First up, a voice of optimism.
Frank Cuevas, 14, raised in Los Angeles, knows the Kansas City Public Schools of the past two years. He knows high poverty’s weight on schools and how his teachers attack it.
“They understand the struggle,” he says.
The East High School freshman is aware of Kansas City’s provisionally accredited status and its tipping balance between another fall back or a shot at enjoying full accreditation and real, sustainable student performance.
It’s going to fall the right way, he believes.
“These teachers,” he says, “they don’t give up.”
Second, some hard truth.
Cito Vickers, 18, came from Detroit. The senior has been in Kansas City longer, and he witnessed the last crisis, when another great burst of hope in another superintendent’s remaking of the school system blew up his freshman year.
Now the district sits poised at its best chance perhaps in a generation. Finances stable. Divisive politics at a low ebb. Free from the threat of losing accreditation. Hope for change without needing a programmatic upheaval to take hold.
He knows students can succeed here. He’s one of them — bound for Mizzou, going to study economics and political science so he can help change the world. The district is better, he says.
But, as a manager at a restaurant, he sees the job applications handed in by many of his peers. Not so good, a lot of them.
The district, despite its other gains, still saw 70 percent of its students performing below proficient or advanced levels on its 2014 state tests, and apparently, Vickers says, it shows.
“They need to focus more on grammar and writing,” he says.
The Star took a close look at two schools representing some of the best efforts the district says are under way to turn its reprieve from state takeover into an ever-elusive success story.
The schools strike similar chords.
At East, principal Tommy Herrera sees opportunity — finally — to take control of the first priority he mentions while standing, walkie-talkie in hand, on East’s polished concrete floors.
“Making sure,” he says, “we have a high-quality teacher in every classroom.”
At Whittier Elementary School, principal Luis Hinojosa talks of doggedly pursuing parents to get them into the school and its aim “to regain their trust,” starting with the rallying cry he prompts from each class when he brings them a visitor.
“What are we here to do?” Hinojosa calls out.
“Learn!” the children shout.
The district is turning to a simpler, deeper focus in its attack.
And the coast — so long pounded by distracting and disabling fire — is notably clearer now, said Tony Stansberry, the regional supervisor for school improvement for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“They know they need to raise the rigor in the classroom,” Stansberry said. “Before, they’ve had budget problems, leadership problems and other systemic issues preventing concentration on academic issues.”
The district’s goal, as it has been for so many years before, is full accreditation.
“We think they have a good chance to do that,” Stansberry said.
Talking in class
The contrast between current Superintendent Steve Green and his predecessors is stark.
Anthony Amato of New York swept through in 2006 with a deluge of off-the-shelf curriculum programs and a plan to turn elementary schools into K-8 schools among his turn-everything-inside-out approach. But he was forced out after 18 months.
John Covington of Alabama stunned the district with a heavy slashing of buildings, staff and contracts in 2010. But he and much of his team bolted unexpectedly after two years, leaving the district in a mighty struggle to implement his classroom revolutions.
Green, who had been president and CEO of the Kauffman Scholars program, didn’t come in from the outside in 2011. He didn’t bring a revolution. He’s returned the district to traditional building and grade-level setups.
He had his administrators read the work of educator and author Mike Schmoker, whose mantra is deep focus on simple basics: Literacy, getting teachers on the same agreed-upon curriculum page, and teaching in little steps at a time so teachers can make sure they’re moving every child along.
“We’re in such a commercialized age of education,” Schmoker told The Star in a phone interview. “There’s never been so much stuff competing for the education dollar. It isn’t that they don’t work. But no one has the patience or the focus to give them their due.”
Instead of talking about learning new programs, the teachers at East and Whittier talk about sharing strategies.
They want their children talking in class — with the teacher, with one another — talking about what they’re reading, growing and defending ideas, and then writing.
“Accountable talk,” Whittier third-grade teacher Katie Buzard calls it. “Are they keeping each other on task? Are they keeping each other engaged?”
The school makes opportunities for the teachers to watch each other at work, and then brainstorm.
Herrera loves the sound of chattering voices in his East classrooms as well. “It’s a joy to my heart,” he said.
Especially when so many of the students in the district — especially at East — are English-language learners, needing to build language confidence.
Government teacher Ben Richardson has a handwritten poster on his wall at East: “100 percent of American Government students at East will earn a score of at least proficient on the (state’s end-of-course exam).”
And making the goal requires persistence, he said. Not a miracle program.
That’s why he spins rapid-fire through his class hour, urging discussion among his students while they work at laptops, researching and channeling their thoughts on a current public issue into a persuasive letter to a member of Congress.
The third-year teacher started a voluntary after-school tutoring hour that quickly grew from four to 25 students.
Many of the students, including English-language learners, were as many as four years behind in their vocabulary, Richardson said.
“You need to want to put in more time,” he said.
It’s good that the district is shedding many of the obstacles of its own making, Stansberry said, because there are obstacles enough in the needs of many of its students.
The possibilities in Andrea Johnson’s kindergartners at Whittier shine in the spiral notebooks stacked on a table in the middle of the room.
They’re starting to write sentences. Just kindergartners, with still some four months left in the school year, and they’re excited about penciling words together.
But she worries about many of them come the weekend, she said.
“I worry that they won’t eat,” she said. “I worry if they are safe.”
Of her 25 pupils, five are living in shelters. Two are in foster homes. By first grade, some 40 percent of the class likely will have moved out or in.
“I’ve had five new kids since Christmas,” she said.
These teachers deal with more of the concerns that all teachers understand — like fourth-grade teacher Rebekah Wampler, who was rousing her class of 28 in the collective work at solving quotients.
“Thumbs up if you agree,” she said after one of her girls voiced an answer. She watched all the raised hands and the little thumbs in the air.
Even as Wampler cheered, “Give that girl a high-five, Trey,” to her seatmate, the teacher drifted by the desk of a boy who sat a bit slumped at his desk. She deftly, lightly grazed the back of her knuckles against his forehead, checking for a fever.
It may be hard at times for many of the children in these classrooms, said Whittier instructional coach Bryan VanOsdale. But if a child gets into the conversations and feels personal connections, “That kid’s going to say, ‘I want to come back tomorrow.’”
Then the chance to learn those higher skills is real. Give that child a challenge, VanOsdale said, and he says, “I can do this.”
Everything becomes possible, he said, “Harvard … Vanderbilt…”
And also those tests coming up later this spring. A district trying to do what it hasn’t done in decades is banking on it.