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Kansas City Plots Next Steps

Missouri grants district two-and-a-half years to turn around academic performance—or else.

Kansas City (Mo.) Public Schools is at a crossroads. The district has struggled for decades with poor academic achievement, dwindling enrollment and budget, and short-term superintendents—27 in the past 40 years. Most recently, after a two-year stint during which he helped the district get its financial house in order, closing nearly half of its schools and slashing staffing levels, Superintendent John Covington abruptly quit last August.

AP CovingtonTotal employees in the 28-school district are down from 4,810 in 2008-2009 to 3,544 in 2010-2011, and the number of schools has been slashed from 60 in 2009-2010 to 29 in 2010-2011. This has righted the financial ship, and there have been balanced budgets the last two school years after a $50 million deficit when Covington took over, and the total budget is now $221 million, down 15 percent from the $263 million from 2010-2011.

But there remains plenty of unfinished business on the academic side of the ledger, such as graduation rates that have barely topped 50 percent and a composite ACT score of 16.5, compared to 36 as the highest possible score, according to state figures. After Covington moved on to become head of Michigan’s new Education Achievement System, a statewide school district of academically troubled schools, his interim successor, Stephen Green, faced plenty of challenges: the loss of three top deputies who joined Covington in Michigan, a board that some blamed for driving away Covington with its micromanagement—although evidence later surfaced that he had planned to leave anyway—and academic woes that are expected to prompt the state of Missouri to remove the district’s accreditation starting Jan. 1.

The stripped accreditation provides families the ability, at least in theory, to transfer students to neighboring districts, although the details of how they would be transported and how many of them those districts would be required to accept are still to be worked out. Green does not expect a large exodus of students after Jan. 1. “We will see some,” he says. “People have inquired with various districts to understand what the potential is.”

Green says the loss of accreditation hasn’t changed the district’s overall strategies, but it has brought focus and priority to academic achievement. They have reprioritized with academics, and have not taken a different direction, he says.

30 Months to Improve

The move by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) gives the district two and a half years—until July 1, 2014—to meet the academic standards laid down or be officially dissolved as an entity, with the state taking over Kansas City’s school system. Beyond that, a state board meeting in early December yielded little that was new in terms of details except that five possibilities are being considered: maintaining the status quo, shifting to mayoral control, immediately dissolving the district, establishing an advisory board to work with the existing school board, or creating a special administrative board with governance powers to replace the school board. Missouri’s education commissioner, Chris Nicastro, expressed regret that no further decisions had been made as of early December.

Kansas City board prezShe stated in published reports that it was “sad and frustrating” and that disparate groups in the community needed to come together. The state, in turn, is presenting an accountability plan to the federal government as to how it intends to work with unaccredited districts to improve academic performance.

Mayor Sylvester “Sly” James proposed in early December to take over the schools by appointing a CEO to run the district who would then appoint other top deputies—but Nicastro quickly thereafter told the state board that she needed more time to think through the options and for the community to continue to work out differences.

DESE spokeswoman Michele Clark says Nicastro has been meeting with civic, education, business and faith-based groups, as well as local legislators and the district’s board and staff. Clark says that the status quo, mayoral control and a special administrative board seem likely possibilities to the commissioner, although the latter two would require a change in state law. Questions have arisen about whether an advisory board would have enough impact, and immediately dissolving the district is not even considered worthy of discussing or even thinking about, she reports.

The mayor laid out seven proposals in a Dec. 1 letter to Nicastro, but he focused on mayoral takeover. “Let me be clear: I have no personal agenda to satisfy here,” James wrote. “I did not ask for this responsibility, but I will not shy away from it if this group, a cross section of our entire community, believes it is in the best interest of our children. My objective is to raise student achievement in the KCMSD.”

Turnaround Plan

Airick Leonard West, Kansas City school board president, is optimistic about gaining consensus around a turnaround plan. “We’re not facing any unique challenges,” West says, just typical urban-district challenges like the effects of poverty and the needs of English-language learners; Kansas City’s students are 63 percent African-American, 25 percent Hispanic, and 80 percent low-income. “What we’re talking about, frankly, on most days has just as much to do with what’s happening out in the community as what’s happening in our buildings.”

mayor jamesMissouri DESE has 14 standards for judging districts’ fitness for accreditation, of which they must meet six, says Margie Vandeven, assistant commissioner. Kansas City meets only three of those standards: advanced-course enrollment, career and technical education course enrollment, and CTE post-high-school placement.

