Sixteen years ago, the first charter schools opened in Kansas City with the promise of ending a student exodus from the city’s public schools.
But state data recently obtained by The Star show that mission has failed, leaving hundreds of students to spiral between district and charter schools in a public education system still losing children.
“We’ve created our own mess,” said Danny Tipton, superintendent of Hogan Preparatory Academy, a charter school. “The mobility rate is so incredibly high. We’ve reached a tipping point.”
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Just in the past year, more than a thousand students left the district for charters, but an additional 500-plus left charters for the district, many during the middle of the school year.
Betzabet Valverde is one of many former students who needs two hands to count her schools and all the wrong turns among the opportunities set before her.
“I took the easy way,” she said with lingering regret.
The 22-year-old bailed out when infractions and detentions mounted at Allen Village charter school, bouncing through Westport Middle School, Alta Vista charter school and alternative programs at Seton Center and Hope Academy — when she went to school at all — before she righted herself.
“I was making wrong choices,” she said.
Charter schools, which are independent public schools with their own boards, now make up 40 percent of public school enrollment in the district. But their rise has not stemmed the combined fall in enrollment from 36,353 in 2000, the first year of charters in Kansas City, to 24,435 in 2015.
The number of school-age children living in the district, whether in public, private or home school, has fallen by U.S. census estimates from 43,356 in 2005 to 34,164 in 2014.
The exodus is seen in state data that show more than 2,500 children entering kindergarten in district and charter schools every year, but only 975 combined in the senior classes of the high schools.
Attrition has long hurt the Kansas City school district, but charter schools have not been able to break the fall. In fact, the erosion of enrollment from kindergarten to 12th grade is worse in the charter system. Its enrollment shrinks by 76 percent from kindergarten to 12th grade, compared with 51 percent for district schools.
“I feel like they’re trying to weed out the bad apples,” Kansas City parent Botreece Dunn said of some charter schools.
This year she pulled her seventh-grade daughter out of the charter Kauffman School. Dunn said its long days and intense rules had troubled her daughter “to the point she didn’t want to go to school.”
It’s an anxious time, though, as they try the district’s Northeast Middle School.
“I’m not very comfortable with it,” she said.
Many students, records show, move out of charters even in the middle of the school year — which adds to the strain on the district, which receives and places students at all ages, at all times from near and far.
The state takes two enrollment counts each school year, the official count for October and then a second for February. In 2014-2015, charter enrollment overall declined by 192 students between October and February. The district’s net gain was 194.
None of several families interviewed by The Star who have changed schools said they were pushed out of their schools. In most cases, they said, they were urged to stay.
“But there are feelings in things not said,” said LaQuanda Carpenter, the superintendent of the now-closed charter Hope Academy, which had tried to serve as an alternative school focused on recovering dropout students.
Many of their students had been through five or six schools before arriving at Hope, which its board president, Alvin Brooks, called the “school of last resort.”
“It’s the way they are made to feel when they come into those school offices,” Carpenter said. “A lot do feel discouraged.”
The families without exception like the power to choose schools in Kansas City. Many find better opportunities and it pressures schools to perform better.
But then comes the backlash that Hogan’s Tipton described as families navigate an imperfect system.
“Kansas City saw the same thing when (the district) did away with neighborhood schools,” Tipton said. “You get mad here and you go there. You get mad here and you go there. Now you add 20-plus charter schools and it exacerbates mobility. Kids go in and out all the time.”
When it comes to school performance, the advantage falls to those charter schools that structure themselves against the high transience of the rest of the public school system.
The success of charter schools such as Academie Lafayette, University Academy and the Kauffman School is well documented, but those schools also take few or no new students beyond the schools’ earliest grades.
“The challenge for charter schools is how to structure enrollment patterns to meet the needs of students,” said Aaron North, vice president of education at the Kauffman Foundation.
An individual charter school does not have the flexibility of a district’s system, he said.
As a group, charter schools need to create the same kind of opportunities that the district can provide with specialties like its successful but selective-admission Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, or the audition-requiring Paseo Academy for Fine and Performing Arts, North said.
The Kauffman School reaches into city ZIP codes with the most need. The Kauffman enrollment begins at the fifth grade, but many students start far behind. Its college prep program has to begin at that age, and few students get in any later.
The problem, though, is that the choices in charter schools are full of gaps, particularly at the high school level, where options grow more limited.
Only 15.6 percent of the city’s charter students are in high schools, compared with 25.6 percent for the district and 30.3 percent for all other Jackson County school districts.
The heightened expense of facilities and programming in high schools is proving “a tough nut to crack for everyone,” North said.
Academie Lafayette, one of the most popular kindergarten-to-eighth-grade charter schools, is still struggling for a viable high school expansion after most of a decade of trying.
University Academy superintendent Tony Kline knows the stress on families.
When a group of young parents of soon-to-be kindergartners toured the K-12 grade school earlier this year, they told him they had several appealing elementary options, but they were looking far ahead, worrying about high school.
“I wanted to be realistic with them,” Kline said. If they wanted to be in University Academy for high school, their best chance was to get their children in as kindergartners.
The school will sometimes enroll students in later grades, but it has structured its capacity to support fewer numbers in the upper grade levels.
The college prep program wants a 13-year commitment from families, he said.
“We’re not testing kids coming in, but what we’re trying to show is that if you do something well, your kids will end up in the same place as a selective school.”
Into the whirlpool
The system can struggle, however, to gather those students who fall back into an educational whirlpool.
Valverde, who is working at restaurants and raising two daughters, had even slipped out of school at her crisis point, feeling too far behind. And she was pregnant. She stepped away from teachers who she now says were trying to help her at Allen Village and Alta Vista, finally getting back and graduating via the Seton Center school and Hope Academy.
Juan Yeverino, 21, now at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley, said he made a wrong turn when he switched schools rather than repeat the sixth grade at Allen Village.
“I told myself, ‘I am not a dropout,’” he said.
The district collects many of the students who change schools. So do some charter high schools like Hogan and Alta Vista. But with Hope closed, DeLaSalle Education Center is the sole alternative charter high school serving students who haven’t succeeded in traditional school settings.
Many of the displaced students head for the school district, where roughly 40 percent of its students transfer in or out during the course of a school year, said Tonia Gilbert, executive director of student support and community services for Kansas City Public Schools.
“If you come through that door,” she said, “we will take you.”
The district tries to accommodate school-searching families by offering a variety of schools to choose from within the district, interim superintendent Al Tunis said.
The district and its board also have taken a more cooperative approach with charter schools in recent years, establishing some partnerships.
What Kansas City has lacked, Kline said, “is a comprehensive, citywide strategy.” The district and charters need to collaborate to better provide school choices that meet a wider range of needs with “a portfolio of options,” Kline said, “like a salad bar.”
Eloria Walker, 52, hopes her most recent educational choice sticks. Her 16-year-old daughter, the youngest of her seven children, switched this year to the district’s Paseo Academy from a charter school.
Walker didn’t just change schools over the years, but districts, from Raytown to Hickman Mills to Kansas City, always concerned about getting good teachers, but even more about safety.
“This is a new era,” she said. “It’s a different time. I’m just glad it’s almost over for me. I’m really tired.”
Student mobility summit
Mayor Sly James and the early-reading program Turn the Page KC will gather Sept. 1 with educators and community leaders for a daylong summit at the Kauffman Foundation to hear research on student mobility and work toward a community response.