A desperate Kansas City school board nabbed Steve Green to fill its vacant superintendent post during a week of upheaval four summers ago that would strip Kansas City schools of accreditation. The end of the line for the district was near, many believed. Many hoped.
The road from there would include a faceoff with the state’s education commissioner. Influential people would build a plan, unknown to Green, championing the ideas of the education reform organization CEE-Trust to remake the district.
Green, the survivor, packed up his office this week, departing for a superintendent post in Georgia.
He’s leaving a district nearing full accreditation, with civic and educational partnerships left in the works — and a pivotal school board election to come.
All of this was on Green’s mind as he looked backward and forward with The Star. The conversation has been edited for clarity and space.
What were the things you couldn’t prepare for?
Being unaccredited is a death sentence. (Laughs) I don’t wish that on any school district. You’re not supposed to survive that. I don’t think there has been a district in the history of the state that has been unaccredited and clawed its way back.
We were in a downward spiral and I knew a lot of people were upset about it. But to know exactly what it meant being unaccredited? In terms of the perception and stigma that comes along with it? I didn’t necessarily prepare for that.
The situation we found ourselves in, and I’ll be candid about it, the commissioner (Chris Nicastro) and with what was going on there, and the superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools — one of us was going to have to go. (Laughs) If she prevailed, then I’m out. If I win, she’s out. It was a fight to the death.
When did you believe you and the district would survive?
We had a good predictive index on where our (student test) scores would be, so that 2013 year I knew we were going to make a big leap, a big jump. If you’re doing tennis, I thought we had the volley and we were going to put the ball in the court of the commissioner. Then it was, “Do it again.” And I think we had an answer for that. We had a return volley. I think, in tennis terms, it was an ace.
What were your biggest mistakes?
I was a little naïve in terms of I did not read the political circumstance of our becoming unaccredited and understand why, in some cases, it was important that we remain unaccredited.
I thought, “We’re going to defy the odds here.” I did not know, as I was trying to win over some folks in terms of trying to woo them — in Jefferson City and here in Kansas City — that I had wasted my time. No, I don’t want to say I wasted my time. (But) I didn’t know what was at play as far as the CEE-Trust thing. Had I known some of the plans that were in place, I probably would have taken that energy and put it elsewhere.
What was it like sensing that some people wanted the district unaccredited?
It wasn’t until (December 2013) that I became aware of all the dynamics that were in play. You’re kind of banging your head and you can’t understand why there wasn’t a great embrace from the commissioner and Jefferson City, why there wasn’t this “Wow, you did well. Keep doing it. That’s great.” But it made sense afterward. If there’s a mistake, I didn’t pick up on the politics. I didn’t pick up on the dynamics … about the game plan to basically dismantle the district and have a do-over in Kansas City.
It was like getting in front of a bulldozer and you don’t realize it’s a bulldozer. (Laughs) You’re just standing there trying to persuade the bulldozer, “Come on, be on our side.”
Are you leaving a school district that deserves full accreditation designation this year?
The district is deserving of full accreditation. I base that on the trend line that is evident of four years of progressive growth and four years of improvement, and against an increasing state standard.
What of the suggestion that you need to repeat that for another year?
I fundamentally disagree with that approach. When I got my doctorate degree no one said I had to do it again. But I understand some of the philosophy behind sustainability and so forth. If the progress had been up and down over the course of time, I would understand that argument. When I looked at the district (prior to 2011) I saw the district was doing the yo-yo piece. But we have not been in yo-yo mode, so to speak, since 2011.
What district efforts don’t get enough notice?
Early childhood. It’s the fundamental building block. I think that the performance we are seeing in grades before the (state) test window, in grades K through 2, are going to pay huge dividends for students and the district down the line.
The conversion to middle school is going to have good outcomes for the students in an age-appropriate setting.
The curricular work that’s gone on — that’s really a big piece that sometimes gets overlooked. Our teachers and our staff are working to constantly refine the curriculum. That’s really at the heart of student achievement and improvement. That’s the roll-up-your-sleeves, work-over-the-summer, revamp, rewrite, refine kind of work.
What challenges do you see in the school board’s future?
(Laughs) Well, obviously there are going to be four seats open next spring and I think it’s going to be important that this community rally to the school board’s effort to replace those vacancies. It will take a lot of collaborative work to make sure that the candidates are of a caliber and have the district’s and schools’ and children’s best interest at heart, and that the politics do not prevail.
What are your biggest fears for the district?
Unfinished business. We’ve got the master-planning process. We’re going to make our case for full accreditation, assuming some things fall into place the right way.
Also we’ve got new initiatives and new ideas on the table to be considered, and I’d be anxious to see how those play out, whether that’s new partnerships, whether that’s with the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, whether that’s with our early college piece that’s going to expand. To see the middle schools at full fruition is something that is going to be interesting to watch.
But I leave with some sense of satisfaction that the infrastructure is strong and solid. It is strong enough to withstand any effort that would try to subvert or try to in some way revert it back to what it once was before 2011. It has the immune system, so to speak, to ward off viruses that would try to sicken the school district and weaken it and make it subject to exploitation.
Where do you hope to see the district five years from now?
Well, I want to see the continued renewed interest and investment in the Kansas City Public Schools. I’d like to see increased enrollment. I’d like to see how we engage with other partners in the city around urban revitalization and bringing back neighborhoods that are economically depressed. I expect to see (the district) recognized as a vital force in Kansas City — and the governor and the mayor and our legislature, all the representatives in the Senate and the House, recognizing that the Kansas City Public Schools are here to stay.
(The progress) wasn’t just an accident. It wasn’t just a blip on the screen. It was real, genuine progress.