District strives to shift focus to the students
The Kansas City Star
Like many who compete for good grades, Micah Chaney imagined this moment in her life to be different.
She envisioned a “rise to the top,” where the finest colleges waited to be wowed.
Now with her education in the Kansas City School District nearly complete, can she still see it?
“No,” Micah, 16, told the school board last month.
The auditorium fell silent.
“I just don’t think I’m that prepared.”
Her junior year begins Aug. 30. Micah is making high marks but wants a better grasp of math. Since kindergarten, time and again, her parents said success in school meant everything.
So she and three other youths sat down with the nine-member school board. This board — its eye on transformation— decided early in the summer to work into the agenda long chats with students.
Had the district focused on them all these years, maybe Micah and her friends wouldn’t be so worried. Maybe the fading banner behind them —“Is it good for the children?”— would not look out of place. It’s been hanging there most of these kids’ lives.
For far too long, through tens of thousands of school careers and countless contracts, the district wasn’t about the children.
“It was more about adults,” laments former superintendent Bernard Taylor, who stepped down in 2005. Money. Power. Jobs.
“In the course of the board meetings and various committee sessions, the topic of kids, of academic achievement or what’s happening in the classroom, rarely came up,” said former board member Bill Eddy.
What kept those past leaders from changing the focus?
Oh, adult things. All of that sparring over jobs and contracts, organized labor, politics and race — old habits going back to when grandparents of today’s pupils were the ones in class.
“Personality conflicts, personal agendas,” said ex-board member Claude Harris. “If school boards just focus on … educating the children, things can get done.”
That starts now, with a transition jarring in its impact — 40 percent of the schools out of service, 1,000 district employees out of work, seventh-graders routed to high schools — and draconian in scope, only because the district of old could not bring itself to shed its skin gradually.
However obvious the well-being of students sounds, apparently it got lost in the turmoil, shouting and shuffling of 26 superintendents in 40 years.
In that span the Kansas City district went from financial famine to feast — with a $2 billion desegregation effort that fizzled in the 1990s. Now it’s back to famine.
In fatter fiscal times, the budget pie was portioned, by and large, to feed grown-ups or fulfill judges’ orders. Some slices were carved to fight social ills related to gangs, drugs and homelessness. Or to take advantage of federal grants awarded to groups promoting, say, sexual abstinence.
Student achievement? In many classrooms, success was just the cherry on top, if success occurred at all.
That so many of the neediest kids were seen as commodities was an open secret. Their economic needs and learning issues meant more public dollars and grants for the city schools.
Yet the district’s overall scores in math and communications seldom reached half the levels targeted in recent years by the state of Missouri.
Surely, none of the grown-ups who benefited from the district ever intended it to decline to the point of system failure.
And granted, in this pivotal year to come, success for the children could be as elusive as ever — despite ambitious curriculum changes rolling out and resources funneled toward instruction.
But at least now everyone seems to be on the same page:
It is about the children.
“We’re not an employment agency. We are a school district.” — Kansas City Superintendent John Covington, in his first week on the job
He arrived a year ago last month as the money dried up.
A no-nonsense former prison guard straight out of the Pueblo, Colo., school district, Covington sought and was delivered an unprecedented mandate by a school board that, in a previous time, crumpled up and tossed superintendents away like failed test papers.
Covington’s plan: Shut down schools and use the savings to survive. Cut hundreds of employees, teachers, principals — a third of the district staff.
Consolidate the most talented staffers and the 17,000 students still in the district (down from 77,000 kids in the 1960s) in the remaining 34 schools.
Crack down on vested interests long accustomed to scooping into budgets totaling $250 million to $300 million.
And while you’re at it, overhaul the entire curriculum to create a model of urban education that will not only save Kansas City’s risk-laden kids — inspiring them to attain academic heights most had never known — but that also could act as a blueprint for urban schooling across America.
Nowhere else has an urban district shuttered such a large swath of its schools, and floated so many promises, at once.
