Kansas City schools need to improve dramatically

04/04/2014 3:06 PM

04/05/2014 5:26 PM

When my husband and I moved to Kansas City in 1987, we left a small apartment in New York City to move into an infinitely more gracious house in Brookside, partly because, even then, we were thinking about schools.

We kind of assumed our children would attend private schools in our new life, just as we would have if we had stayed in New York, except we could never have afforded private schools in New York. Then something happened on the way to paying tuition.

Kansas City embarked on its ambitious plan to have magnet schools, financed by a large settlement in the legal case against Missouri, which admitted it had de facto segregated schools for many decades. We were interested.

We took a tour of Hartman School, then a kindergarten- through first-grade facility in south Kansas City. We were immediately sold on the school’s vitality and the staff’s commitment.

When it was time for our second daughter Sarah to start school, we signed up at Faxon Montessori, another jewel. The tuition checks eventually started flowing in the Lloyd household many years later, but all our daughters spent more years in public schools than private.

They did very well in college. They are nice people. No regrets.

Fast forward almost 25 years. So much water under the bridge. It’s time for another school board election in Kansas City.

Once again, candidates are advocating for a much-diminished public school system, aiming to improve the district schools so they can regain accreditation. But are they willing to push for whatever it takes to restore Kansas City schools, even to the level of excellence of a quarter-century ago?

I have just read “I Got Schooled,” in which author M. Night Shyamalan explored U.S. schools where the achievement gap between white students and students of color is being narrowed. Mr. Shyamalan identifies five factors that allow meaningful improvements to take place.

He contends that, if even one of these tenets is ignored, the narrowing of the achievement gap will not occur. His Big Five:

• Remove bad teachers, who are identified through a rigorous evaluation process.

• Provide superior leadership — principals who are monitoring the caliber of instruction at all times;.

• Use data well — testing kids in a variety of innovative ways.

• Keep schools small.

• Extend the school day and school year beyond the current nine months a year and seven hours a day.

The vast majority of schools that he thinks are doing a good job are charters, which are public schools, although a few “traditional” public schools around the country make the grade in his book. All of the schools he identifies have many low-income students yet are performing at above-average levels of proficiency.

The state of Missouri has made noises that, in certain conditions, it might dismantle Kansas City schools and allow students to transfer to higher-performing schools. But is anybody working to improve Kansas City district schools with something like these Big Five ideas?

I don’t think so.

It makes me sad that nothing seems to improve for Kansas City public schools, except the development of of a few successful charters. Some of the candidates running for school board may be spending a lot of energy arguing for a public school system that doesn’t seem interested in implementing radical changes.

It seems like that means candidates repeating on their mailings the well-worn sentiment that a great city needs a great school system at the next school board electionjust like what was said at the last school-board election and will likely be said again at the next.

And little ever changes.

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