to funding Kansas City's Magnet Plan. Between 1991 and 1995, Central's student population increased to over twenty percent white, which represented the highest percentage of white students at Central since 1959, and Central's students received tremendous upgrades in facilities, computer technology and extracurricular offerings. Yet academic performance data reveal that, in 1995, Central's students were still performing well-below the district and state average. Supporters of the magnet plan argued that the experiment was cut short and not given adequate time to develop, while critics of the plan welcomed the spending cuts, suggesting that Kansas City's approach was excessive and ill-conceived.
Central's fencing program was most certainly affected by the budget cuts. Nazlymov, realizing that the magnet plan was likely on its way out, left Central in 1996 and worked to develop his private fencing club, located in suburban Overland Park, Kansas (Nazlymov 2013). Consequently, the fencing program at Central, which developed Lasker and Summers into two of the best fencers in the world, was all but over in 1996, just 5 years after it began. Nazlymov ended up leaving the Kansas City area in 1999 and taking a position as the head fencing coach at Ohio State University, where he has since won three national championships. The official end of Kansas City's magnet implementation, however, occurred in 2001 and resulted in Central High School, as well as all Kan sas City, Missouri District schools being transitioned back to traditional schools.
Kansas City's magnet remedy certainly had its problems. The plan came with a high price tag, which is estimated to have reached two billion dollars, and the investment yielded little in the way of measurable outcomes. District-wide academic performance data remained low and the district's graduation rate in 1999 was a mere fifty-seven percent, twenty-one percentage points below the state average (Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education 2013). Moreover, the desegregation goal of sixty-forty, sixty percent students of color and forty percent white, was never realized. In fact, by the time the district had officially suspended its magnet-themed approach in 2001, the total percentage of black students enrolled in district schools actually increased to seventy percent, which was up from sixty-seven percent just prior to magnet implementation in 1984 (Benson n.d.b.). Yet despite all of its shortcomings, Kansas City's magnet-themed approach provided many students with critical facility upgrades and opportunities that would have not been possible in a traditional setting. Central's fencing program serves as an exemplar of how unprecedented funding and unique extracurricular offerings combined to provide students with life-changing experiences.
Kansas City, Missouri, resident, Diane Stephenson, wrote an editorial in the Kansas City Star in 1991, in which she captures the essence of what Central's fencing program was created to achieve:
I coached and competed in fencing at UMKC from 1966 to 1980. During that time I saw the fencers emerge from gawky, insecure, unsure teen-agers to become doctors, dentists, lawyers, physicists, engineers, and mature men and women. Again and again they told me it was fencing that kept them in school. It was fencing that gave them an identity. It was fencing that was a home away from home.
For Lasker and Summers, fencing indeed provided enriching experiences. Central's fencing program, under the guidance of Vladimir Nazlymov, changed the trajectory of Lasker's and Summers's lives, which they both suggested was an overwhelmingly positive change. Lasker, despite not making an Olympic team, never left the fencing world. Upon retiring his own saber and shield, Lasker took up coaching. He followed Nazlymov to Columbus, Ohio and served on Nazlymov's coaching staff while simultaneously enrolled as a student at Ohio State University. Lasker then moved to Atlanta where he currently coaches at a private fencing club, Nellya Fencers, which is recognized for training some of the best fencers in the world--and Lasker is considered one of the premier saber coaches in the country. Summers, too, was changed by his decision to join Central's fencing team in 1991. Like Lasker, Summers quit competing after his Olympic hopes crumbled in 1999 and at that point, admittedly burnt out, Summers left fencing altogether for years. He has since returned. Now a chiropractor, Summers is serving as the Director of Sports Medicine for the United States National Fencing Team, as well as volunteering as the Team Physician for the 2016 United States Olympic Fencing Team.
In an era of high stakes testing, data-driven decisions, and test preparation; a time when schools are removing extracurricular opportunities in favor of increasing classroom time, it is important to recognize the impact and value of the extracurricular. Indeed, Kansas City's magnet experiment was far from perfect. Paul Ciotti (1998), in "Money and School Performance: Lessons from the Desegregation Experiment," details the many problems of Kansas City's magnet plan and concludes the following: "educational problems cannot be solved by throwing money at them".
Kansas City's magnet plan did not accomplish the primary goals of academic improvement and desegregation that had been established by its creators, but the magnet schools undeniably provided opportunities for students like Lasker and Summers that would have otherwise been out of reach. These opportunities, though not revealed in the achievement data, were significant and life-changing. This is not to suggest that the Kansas City magnet plan did not have its problems; indeed it did, and these problems have been widely acknowledged. But it is important, too, to move beyond the data and ascertain students' stories so as to enrich our understanding of how programs such as the Central fencing program were experienced by students. The lived experiences of Lasker and Summers provide insight into how the fencing program affected students' lives, which measurable outcomes and data analysis simply cannot provide. Moreover, while Kansas City's magnet experiment is often remembered for its shortcomings, it is important to reflect on its strengths, as well. Central's fencing program serves as an opportunity to do this--to recognize how magnet money impacted the lives of students--and as is revealed in the stories of Lasker and Summers, the consequences of these experiences were often life-changing.
Bradley W. Poos
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Musumeci, Marilyn, and Szczypkowski, Ronald. 1991. New York State Magnet School Evaluation Study: Final Report. New York: MAGI Educational Services.
Nazlymov, Vladimir. 2013. Interview with author, July 22.
O'Connor, Phillip. 1990. "Finding a Solution to Lincoln's Future." Kansas City Star, March 11.
Raywid, Mary A. 1990. "The Accomplishments of Schools of Choice." In Magnet Schools: Recent Developments and Perspectives, edited by Nolan Estes, Daniel U. Levine, and Donald Waldrip, 31-48. Austin: Morgan Printing and Publishing.
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Summers, Jeremy. 2014. Interview with author, September 10.
Szczypkowski, Ronald, and Musumeci, Marilyn. 1993. "New York State Magnet School Evaluation Study." In Magnet School Policy Studies and Evaluations, edited by Donald R. Waldrip, Walter L. Marks, and Nolan Estes, 103-256. Austin: Morgan Printing and Publishing.
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|Author:||Poos, Bradley W.|
|Publication:||American Educational History Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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