Nowhere else has a district so large embraced “standards-based education,” which groups students by achievement, not grade levels.
Many parents are worried: too much, too quickly.
“All of it thrown into uproar this year? I’m not so confident,” said Vicki Noteis, a former Kansas City director of city planning and development, who has a daughter at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.
To be sure, all summer Covington and his team have been short on details as to how they’ll get Johnny to read.
The district faces an awesome enough challenge just making sure that when Johnny gets to school, the scrambled lot of teachers and principals will be there to guide him.
Rebecca Lee-Gwin, the district’s chief financial officer, outlined next week’s challenge with confidence:
“If we’re going to make believers out of the folks — they’ve got to see it happen. If that bus doesn’t pick up their child on the first day, that’s not good.
“If the meals aren’t served hot, that’s a problem. If the teachers aren’t in their classrooms, if the books aren’t there, if anything happens out of the ordinary, that’s a problem….
“Some places,” she added, “you can get away with things. We can’t here.”
Here, over the years, lots of grown-ups did fine:
- “Contractors” did not always possess contracts. Many who did enjoyed automatic extensions without bids being let.
- The bigger the budget, the sloppier the spending — benefiting even more adults. “Various budget holders throughout the District are hiring employees who are not budgeted,” an audit found in 1999, as a flood of desegregation money reached its crest, “or they are placing personnel where a budgeted position has already been filled.”
- Nationwide, public schools in 2009 employed an average of one administrator for every 222 students. In top-heavy Kansas City that year, there was one for every 118.
- Superintendents over the last couple of decades came to stay an average of 16 months before walking off with six-figure severance packages.
The next chief might launch a pricey remedial reading program, as Anthony Amato did in the summer of 2006, requiring teachers to eschew once-lauded methods and learn in short order how to implement the new.
The kids were left confused — at least until they reached their teens.
Then they, like Micah, developed an eye for dysfunction.
In 2007, LaToya Green graduated out of “the good school,” Lincoln Prep, where three-quarters of her classmates scored “proficient” or higher in communication arts. (Same for math.)
Not two miles from Lincoln, same year, Ryan Wash attended Central High School. Less than 8 percent of its student body rated proficient or higher in communication. (And in math.)
Raised in lower-income neighborhoods, Green and Wash now serve on the debate squad at Emporia State University. One of their topics: Kansas City schooling and how nobody cared to change it.
Green: “You don’t have that many blocks separating these high schools. But they’re two completely different worlds. We at Lincoln knew it, and those at Central knew.
“Different ways of teaching, different expectations. … I definitely did not think that was a fair system.
“If you’re part of a helpless situation with low expectations, you (pupils and teachers) absorb all that and have ways of spreading it around.”
It is something the Covington team promises to correct beginning this academic year — the stark contrast in opportunities and perceptions between Lincoln, which students must test into, and the others.
The design is for “a more consistent fabric across the district,” district chief of staff Jeffery McDaniels said. “A more equitable distribution of our talent.”
As a Central teen, Wash could not have helped but recognize the score. Hardly any homework there, unlike what his Lincoln friends faced.
At Central, he said, there was rote memorization of facts for standardized testing. There was grade promotion of classmates who never grasped the course material.
Wash said he saved his education by joining Central’s debate team, which traveled to private prep schools across the Midwest.
“You’d check out other schools and wonder why our science labs had nothing. Our books would be all torn up. We might have two microscopes, but they were older than the teacher. … You begin to wonder: Are we the students celebrated here or just tolerated?
“Our rooms would have bare walls — no diagrams or charts, no words of motivation or anything giving the impression that people just care. … And a lot of teachers did care. They’d say, ‘We’re not moving on until I know you understand this.’”
Many of his classmates actually looked up to those teachers, Wash said, and applied some effort.
Nine of 10 district graduates entering the Metropolitan Community College system would arrive unprepared for math, MCC found in 2007.
Nearly half still needed help reading.
Once in college, some exhausted their financial aid on remedial courses with no credits.
