Kansas City school district gains provisional accreditation

08/06/2014 1:50 PM

08/06/2014 9:56 PM

Kansas City Public Schools are provisionally accredited again.

In a special meeting by teleconference Wednesday, the state school board unanimously approved Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro’s recommendation to remove Kansas City’s unaccredited label.

Performance numbers that will be released later this month show the district is earning growth points in math and English language arts, Nicastro said.

The overall performance remains low, she said, but the district won growth points because a “significant number” of students continue to move up from lower performance categories.

While board members cautioned that Kansas City has a lot of work to do, they praised the work of Superintendent Steve Green and district teachers and staff since Kansas City hit bottom with dropped scores and the sudden departure of former Superintendent John Covington in 2011.

“I appreciate the work they have done (since) the announcement and chaos when Dr. Covington left,” state board member Charlie Shields said. “The district is on solid footing and heading in the right direction.”

Board President Peter Herschend also praised the work but cautioned: “This district has a long and difficult road yet to be taken. … The challenge is a daunting one … but for the sake of the kids, it must be met.”

Green listened in on the conference call. The news comes just in time to energize his message in front of all of the district’s teachers and staff when they gather for their annual convocation Thursday.

“It’s a message of defying gravity,” Green told The Star after the vote. “It’s a message of the odds being against us, and our rising despite the tremendous weight of the challenges placed before us.”

The board’s decision will remove Kansas City area districts from having to comply with state law that allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to nearby districts.

It also removes Kansas City’s motivation to continue with a lawsuit filed in December asking the court to grant the district provisional accreditation.

“It makes the lawsuit a moot point,” Green said.

Kansas City had been unaccredited since January 2012, following a calamitous 2011 when the district struggled through the impacts of massive school closings and program changes. Test scores dipped. Covington left abruptly for Michigan, and the school board nearly came undone.

Several times over the next two years, the district teetered on the brink of a state takeover.

Nicastro in the fall of 2011 urged the Kansas City school board to step down voluntarily at the start of 2012 and cede control to a state-appointed board rather than wait out the two years that state law at that time gave the district to turn itself around.

Kansas City’s board declined to step aside. In the spring of 2012, legislation that would have given the state authority to step in immediately failed to pass only because lawmakers pushing other education issues amended the bill in ways that brought it down.

By the fall of 2013, the state had the authority to take control of the district, and Nicastro launched a process hoping to use Kansas City as a model on how the state should intervene with struggling districts.

The state commissioned Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust to develop a reformation proposal, alongside other proposals offered from education organizations throughout the state.

But the Kansas City board and administration’s chances of survival had begun to improve. The district in August 2013 mounted a score on its annual performance report from the state — buoyed largely on growth points — that placed it solidly in the provisionally accredited range.

The state backed off its push for a Kansas City reform plan, and Nicastro said she would recommend Kansas City for provisional status in 2014 if the district could build on its 2013 performance.

“She was true to her word,” Green said.

In 2013, Kansas City earned 60 percent of the possible performance points. Districts need at least 50 percent to be considered provisional and 70 percent to be considered for full accreditation.

School districts’ 2014 test scores and annual performance report scores won’t be published until Aug. 29, but drafts of the reports were distributed to districts this week for internal review.

The state reported that the preliminary scoring shows Kansas City should reach at least 61.8 percent of the possible points. The district had to increase its growth from a year ago just to sustain its score, Deputy Commissioner Margie Vandeven said.

“We feel they are showing individual student growth and that is an incredibly positive sign,” she said.

But the climb will steepen. Kansas City will have to see more students scoring proficient or advanced to hang on to its score and push for full accreditation.

The percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced remained stagnant at roughly 30 percent across the board in the preliminary results. The percentage actually slipped from 30.6 to 29 in English language arts, and from 30.2 to 29.4 in math.

The first question facing the district, Green said, was, “Can we show growth?” The second question asked whether growth could be sustained.

“Now we’ve answered those questions,” he said. “I knew — everyone in the district knew — that (the growth) was not a fluke.”

The district is ready for the next question, he said. Can Kansas City push high numbers of students on to proficiency?

“Momentum is in our favor,” Green said.

Now that the district has regained provisional accreditation, the state’s student transfer law likely no longer applies. That means the 10 families that had sought transfers won’t be going to other districts with tuition paid by the Kansas City district.

The news was disappointing to Desiré Hendricks, one of the parents who was hoping to transfer her child.

“I wish the district the best, but now I have to make a decision,” she said. “Provisional accreditation based on scores does not show me as a parent that anything has changed. Those are numbers. What promise can they make that they are changing what’s going on in our schools?”

Green said he understands those families may be reluctant to return to district schools, but he hopes staff will be able to meet with them to talk about their choices.

“We hope they will continue with us,” he said. “We want to seek to do a better job serving them if we get another chance.”

At a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Green and Kansas City school board President Jon Hile gathered many of the different stakeholders to join in what Hile called a “great day for our school district.”

It was good to bring in parent and community leaders, said Kansas City’s teachers union president, Andrea Flinders. She referred to many of the dramatic reform ideas for education, including the CEE-Trust proposal for a network of independent public schools that was not given a chance in Kansas City.

“What really works,” Flinders said, “is when everybody works together.”

Parent leaders Jamekia Kendrix and Jennifer Wolfsie looked on. Their children have been enrolled the district’s foreign language and Montessori programs.

“People do choose to be here,” Kendrix said.

The parent and community groups have built a strong partnership with the administration, as watchdogs and supporters, Wolfsie said, and she sees that as a strength as the district carries forward.

“There’s massive trust there,” she said. “You can’t put that together overnight.”

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

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