Green, who describes his relationship with the school board as “wholesome and healthy to date,” says the district’s strategic plan is focused on the 14 standards, and his administration has divided the 11 not being met into categories based on their likelihood of being achieved within the two-and-a-half-year time frame.

For example, achieving an average graduation rate of 95 percent over five years would be challenging given that in 2014, that average will include the past two school years when it’s hovered near 50 percent. “We know exactly where we stand,” Green says. “That’s a targeted area that’s a stretch for us.”

The district barely missed yearly targets for college placement, achievement on the Missouri Assessment Program state test, and communication arts achievement for grades 9-11. But other standards, such as mathematics performance for grades 3-5 and 9-11, seem doable, Green says. “We’re placing our energy and focus on the ones within reach for us,” he says, adding that the concept of low-hanging fruit “is exactly the terminology we use.”

Optimism Varies

The mayor’s office is less optimistic about the district’s ability to meet those standards. “The conversation in Kansas City, and the general agreement is that people don’t want to wait two years,” says Danny Rotert, a spokesman for the mayor. “Ultimately, it will be hard to show enough progress to not have state intervention.”

Green at Town HallRotert says that the mayor also wants to avoid the less-than-successful outcome in the St. Louis Public Schools, which was taken over eight years ago by a five-member state advisory board. “We haven’t seen much improvement in academic scores,” Rotert says. Despite his pessimism about its chances to meet standards, Rotert gave kudos to Green’s transformation plan, stating it was a “real positive step.”

But Vandeven is optimistic about the state and local boards as well as community voices rallying behind a comprehensive transformation plan. “This needs to be addressed immediately,” she says. “We don’t have two years to sit around and wait. Everybody needs to work together. All options are on the table.”

Improving the district’s results on the 14 standards within two-and-a-half years will require community-based intervention in addition to those in the classroom, West says. “If we don’t have both, we’re really all just sitting around putting up window dressing,” he says. “You can change governance however many times you want, but on a two-and-a-half-year timeline, there’s no evidence that a governance change brings about measurable student achievement improvement.”

Andrea Flinders, president of the local American Federation of Teachers, says that decades of challenges will not be entirely turned around within a couple of years, especially given high poverty rates. “What we have now is all sorts of distractions,” she says.

“Community groups would like to see a state-appointed board,” she adds. “The charter school people would like to see this become a charter school district. Legislators are thinking, ‘Maybe if we divided this [district] up … ’”

It proved difficult to convince civic and municipal partners to focus on achievement until the loss of accreditation loomed, West says. “Hats off to the state education commission for creating such a state of impending doom that people chose to stand up for kids in this community,” he says. “We can’t do this alone.”

Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, is not hopeful about the district’s regaining accreditation. “Neither the superintendent nor the board has articulated a strategy that would provide me or any other spectators with any degree of confidence that they can guide this district to reaccreditation within two years,” she says.

“What I wanted to hear is ‘This is how we’re going to address pedagogy, these are the changes that we’re going to make, these are the curricula we will employ,’” Grant says, adding to her list, “‘This is how we plan to get there, this is when we plan to get there, this is the support we need from DESE to get there, this is the support we need from the community.’ Nothing sensible has come out of these people’s mouths—just ‘We don’t want to be governed by a state board.’ You’re not articulating any strategy that says, ‘We know this is urgent.’”

Green Stands Firm

Green would beg to differ with that assessment. He is confident in his team, which includes a new chief financial officer and will soon include a replacement for the other two deputies; he’s thinking seriously about consolidating the academic and curriculum-oriented positions that are open.

“We are operating at warp speed on this end” toward meeting academic goals, Green says, even as the district on another track remains in “a wait-and-see posture” on the state’s plans and the mayor’s proposals. “It’s not a good use of my time and energy to spin through the scenarios,” he says. “I don’t advocate one [idea] over the other. I don’t know if there’s the best fit or right fit.”