The district had money. It just wasn’t the answer.
Even amid the financial crunch of 2009, with help from federal stimulus dollars, the district spent more per pupil ($14,250) and notched smaller class sizes (14 children per classroom teacher) than neighboring school districts could dream, state records show.
The North Kansas City District — fully accredited, unlike Kansas City, and now boasting a slightly higher enrollment — spent $9,881 per pupil. Its average class held 18 children in 2009.
That year, North Kansas City district seniors taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 21.6 (also the statewide average). And 75 percent of graduates went on to two- or four-year colleges.
In the Kansas City district, the average ACT was 16.8. Only 43 percent of graduates pursued a college route of two years or more.
And those stats exclude 2,000 Kansas City high-schoolers who dropped out the previous three years. Of course, without factoring in poverty, cost-benefit comparisons border on pointless.
Eighty percent of the Kansas City district’s children are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches — double the percentage in North Kansas City.
The Hickman Mills School District, though smaller, rivals Kansas City’s share of kids qualifying for subsidized meals. And its students’ ACT scores recently have been no better than Kansas City’s.
But Hickman Mills, for better or worse, was spending $3,000 less per student.
Urban educators nationwide know a chasm exists between the academic gains they post and the funds we spend — on transportation, special education, before- and after-school programs, and underused school buildings. Most of that extra spending also attests to the dire needs of big-city neighborhoods.
So long as budgets held up, districts everywhere were loath to close schools. And their coffers were buoyed, until recent years, by rising property values on which school-levy collections depend. Every open building provided jobs for upkeep, no matter if the pupils inside strained to keep up.
From the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education, Paul T. Hill wrote several years back:
“Big-city districts … face challenges not intrinsic to the task of educating children but are instead human-made.
“These challenges derive in part from the competition for power and money among adult groups in big cities, including neighborhood and ethnic organizations, bureaucracies, unions and business interests.”
Other urban districts began years ago, bit by bit, redirecting funds toward classroom achievement, said Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools.
What he called “reorientation” usually followed intense pressure on schools from municipal, state and civic types. They joined with parent groups and forced interests tightly bound to district money — including teachers unions — into bending, if only because eroding budgets demanded that children come first.
“Kansas City is actually coming late to this party,” noted Casserly, whose group examined the district’s dysfunctional inner workings in a 2006 report. “Until recently, Kansas City seemed appallingly disinterested in pursuing the risks and reforms undertaken in other cities,” such as Atlanta; Dallas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Richmond, Va.
Funneling money into instruction, rewarding great teachers, accounting for outcomes, ending undeserved promotions of students — all goals of Kansas City — were turn-of-the-century stuff for others.
Around 2000, “Kansas City was still playing out the dramas of the 1960s,” Casserly said. “The rest of the world was moving somewhere else. But the KC school system had grown so insular over the years … (with) this feeding at the trough, so to speak.”
Blame the 1990s.
During the height of federal-court efforts to correct vestiges of school segregation, Kansas City in the first half of that decade consistently ranked in the top five districts nationwide in per-pupil spending. Court-decreed funds erected lavish, though urgently needed, new buildings and brought teachers’ pay above par.
“A lot of things got drowned out — including classroom performance — during the desegregation case,” said Josh Dunn. He wrote “Complex Justice: The Case of Missouri v. Jenkins,” examining the $2 billion experiment in voluntary integration between the district and suburban families.
“The focus on getting suburban white kids into the district … I think got more attention than overall classroom performance,” Dunn said. “What was the incentive to improve the education” when most of the desegregation funds came from the state of Missouri — and would keep coming, so long as classroom scores showed black children still hurting?
“The deseg case really did reward the district for bad conduct,” he said.
One day in 2008, the driver of an ice cream truck stepped into interim superintendent John Martin’s office, dressed up and looking for work.
Not just any work.
