As I See It

The floor is open for ideas on education in Kansas City

Updated: 2014-01-04T23:58:39Z

By CHRIS L. NICASTRO

Special to The Star

I believe that the educators, parents, and community leaders throughout our state are united in their desire to ensure that every child has access to quality schools. But recent debate related to unaccredited districts and the transfer issue has created schisms. Accusations and conspiracy theories have distracted us from the honest exchange of ideas that we desperately need. As Missouri’s education commissioner, I am writing today to set the record straight.

Since the start of the revised state accountability system — the Missouri School Improvement Program 5 — the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has consistently said that troubled school districts need to show a sustainable trend of performance before they would be considered for accreditation.

That has not happened with the Kansas City Public Schools. Seven consecutive years of reports at the unaccredited level and one year of performance in the provisionally accredited range do not constitute a sustainable, positive trend.

Accreditation should only be awarded when districts are able to sustain their progress. To do otherwise gives parents and community members the illusion that their schools are fulfilling their expectations and serving their children well.

For the leaders and administrators of the Kansas City Public Schools, that means the district’s future is in their hands. These professionals — hardworking, dedicated and focused on improving their schools — have done good work.

But the work is not done. If student achievement and other performance measures continue to improve, I will be the first to cheer their success. If, this summer, we can document a second year of improvement sufficient to meet the threshold for provisional accreditation, I will recommend provisional accreditation to the state Board of Education.

In the meantime, efforts to work in partnership with the school district to boost performance will continue.

But what if all this doesn’t work? We must consider how to intervene if Kansas City Public Schools and other unaccredited districts are unable to make sufficient, sustained gains.

We would be neglecting our duty if we did not seek out the best possible ideas for improving our children’s educational opportunity. That is why the department sought assistance in conducting the necessary research to create “a clear set of recommendations for state action to transform” unaccredited districts.

Perhaps the process of selecting a firm to conduct the evaluation could and should have been handled differently. But that doesn’t change the fact that all children and families deserve high-quality schools. We need all voices to focus on that.

The board will receive the first draft of the resulting report this month. There are other plans the board and public should consider as well, most notably a framework created by school superintendents from around the state. All plans, reports and recommendations will receive careful consideration. No final “plan” yet exists.

The essential issue of quality schools has been overshadowed by recent court rulings on student transfers from unaccredited districts. Whether we agree that the law should remain or not, the transfer law cannot be sustained in its current form. Bankrupting school districts will not ensure better schools for our kids. The department is committed to working with legislators to address the issue this session.

For now, and in the coming weeks, we will do a better job of communicating. We will do more to solicit ideas and facilitate dialogue statewide. We will explore all of the ideas generated for improving struggling districts. It’s time to move the conversation back to where it belongs — focusing not on adults, but on what’s best for the children of Missouri. We urge you to join the conversation.

Chris L. Nicastro is Missouri’s commissioner of education.

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