By Kevin Collison
Académie Lafayette is opening an International Baccalaureate high school at 201 E. Armour in Midtown, accomplishing a goal the French-immersion charter school program established when it started 20 years ago.
“This is the fulfillment of a dream, our vision,” said M. Elimane Mbengue, head of the school.
“Every year, our parents had been challenged finding a quality high school. They wanted to continue the excellence of our middle school to high school.”
The decision to open the high school was approved by the Académie Lafayette board this week.
Beginning next fall, the first class of ninth graders will start at the new IB high school which will have 450 students at full capacity. Académie Lafayette currently has 1,146 students enrolled in grades K-8 at three campuses.
The charter school’s earlier effort to partner with the Kansas City School District and open an IB high school in the former Southwest High School building on Wornall Road in Brookside collapsed in 2015.
Two years ago, aided by a $3.5 million fundraising campaign, the Académie bought the former Derrick Thomas Academy building on Armour Boulevard with plans for introducing its long-sought high school program there.
It currently has sixth- through eighth graders attending what it calls the Armour campus. The middle school students are using three levels in the five-level building. When the high school opens, all five levels will be occupied.
Like the middle school, the new Académie Lafayette high school will be part of the International Baccalaureate program.
IB schools use a curriculum shared with schools throughout the world that focuses on multicultural, critical thinking with a global context.
IB also emphasizes foreign languages, which fits with the Académie’s immersion program. Beginning as kindergartners, students are taught in French. Students are not admitted into the K-8 program after kindergarten unless they’re already fluent.
The new IB high school however, plans to admit students from outside the Académie Lafayette K-8 program. Besides French, it will offer classes in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.
“The high school will not be an immersion program, but it will have a strong language component,” Mbengue said.
The head of the school expects the new IB high school will help keep families in Kansas City. An estimated 24 percent of families leave the city for the suburbs after eighth grade because they’re unable to find a suitable high school, he said.
Académie Lafayette has been criticized for being a majority white school, and as part of its growth program, Mbengue said its lower grades are expanding to help recruit more low-income and minority students.
The kindergarten program was expanded two years ago from 120 students to 198. That effort to diversify the school has yielded success so far. About 50 percent of the current first grade and kindergarten students are minority, Mbengue said.
The next phase of growth calls for a capital fundraising effort to build a new gymnasium and auditorium for the Armour campus. The addition would be built behind the school on land currently used for a playground and parking.
“We want to have a good, rich sports program,” Mbengue said.
The Armour campus already has an athletic field that had been used by the former Derrick Thomas charter school. In a nod to its predecessor, Académie Lafayette named the field Derrick Thomas Memorial Field after the late Kansas City Chiefs football star.
The revival of the building at 201 E. Armour is part of a resurgence along the Armour corridor over the past decade that’s seen more than 1,700 apartments developed by Mac Properties and dozens of buildings reused.
“This building was empty for five years so having life on this block is good,” said Chris Neher, director of development for the charter school.
As for its impact on the reviving Armour corridor, Mbengue said residents enjoy the vibrancy of the school.
“A tenant told me she realized kids are coming back into the neighborhood because of our school,” he said. “More and more people are moving back into the city.”
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