Because the man’s cold treats were such a hit with children, “he said he’d make a good associate superintendent,” Martin recalled. “His heart was in the right place. He got along with kids. He promised to work 16-hour days and would never ask more than $75,000 a year.”
The ice cream vendor, who lacked college credentials, was politely turned away.
But to Martin, he embodied a vast local culture dating back decades — district constituents who depended upon, and expected, the district to provide.
People, it’s broken.
Superintendent Covington put it that simply to a far-flung group of business and community leaders reporting last December for a weekend workshop.
“Broken,” he said, partly because the district had functioned too long in ways that overlooked the best interests of students.
The whole room got it: This is about educating 17,000 kids — or it should be.
“We were all on the same page,” said Penn Valley Community College president Bernard Franklin.
Called the “core team,” the recruits totaled 60. Many were corporate executives. Others, clergy. Foundation directors. The teachers union president. Two dozen additional school employees and even a few invited students.
“We put in 12 hours on all three days — Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together” around a U-shaped table at One Kansas City Place, said Adriana Pecina of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.
“You spend that much time with each other, you learn there’s more on which you agree than disagree,” she said. “At the end of the day, yes … you care about the students.”
They cobbled a list of transformation “parameters.” The list began:
- We will always make decisions based on the best interests of our students.
- We will never give up on any student.
- We will always hold ourselves accountable for the success of our students. …
The zeal for transformation would stir the loftiest goals, such as one prominent on Page 3 of the district’s 120-page strategic plan:
“All graduates will be among the top 10% of their peers as measured by national and international standards.”
“People say I’m bright. But I don’t feel very bright,” said Micah, enrolled at the Afrikan Centered Education Collegium Campus. She wants to be a lawyer.
The three other students at the school board meeting — her brother in college, Ronald; plus Aaronn and Cynthia — said similar stuff, as Covington craned his neck to hear.
One student wanted to learn French in high school but said all the teacher did was play French-language films, subtitled, in class.
Another wanted to be graded on her work. But one class was so unruly, she said, the frazzled instructor promised to grade on how much she liked you.
One recalled the friend who managed to get a box cutter past the metal detectors throughout middle school, for her protection.
All said elementary school was better than the upper grades.
Overall, they gave the district a score of 6 or 7 out of 10.
The Partnership for Children was founded in the 1990s by communications consultant David Westbrook.
Since the 1970s, and as recently as a couple of years ago, Westbrook has repeatedly been contracted by the district to offer up a long-term vision. He’d deliver. The district just never stuck to it.
His nonprofit children’s advocacy group promoted what it called the No. 1 Question — “Is it good for the children?” — on billboards, buses, notepads, taxis and letters to regional city councils and educators.
A banner with that question still hangs, puckered from age, in the school board meeting room.
“Either use it in your actions or take it down,” said Jim Caccamo, Head Start coordinator for the Mid-America Regional Council, to a previous school board.
At the height of the No. 1 Question campaign, Partnership for Children hired Caccamo as executive director. He now sees a swell of leaders, including Covington, asking again, “Is it good for the children?” as if they really mean it.
“People are now starting to feel it,” Caccamo said. “There is no correct answer, but you constantly start there. … Ultimately, you hope the question can fade away. Because it’s just how we all act.”
The present board appears as united behind its superintendent as any board in memory. Maybe too united, said Margo Quiriconi of the Kauffman Foundation.
No matter which interests Covington seems willing to ruffle in the name of children, “there still has to be accountability,” Quiriconi said. “People need to ask him to lay out specifics. You don’t make it the children’s district by making it his district.”
Caccamo agreed, saying: “If you don’t see tangible outcomes that show you’re helping the children, then the question becomes one of rhetoric and not substance.”
What shows him that Covington means it?
When he first met one on one with the new chief, Caccamo quizzed him, as he had previous superintendents: How do you intend to stay true to what’s good for the children?
Covington served up some ideas and then, to Caccamo’s liking, volleyed back:
Now, how do you intend to do it?
The Star’s Eric Adler and Mark Davis contributed to this report.