Kansas City schools’ plight reflects larger issues urban districts face

Missouri considering takeover or privatization of public schools struggling with poverty, leadership instability

A sign of Kansas City Public Schools' problems was the closure of Westport High School and several other schools in 2010.
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jamekia Kendrix is frustrated with the “status quo of experimentation” in the troubled Kansas City Public Schools.

“How did my kids become lab rats in an experiment?” she said, referring to efforts, past and present, to fix the school district which lost state accreditation two years ago, and serves as the latest example of the challenges facing public school districts in urban areas across the United States. Issues of poverty and general instability in such areas, experts say, are often magnified in the educational systems.

“These out-of-school factors have such a powerful impact on what kids are able to learn, how they behave in schools, their stability,” said Lynn Beck, dean of the Gladys L. Bernard School of Education at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., a city whose largest school district has faced similar issues. “The children who attend city schools, often — not always — tend to be children whose lives have really been heavily impacted by family issues, parental loss of job, incarcerated family members. That’s part of the story.”

The other part of the story, Beck said, is reflected in Kansas City, where Superintendent R. Stephen Green is the 27th person to lead the district in the last 40 years.

“The other more challenging issue is the stability of leadership and stability of the work force,” Beck said. “That’s something a strong school board can do things about. This is the kind of perfect storm of challenging situations in places like Kansas City or Stockton that tends to lead to really difficult outcomes. It’s something that kind of takes an enormous public will to turn around.”

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) officials, led by Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, are hammering out a plan they’ll present Tuesday to the Missouri State Board of Education in hopes of addressing the district’s issues and reclaiming its accreditation.

Time is critical: The Kansas City district is fighting a 1993 school transfer law, upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court in December, that forces an unaccredited school district to pick up the tab for transportation and tuition for students to attend accredited schools in other districts. Normandy School District in northern St. Louis County on the other side of the state faces bankruptcy by spring because of the costs associated with sending students to other schools.

The boldest of the six proposed plans under consideration by DESE would dismantle the district and create independent schools run by nonprofit groups.

But the process has been clouded by politics and accusations of secret deals, prompting calls by eight state legislators for Nicastro’s resignation. Meanwhile, the Missouri legislature is looking at bills to deal with the transfer law.

Detractors say a takeover will lead to the privatization of schools. In a scathing Kansas City Star editorial, Rutgers University education professor Bruce Baker blasted the plan from CEE-Trust that would dissolve the KCPS district.

In December, KCPS filed a lawsuit against the education commissioner and state board for refusing to grant provisional accreditation after the district showed improvement last year. Because the standards for accreditation had changed, Nicastro demanded at least one more year before removing what Superintendent Green calls its “scarlet letter.”

“We’ve been on an upward trajectory since January 2012 no matter what model you look at,” Green said. “We’ve shown two years of improvement against a moving goalpost.”

He attributes the progress, in part, to giving more creativity and autonomy to principals and the use of extra school sessions over breaks and on Saturdays.

‘Academically stressed’

Around 1,000 of the less than 17,000 students in KCPS are homeless, Green said. Slightly more than 89 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch and 25 percent have limited proficiency in English. Despite past efforts to desegregate the Kansas City schools, 59.5 percent of students are African-American, 26.6 percent are Hispanic, 9.5 percent are white and 3.8 percent Asian. The district’s boundary includes the inner city but extends into middle-class and affluent neighborhoods.

Of the 31 schools run by the district, not all are failing. U.S. News and World report ranked Lincoln College Preparatory Academy the 11th-best high school in the state for 2013.

Thirteen of the district’s schools qualify for accreditation and six for provisional accreditation, while a dozen need help, according to Green.

“A lot of schools are working,” said Pattie Mansur, a parent who’s running for one of the at-large positions on the school board.

More than 500 parents, teachers and school and city officials crowded into a high school auditorium in an emotional late-January hearing held by DESE to explain the proposed plans. Although only a handful of people were given the opportunity to speak, the crowd seemed to favor keeping the district intact.

That is what three of the plans would do. In addition, those three proposals call for rating individual schools, rather than the district as a whole. Some would eliminate the “unaccredited” status, substituting “academically stressed” for schools that fail to improve from provisional accreditation status.

Students in academically stressed schools could transfer to accredited schools elsewhere in the same district, while a statewide district or nearby district would take over failing schools.

No ‘silver bullet’

“Great schools can overcome poverty,” said Ethan Gray, founder and CEO of CEE-Trust, or The Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and additional support from the Walton Family Foundation.

He was asked to come up with an innovative plan by the state, but the process that led to the awarding of a $385,000 contract, funded by the Kauffman and Hall Family Foundations, has been tainted with suspicion after the revelation of a series of emails between Gray and Nicastro.

UOP's Beck said issues of funding, politics and control can make difficult situations harder for struggling school districts such as Kansas City's trying to get back on track.

“The focus — first, foremost and always — needs to be the children’s learning and well being,” she said. “Almost, frankly, any curriculum will do. It’s not like there’s a silver bullet in the way you teach, it’s more about the entire community coming together in a disciplined way.”

Under the CEE-Trust plan, the district — including the superintendent and the elected school board — would eventually be dissolved, replaced by a Community School Office under state control that would recruit nonprofit groups to run the schools.

These nonprofits could be groups of teachers and parents, nearby districts or charter schools willing to give up charter status, Gray said. They would be independent, with the ability to control curriculum and to hire and fire. Teachers and staff would negotiate and contract with individual schools rather than a district.

While Gray said the savings from getting rid of district administrative costs could fund much-needed early childhood education, teachers union president Andrea Flinders said she is concerned about job losses among teachers and staff. Opponents of privatization cite concerns that younger, inexperienced teachers will be hired because they’re cheaper.

“It’s unlikely we’ll adopt any plan carte blanche,” said Margie Vandeven, DESE’s deputy commissioner for learning services. “We’ll look at all the concepts and all aspects and take the best.”

Beck, whose research has focused on emerging reform efforts in education, said the motivation behind any successful strategy has to be affirmative, rather than a simple effort to get rid of what’s in place with a singular focus on being “anti — whether it’s anti-public education or anti-union.” Beck said she has seen successful alternative plans in other parts of the country, but reiterated her warning about quick fixes.

“If it’s done to trade one kind of bureaucracy, or one politically disruptive system, for another,” Beck said, “it might ultimately cycle back to the same place.”

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