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Parents sound off to state board about the future of KC schools

Updated: 2014-01-30T05:26:55Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City parent Patrick Bustos took his turn at the microphone, facing out at the more than 500 people who came to see Wednesday night’s passionate debate on the future of the Kansas City Public Schools.

“Get on board with us,” he said to the front row of state school board members and officials whose role will be to decide just how dramatic the changes to come will be.

“This is our district,” he said, “ our children, our community!”

It was clear, judging by the outbursts of applause throughout the night at Paseo Academy, that the majority of the crowd came to support the district. Several speakers said that the district’s current administration and local elected board have brought stability, improvement and hope that hasn’t been seen in decades.

But people weary of too much poor performance and eager for major change came out as well.

“I’m terribly disappointed in everyone who stands here in defense of this district,” parent Melissa Eddy said, drawing a smaller but still strong wave of applause. She cited low average ACT college entrance exam scores, too many graduates without necessary job skills and a history of dashed hopes.

“How can anyone think this is acceptable?” she said.

The burden is mounting on the state’s education team and the state board members who will ultimately decide on a plan.

“You approach passion with reason and you try to have all the facts,” newly appointed board member John Martin said after the meeting. “But it’s not going to be easy.”

State law gives the education department broad powers, with the approval of its board, to intervene in unaccredited school districts.

Since before the district became unaccredited in 2012, Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has been saying that she wants a long-range plan that could be applied to unaccredited districts statewide.

It’s time to get a plan in place, Nicastro said.

Legislators who are trying to mold bills to fit education reform plans are anxious to see the state’s best ideas, she said. And planning for any changes for the 2014-2015 school year needs to begin sooner than later.

Nicastro wants to make a recommendation to the state school board on Feb. 18. The board has scheduled a workshop Feb. 10 to give its feedback on the department’s developing ideas.

The department commissioned a proposal of its own from Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust that has drawn most of the attention — both because of the major changes it would make in creating a system of autonomous schools, but also for the controversy over the way the state granted CEE-Trust a $385,000 contract.

But the state is also getting feedback on several other proposals submitted by other groups. And the department’s ultimate recommendation could end up being a hybrid of the plans.

The state set up a web page to take feedback on the plans, and has added an overview that was presented Wednesday night.

Other plans have been submitted by the Missouri Association of School Administrators representing superintendents; the Missouri Charter Public School Association and the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri; and the Kansas City Public Schools.

•  The CEE-Trust plan:

Would create a Community School Office under the control of a commissioner-appointed CEO and a state board-appointed local advisory board. The CSO’s primary mission would be to recruit independent nonprofit entities to apply to operate community schools.

The nonprofits would be able to self-determine their leadership, staff, curriculum and funding allocations as long as the school met a performance agreement.

CEE-Trust estimates that the cost savings in eliminating a significant amount of central office management would free up $28 million to establish a universal pre-kindergarten program.

•  The superintendents’ plan:

Would increase the amount of state collaboration in creating improvement teams for districts that fall into a provisionally accredited state. The plan eliminates the “unaccredited” status for districts. Districts unable to improve from provisional status would be declared “academically stressed.”

The plan calls for accreditation distinctions to be made school-by-school, rather than districtwide. Families in academically stressed schools would be able to transfer among accredited schools within the same district. Academically stressed schools that fail to improve would lapse and come under the direction of a statewide improvement district, be given over to another district, or be closed.

•  The charter school association’s plan:

Would also call for accreditation status to be applied school-by-school. The bottom 5 percent of schools in performance — including charter schools — would come under the control of a statewide district run by a governor-appointed CEO.

The statewide district could work with the school in its current structure, convert it to an independent charter school, contract it to another school district, or transfer it to a private school operation as long as the private school adopts the state’s accountability requirements and practices no religious activities in the school.

•  Kansas City Public Schools’ plan:

Adopts the same school-by-school accountability structure as the superintendents’ plan. It would expand a collaborative school improvement process that has been in practice with the state for more than two years.

It would create school improvement advisory committees at each building and increase many of the improvement efforts under way in classrooms and in building community services.

“There are elements in each of the plans that are attractive,” state board member Charlie Shields said after the meeting. “You look for commonalities. You look for differences. You look for where the opportunities are.”

One impression Shields noted is that “we saw a lot of support for Dr. Green (Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green), and that is an important message to take back.”

One point everyone agreed on.

Frustrated parent Lynet Smith was one who aired it out: “The status quo is not working!” she said.

Green said, after the hearing, that the district’s work and its plans “are not status quo.”

The district has argued that it should already be raised to provisional status, based on its provisional-level score on its 2013 state report card. But performance was still low and the score was based largely on points for improvement that Nicastro said needs to be sustained another year.

Green believes early indications show the district will sustain its surprising score from a year ago — and even improve it. That would likely free the district from state intervention.

It’s too early to tell, said Tony Stansberry, the state’s regional director of school improvement. “But what we’re seeing is similar to what we saw last year,” he said.

“They’re focused,” he said in an interview. “They’re working together. And the (local) board is letting them do their work.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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