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Portrait of a Leader

Superintendent of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools builds diversity

Cynthia Lane and her team work to send graduates out into the world with more powerful diplomas
  • EQUITY ADVOCATE—Kansas City Superintendent Cynthia Lane has been a strong voice for public schools. She has testified regularly before Kansas’ legislature since the state’s Supreme Court declared education funding unfair to low-income students and minorities.
  • CONNECTING WITH KIDS—Learning the cello and performing with fifth-graders helps Superintendent Cynthia Lane better relate to students, she says. Lane, an avid hiker, also challenges them to beat her in an annual running race.
  • ABLE ALUMNI—Students must now do more than succeed in all their classes to graduate. A diploma is earned only when the student meets one of several additional requirements, such as earning college credit, participating in an internship or joining the military.

KANSAS CITY, Kansas—Superintendent Cynthia Lane learned the cello a few years ago, but not to fulfill some lifelong dream of soloing with the local symphony. The leader of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, who played clarinet in high school, now performs alongside fourth- and fifth-graders in their annual spring strings concert.

Fifth-graders also spend months training to beat Lane, an avid hiker, in the two-mile “Are You Faster Than a Fifth-Grader Race” held at the end of the year at one of the district’s high school tracks.

“These are small things you can do to make sure your kids can relate to you as a leader in the school system,” says Lane, Kansas’ 2016 superintendent of the year. “They understand we all work together to conquer challenges and move forward.”

Visit Missouri

The Kansas-Missouri state line splits the Kansas City metropolitan area, and the contrasts in skylines are stark. The Missouri side’s skyscrapers point to the city’s history as a financial center. It’s also home to the area’s airport and its professional football and baseball teams, the Chiefs and the Royals.

A major tourist destination in Missouri is the upscale, Spanish-themed Country Club Plaza pedestrian mall, whereas the Kansas-side boasts the Legends, a complex of outlet stores. Kansas City, Kansas, lacks a true downtown, and its roots lie in agriculture and the railroads.—Lao Tzu

The high-poverty district has had plenty of obstacles to overcome. Two years ago, 1,200 of the district’s students didn’t have stable housing.

Today, nearly 90 percent of its 22,000 students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, while more than 40 percent are learning English. And in March 2017, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled for a second time that the state had not adequately funded public education.

Lane’s repeated testimony before the Kansas legislature played a central role in the court’s finding that black, Hispanic and low-income students were being unfairly disadvantaged. Lane cites her own school experiences as a struggling reader and first-generation college attendee as a driving factor in her desire to improve the lives of her students.

“In some ways, the work is personal—I  preferred recess to any academic subject and didn’t really learn to read until seventh grade,” she says. “It was a painful experience until a teacher spent time with me, giving me strategies on how to push through.”

Lane’s team of educators focuses from the earliest grades on connecting instruction to college and employment opportunities after completing high school.

The district is reorganizing its high schools into a series of career-oriented academies, while its new “Diploma Plus” graduation requirements encourage students to begin earning college credits and to seek internships, among other credentials.

“When I graduated from high school, it was ‘Good luck to you, hope you figure out what you want to do with your life,’” recalls Lane, who has been superintendent for seven of her 28 years in the district. “In today’s economy, kids don’t have that luxury of wandering around to figure it out—they don’t have the resources to do that.”

Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Schools: 46 K12, 13 preschool programs

Students: 22,058, of which 9,600 are ELLs

Staff: 3,700

Per-child expenditure: $13,818

Students on free lunch: 82%

Graduation rate: 68%

Annual budget: $308 million —Lao Tzu

Diploma power

Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools has gone through two major reform efforts in the last 20 years. In the mid-1990s, leaders confronted the district’s struggles—particularly a low graduation rate—and emphasized strengthening relationships between educators and families.

Leaders also began developing learning communities that have now evolved into the high school academies. Lane is leading the district through its second major shift: entrenching its “Diploma Plus” program and aligning K12 instruction to the specialized high school programs.

