Can Kansas City’s School District Save Itself? Yes, State Says

By Joe Robertson, The Kansas City Star, Mo. (MCT) — October 18, 2011 5 min read
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The state officials who recommended that the Kansas City, Mo., school district lose its accreditation decided they had no choice but to light that fire.

The district was meeting only three of 14 state standards, down from four the year before.

They knew the move to strip accreditation, effective Jan. 1, would inflame expectations that the district could eventually be taken over or splintered into neighboring districts and charter schools—actions that Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro neither anticipates nor desires.

It was simply time to force the question: Can this district, with its current leadership, reach the state’s standard?

Ms. Nicastro and her school improvement team think the answer is yes. At the state school board’s December meeting, the commissioner intends to discuss detailed plans for how Kansas City will reach its goal.

The better question is, 'Are we willing to do what is necessary to allow it to be done?'"

“They need to do a lot in a short period of time,” said Tony Stansberry, a regional director working with the 17,400-student district. “I do think they have the expertise to do it.”

The stakes in selling and executing the turnaround plan can hardly be any higher now, said Fred Hudgins, a parent who chairs the District Advisory Committee, made up of parents, community members, teachers, and students.

“Here’s the big picture,” he said. “If this district implodes, it’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the suburbs. ... This is an economic thing.”

The race is on to avoid an exodus of families who could get an opportunity for school transportation to neighboring districts, depending on events unfolding in the state capitol and the courts in early 2012.

“Parents are scared because they don’t know what ‘unaccredited’ means to their schools and their children,” Mr. Hudgins said.

But the notion of sending their children away from their neighborhoods every day by bus doesn’t seem like a good option either, he said. “Most want to stay,” he said.

The district currently meets state standards in student participation in advanced courses and career education courses, and in placing graduates from its school-to-career programs.

However, it is short of meeting any of the six standards for student performance on state tests and measures such as graduation rate and attendance.

Former Superintendent John Covington had a plan. With the help of a community process, he produced an ambitious transformation plan during the 2009-10 school year promising a wave of classroom improvements, including new teacher-written curriculum, a revolution in how students are grouped, and the expectation that students would have individual learning plans to serve their unique needs.

The district and its board addressed the severe systemic shortcomings raised by the state in 2008 before beginning the joint turnaround plan.

But the 2010-11 school year became overconsumed by drastic moves to correct severe imbalances in the district’s budget and operations. The district closed 40 percent of its schools in the summer of 2010, cut 1,000 jobs, eliminated thousands of vendor contracts, and cut a total of $50 million from its budget.

The move to consolidate middle school grades in the high schools proved to be a difficult transition.

Even before his sudden resignation on Aug. 24, Mr. Covington acknowledged that the district hadn’t kept the necessary focus on the many classroom reforms under way. He repackaged them in a plan he called Transformation Phase II that he unveiled less than a month before he left to lead a new Michigan district made up of that state’s worst-performing schools.

Interim Superintendent Steve Green has picked it up where Mr. Covington left off.

“The longer we go with it, the stronger it gets,” Mr. Green said. “It was a sustainable model that was built for this district.”

At Faxon Elementary School, teacher Geraldine Matthews showed an example of that transformation plan in a room of students, ages 6 to 9.

Lynna Pollard, 7, was helping Jaimien Roberson, 8, plug words into a program in their new netbooks. Every child at Faxon got one under the technology plan. The computers will play a role in carrying out the students’ individualized learning plans.

The sight of the two children teaming together plays into the plan, too. This is Kansas City’s “student-centered learning” revolution.

“See how they help each other learn?” Ms. Matthews said. “That’s what’s so exciting. They might hear about superintendents and school boards, but we’re not going to take them off their focus. We connect them to what we’re here for. We’re here to learn.”

Faxon Elementary, which has some ground to make up, is one of 10 schools pioneering the student-centered model, which groups students not by grade level, but by skill. After the first year, most students were working at skill levels below the projected levels for their age.

Principal Angela Underwood expects students to advance in their second year, though. Teachers and parents do, too, she said.

Parents came to the school with a lot of concerns after the news of lost accreditation, but Ms. Underwood said none asked about transfers.

“Nothing has changed in our mission and goals,” she said. “We know what needs to be done. We can’t worry about superintendents and accreditation.”

Bar Moving Higher

The road back to accreditation requires that the district meet at least six of the 14 standards by 2014 to earn provisional status and stave off the law that would trigger state intervention. It would need to meet nine to have a chance at full accreditation.

There is also a strong possibility that the targets will be moving. The state is working on a new version of its Missouri School Improvement Plan, with new standards that could take effect two years after approval. That means Kansas City, if it goes down to the wire in 2014, could have to meet even higher standards.

Mary Esselman, the district’s assistant superintendent for assessment and accountability, believes the district will be able to meet the mark on several standards. But because performance standards are based on a five-year average, some will be hard, if not impossible, to reach in the next two years.

The district is banking on improved execution of its student-centered instruction, now in its second year, and on the track record of Teach For America, which recruits top college graduates and trains them as teachers. Kansas City has more than 150 TFA recruits in its classrooms.

It’s counting on more parent involvement, more community support, and better communication, and looking for intensified ways to pursue goals that are already imbedded in the district’s transformation plan.

“Yes, it can be done,” said Jim Nunnelly, a community activist who works with the district. “The better question is, ‘Are we willing to do what is necessary to allow it to be done?’ ”

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Copyright © 2011 Kansas City Star, via McClatchy-Tribune.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Can Kansas City’s School District Save Itself? Yes, State Says


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