September 26, 2013

Missouri education commissioner to recommend KC district remain unaccredited

Commissioner Chris Nicastro praised Kansas City’s improvement in the latest state report card but held to her position that the district needs to show more sustained improvement before gaining provisional accreditation.

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro will recommend that Kansas City Public Schools remain unaccredited this year.

She announced her decision Thursday, casting it across an area-wide sea of concern as Kansas City and its neighboring districts fear future disruption in student transfers.

“These are always difficult decisions,” Nicastro told The Star. But the requests from many area superintendents that Kansas City gain provisional accreditation “were not based on Kansas City’s performance, but on the expediency in stopping student transfers.”

She praised Kansas City’s improvement in the latest state report card, but she held to her position that the district needs to show more sustained improvement before gaining provisional accreditation.

The district’s current improvement remains too tenuous on top of its long history of struggles, despite the competing concerns, she said.

“Our interest has to be what is best for the kids.”

Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green said he had anticipated the commissioner’s decision, but argued again that the district’s improvement has been “dramatic and unprecedented.”

“We strongly believe that based on hard data earned over two years, we have earned provisional accreditation,” he said, reading a prepared statement.

The state school board will take up Kansas City’s request at its next regular meeting, Oct. 22, and Green held out hope that the board will approve it.

Decisions on accreditation are made by the board, but it has usually followed its commissioner’s recommendation.

The state, meanwhile, will carry forward on work with a consulting team to develop a plan for improving the Kansas City district. The state would like to have that plan in place early next year.

Neighboring districts are closely watching the board’s accreditation decision because Kansas City’s unaccredited status could expose the area to potentially damaging effects of a school transfer law in the 2014-2015 school year.

That law allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to surrounding accredited districts.

The district already has been before the state school board to argue its case for provisional accreditation. Green and his executive cabinet presented their case at the regular meeting Sept. 17 in Jefferson City. Board members asked questions but did not take a vote.

Kansas City, which has been unaccredited since January 2012, thinks it deserves provisional status after it scored well in the provisional range when state report cards were issued in August.

The district earned 60 percent of the points possible, more than the 50 percent required to be considered for provisional accreditation. The district earned many points for improvement in test performance, but 70 percent of its students still scored less than proficient on state tests.

In a letter to Green, Nicastro praised Kansas City’s improvement, but noted that the district still scored in the lowest category in four of the five performance test areas.

While Kansas City has argued it deserves provisional for its performance alone, Green also warned that potential student transfers “threaten to destabilize a foundation and results built during the last three years.”

The student transfer law is already being applied in the St. Louis area, where the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts are unaccredited. Roughly one-fourth of the students in those districts sought transfers, putting the districts in financial crises that the state has said will bankrupt Normandy this year if it does not receive state aid.

The law requires the unaccredited districts to cover the costs of tuition and transportation. Receiving districts have also been strained trying to maintain limits on class sizes, with some districts holding town hall meetings during the summer as many residents expressed concerns over receiving students from the failing districts.

Kansas City area districts have held off applying the law because the Missouri Supreme Court is still considering a case from several area districts claiming that the law is unconstitutional. That case is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday, with a ruling expected later this year.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court upheld the law in a St. Louis area case.

The transfer situation “is like a train coming out of a tunnel right at you,” said Grandview’s Ralph Teran, one of numerous area superintendents who have asked Kansas City be made provisional.

He said he respects the commissioner, who is “grappling” with a difficult situation. Grandview and other area districts with significant populations of low-income students have made strong gains recently, and Teran thinks the districts are working together to help Kansas City follow suit.

“There is a spirit of interconnectedness across the barriers of suburban and rural,” he said. “The transfer issue to me is going to be a barrier to progress. It’s really alarming.”

Since Kansas City’s improved score was announced in August, Nicastro has held to her belief that the district needs to show sustained growth for at least another year, if not two years.

That is what the state’s accountability system demands, she said. The problems with the transfer law need to be fixed separately.

“We’ve got to think long-term,” Nicastro said. “Will they be accredited? Will they be unaccredited? All this does is exacerbate people’s anxiety. It does not improve conditions for children.”

The state has contracted with Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust to develop a long-term plan for improving outcomes for children in Kansas City Public Schools. The $385,000 contract is being funded by the Kauffman Foundation and the Hall Family Foundation.

The research has begun and CEE-Trust is expected to produce a draft in January, which will be followed by community meetings to help develop it further.

The work with CEE-Trust will continue, Nicastro has said, whether Kansas City remains unaccredited or gets provisional status. She has said she hopes a plan can be developed that will help guide work with other low-performing districts in the state.

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