School Choice & Charters

Basking in Personal Attention

By Robert C. Johnston — December 05, 2001 3 min read
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—Robert C. Johnston

Kiva Jefferson had her first parent-teacher conference before school started this year. That’s because teachers at Lee A. Tolbert Academy Charter School, where her three daughters are enrolled here, visit their students’ homes even before the opening bell.

“I thought it was really neat that they wanted to meet the kids before school started,” says Jefferson, who owns a hair salon. “That’s never happened to me before at other public schools.”

Explains Vivian Roper, a 30-year public school educator now in her third year as the principal of Tolbert Academy: “I’m trying to build a family before the school year starts.”

Apparently, Jefferson and her partner, Eugene Pettiford, are not the only satisfied parents in Kansas City’s charter schools. In the three years since charter schools were allowed here, 5,800 students—most of them African- American—have enrolled in the independent public schools.

Students in charter schools represent nearly 20 percent of the 34,000-student district’s total enrollment, in fact.

Jefferson and Pettiford have no trouble ticking off the ways the school has convinced them that they made the right decision in not sending their girls to schools run by the Kansas City district.

For starters, they say, teachers at Tolbert Academy push their daughters academically, and don’t hesitate to call home when they get into trouble. The hugs that the girls get each day as they leave school—as well as the fact that everyone at the school seems to know the family—are also comforting.

Just as important, the couple wants to be sure that their 6-year-old daughter, Rhea, who has albinism, is not teased. So far, she hasn’t encountered such problems.

Kiva Jefferson and Eugene Pettiford have found a warm and supportive environment for their daughters in a Kansas City, Mo., charter school.

“I can actually tell people I like the school my children go to right now,” Jefferson concludes.

Not everyone in this Missouri district is so eager to embrace charter schools. After all, each child enrolled in a charter school costs the city system about $5,700 in the per-pupil aid that follows the student.

The city’s nine board members are split over charter schools, which were established under state law, despite their popularity. The board refuses to let charter operators lease any of the many vacant Kansas City school buildings.

“District schools can offer instructional programs that charter schools cannot offer. We try to stress that,” says Cheri Median, the special assistant to Kansas City Superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr.

But the district’s problems run deep, and parents like Kiva Jefferson and Eugene Pettiford know it.

In 1999, the Kansas City schools lost their state accreditation, based in part on low districtwide test scores and attendance rates. Many city schools are in great physical shape, however, thanks to a $2 billion infusion of construction money as part of a decades-old desegregation lawsuit.

“The district is trying to keep students in their schools ... but it doesn’t make sense that our children have to go to school where there might not even have been accreditation,” Jefferson says. “I don’t understand that.”

Jefferson moved here from Kansas City, Kan., two years ago and enrolled Kara, 11, in a local public school. The experience was not all bad. The principal was strict, and her teacher was pleasant, Jefferson says. Kara seemed to make progress.

But the mother also noted that the teacher seemed frustrated, and spent a lot of time disciplining other children. Meanwhile, Kara, a studious girl who stays out of trouble, seemed to get overlooked. “The bottom line was I felt she could be pushed more,” Jefferson explains.

With a younger daughter moving into kindergarten and an older daughter moving in with her and Pettiford, Jefferson decided to take a chance on the upstart Tolbert Academy.

Jefferson, 30, who had one daughter and was pregnant with her second by the time she finished high school, says that she wants her daughters to take schooling more seriously than she did.

‘We're in a day and age when parents want choices.’

She admits she was nervous about sending her children to a school whose enrollment is almost entirely black, fearing that would mean low expectations and behavior problems.

But she was encouraged by Tolbert Academy’s small class sizes—just 15 students—and the fact that other parents were willing to take a chance on the school, which operates out of a former Hebrew school and synagogue.

Pettiford, also 30, who recently started his own business buying and renovating rundown dwellings, is fond of the academy’s focus on entrepreneurial skills.

The future for the charter school, which is finishing touches on a major renovation, looks bright. Roper, the principal, is not surprised by the school’s success, though she concedes that test scores could be better. “We’re in a day and age when parents want choices,” she notes.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as Basking in Personal Attention

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