KEARNEY – Last Monday, Kearney schools Superintendent Chris Belcher anxiously awaited the return of Amy Jo Barner's fifth-graders from lunch. He was there to teach part of a class, something he routinely does to maintain connections with students and staff.
The lesson on percentages was to be taught with Skittles candies, which pretty much guaranteed the students would pay attention, but Belcher still hoped Barner wouldn't have to re-teach the concept the next day.
He need not have worried. The fifth-graders seemed engaged, and as Belcher left the room, he nodded to Barner, promising to return later in the week.
Belcher, who will take over in July as the next superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, has led the Kearney R-1 School District since 2005. Town leaders acknowledge his importance to Kearney's public schools and the importance of the district to the town's strong sense of community.
Last week, Kearney Mayor Bill Dane led a tour of the town with relish despite a left foot made painful by arthritis and a cumbersome medical shoe. Dane, a voluble retired businessman from Indiana who has been the mayor since 2000, said that as the population grows, people like Belcher have worked at "keeping it small." The community northeast of Kansas City anticipates a population of 8,500 in 2010, Dane said, up from about 5,000 in the 2000 Census.
Soon after Belcher took over, he oversaw the district's transition from "pocket schools" to a system in which students attended their neighborhood schools. Under the pocket school model, elementary buildings contained two grades each and grade-schoolers went to different schools every two years, often separated from siblings and neighbors.
Parents and students became more invested in their schools because they spent more time at one school, Dane said, and people stopped saying their involvement did not matter because their "kid will only be here for two years."
Belcher has instituted programs that have cultivated a sense of community among teachers as well. For example, this past Monday, twin baby boys played on a blanket in the middle of what was once a junior high classroom. A district employee rushed to one little guy's aid when his brother clawed absentmindedly at his face.
Belcher created the child-care center so a wing of Kearney Junior High School would not sit vacant. It began as day care for the toddlers of district employees, but "it was so popular with toddlers, I was asked by teachers to include infants,” Belcher said.
Thus far, the program has largely paid for itself, and day care employees say teachers at the junior high frequently spend their lunch breaks with the children. Belcher said this service was a perk he could provide his teachers to keep personnel in his district even as surrounding districts offer higher salaries.
Teachers also enjoy the control they have over their classrooms.
At Kearney Elementary School, Belcher gestured toward a classroom window, through which students in Amy Beaver's class could be seen seated on blue exercise balls at their desks. Beaver said she got rid of traditional chairs because with the balls, her students have to sit up straight in order to balance. Because they are focused on that, "it gets that fidgety part out of them," Beaver said.
Belcher pointed out Beaver's classroom during a walking tour of the elementary school, which he attended in the late 1960s.
"You create a culture where teachers feel they can create and innovate ideas in the classroom," he said.
One of his regrets at leaving the Kearney district is that he won't oversee the elementary school's renovation, which is being paid for as part of a $7.25 million bond issue voters recently approved.
Belcher considers students' standardized test scores when determining the success of the district. Students' scores at all grade levels in the area of communication arts improved following Belcher's push for a writing assessment, said Peggy Jacoby, assistant superintendent for curriculum.
When Kearney High School was honored for its academic achievement in October, Belcher held an assembly to present the award to the student body. He told the students he wished he had something to give them for their hard work but did not know what that would be. Finally, Belcher told them, he decided on an appropriate reward: The following week, the cafeteria would serve chicken patties and hot wheat rolls every day for lunch. Cheers and applause broke out — which Belcher attributed to the fresh rolls, a student favorite.
In Kearney, a community of about 8,200 people on the prairie off Interstate 35, the story of Chris Belcher as a school district administrator dovetails with the story of Belcher as a hometown boy. People know him; they know that he married his Kearney High School sweetheart, Jackie, and that they have a daughter, 18-year-old Alexandria, who plans to go to MU next year. They know him from the Kearney United Methodist Church and the Rotary Club. They know he loves blues music and reads voraciously.
"You go into the bank, and people know you," Belcher said.
Kearney is home base for several businesses, including the Midwest Game Supply, which Dane said makes 90 percent of the dice used in casinos nationwide, and Porters Building Centers. Belcher's father, Bill, was an assembly line worker at the Ford Motor Co. plant in nearby Claycomo. Belcher drives a Mercury Mariner, a model probably produced at the local plant.
His mother, Christine, worked as a bookkeeper for Ferrellgas, also based in Kearney, when it was only a regional propane supplier and distributor. His childhood home abutted the Mount Olivet Cemetery, where the infamous train robber Jesse James is buried.
Residents debate whether to celebrate the outlaw who made his home a few miles northeast of Kearney's downtown. Still, a festival is held every fall in his honor.
Belcher, 48, said when he decided to move back to Kearney after working for years in schools in Warrensburg, Blue Springs and Liberty, he read up on the area's history, including stories about James. He appreciated the books more because he recognized most of the places mentioned.
Mayor Dane said James is simply a part of the town's history.
“James was accused but never convicted," Dane added. "Now that doesn't make him innocent, but that's a kind of an achievement."
Whatever residents think of James, even a windy, 40-degree afternoon brought bundled walkers to a park named after him on the town's north side. A recent addition to Kearney's infrastructure, Jesse James Park was an unused grassland in 1992. Since then, walkways, a three-acre pond and an amphitheater have been added — as well as what Dane declared the largest and tallest playground structure "between St. Louis and Denver and Dallas and the Canadian border."
Evergreens line the paved walkways around the park. Dane said each year, families decorate the trees for Christmas; the city illuminates them at a lighting ceremony at the end of November. He also said 300 crabapple trees attract people during the spring with their fragrant and abundant bursts of color. The trees have been planted in the park and throughout the city in honor of loved ones. Dane said he hopes that in time, the flowering trees will bring tourists to Kearney, similar, he said, to the tulip festival in Pella, Iowa.
Most tourists to Kearney visit the James Farm to see the house and original burial site of Jesse James. A simple structure, its utility as a refuge for the outlaw is apparent. The house's few windows are large and unobstructed; it sits atop a rare rise in the terrain amid trees that, one must imagine in February, provided cover for its inhabitants from curious travelers on a nearby country road.
The home contrasts modern Kearney, where newly built estates sit on neat avenues surrounded by fields left fallow by housing developers stalled by the poor economy. Walking trails and bike paths connect the disparate clusters of houses that surround the center of town. Dane said a city ordnance requires that each new development provide easement to the eight miles of trails already existing within the city limits.
Belcher said he frequently bikes on the trail near his home and swims at the pool less than half a block away. He said a pool was something his daughter hoped their new house would have when he and Jackie told her about their plans to move to Kearney in 2005, before her first year of high school. The family also includes the cat, Cali, a stray Belcher brought home from the office about seven years ago when he was working in Warrensburg. The family dog, Billy, was hit by a car and killed before Christmas.
Dane said the mandatory connections to the trails were intended as a way to keep people "talking and walking," and keeping Kearney connected. Belcher has tried to institute this same philosophy — that of staying connected and building a community — in the school district. He continually cites the need for administrators to communicate with the rest of the staff and the students they serve.
"Change has to be centered around a foundation of solid relationships," said Belcher, who at the start of his career taught high school biology and chemistry in Blue Springs and Holden. "In order to move organizations forward, you have to establish relationships so there's trust, comfort and support for those changes."