Diploma Plus raises the district’s graduation standards and is designed to enhance the value of each graduate’s diploma.

Students must pass their courses and meet one of the following requirements: earn a year’s worth of college credits or an industry-recognized certificate; score a 21 on the ACT or 1060 on the SAT; participate in an internship; make a postsecondary transition plan that’s approved by the district; complete an International Baccalaureate program; or enlist in the military.

Students can begin earning college credits at their home schools as sophomores. Juniors and seniors can take courses at Kansas City Community College, free of charge.

“Many of our students are first-time college-goers, and some are first-time high school completers,” Lane says. “We have invested in that first year of college because we want them to have the confidence that they can do that work.”

At the same time, the district is launching career academies at its five high schools. These pathways, designed with the input of local business leaders, include:

  • public and human services
  • health sciences
  • business and finance
  • architecture, engineering and instruction
  • information technology
  • advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics
  • IB program

Much like in college, students will take general education courses in the early high school grades and then take more academy-specific and advanced classes as juniors and seniors. And Kansas City boasts a distinctive blend of diversity: There is no majority race. Black, Hispanic and white students all account for about 25 percent of the population.

Ensuring this mix of students has the soft skills required by the modern workplace has raised the district’s reputation.

“The employers are really excited because they see us as their diversity pipeline,” Lane says. “CEOs have said to me and my team that they need diversity in the workforce, and particularly diversity in language and in race.”

Superintendent Lane’s Favorite Things

Teacher: Many at each stage of my life

Pastime/Hobby: Anything outdoors

Sports: Baseball / Softball

Travel destination: Charleston, South Carolina

Food: Vegetarian anything

Dessert: Cheesecake

Books: Topics include leadership, aspirational, historical fiction

Music: Yes! All genres  

Twitter: @kckpslane

Heroes / Sheroes: Teachers who spend their life inspiring greatness in all of us

Quote: “When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” —Lao Tzu

‘Invest in other people’s children’

Lane grew up in a family of small business owners in Parsons, a town in the rural southeastern corner of Kansas. As a child, she volunteered at a state hospital for adults with mental illness and developmental disabilities, and that inspired her to study clinical psychology at Pittsburg State University in Kansas.

Her career path swerved when, in biology, she found herself unable to experiment on a live frog. Lane, a longtime vegetarian, sought guidance from a college advisor, who steered her toward elementary education.

After getting her degree, she spent 25 years in special education, first as a teacher and later as director of a three-district cooperative in the Kansas City area. Lane later became chief financial officer of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, taking the post during a relative boom period after the state had settled several school finance lawsuits filed in the early 1990s.

But those resources dried up during the 2008 recession, causing the district to cut 400 positions and slash its budget by $55 million in the ensuing years as facilities and healthcare costs rose.

“From that time forward, it has been playing defense while trying to be offense,” says Lane.

This decline has driven Lane, who became superintendent in 2010, to testify before the state legislature to advocate for public education. She has, among other issues, spoken against vouchers for private schools.

“Most of my message has been around reminding people why it’s so important to invest in other people’s children,” Lane says. “I understand wanting to be fiscally conserve—I grew up in a fiscally conservative family—but not at the expense of important outcomes.”

In her testimony, she has also tried to personalize the need for resources. She has told the stories of poor students who have made remarkable achievements. She also makes the economic case: that investing in education provides a more qualified workforce for the state.

She has been dismayed at some of the responses she’s gotten from state officials, including one who, in 2014, encouraged her to admit that some kids had to be left behind because they would never be successful, she says.

“There may be a lack of exposure to extreme poverty among legislative leaders,” she says. “I try to help them understand the impact poverty has on our kids without painting the picture that it limits our students’ capacity.” Lane says finances are one issue that keeps her up at night.

But there’s also some good news on the funding front: The district in fall 2016 passed—with nearly 80 percent approval—a $235 million bond for renovations at all 48 school buildings over the next four years. 


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.