On a bounding school bus headed toward what may — or may not — be her daughter’s first elementary school, Tonisha Alexander was trying to prepare notes.
Not easy. Her left hand kept her smartphone as level as possible while her thumb scrolled down the advice on her online parent resource.
The heel of her right hand pinned her notebook to her leg while, bouncing and leaning, she scratched out the questions she hopes will help make her a champion parent for her 5-year-old daughter in Kansas City’s exhausting school choice puzzle.
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The recent bus tour of several Kansas City public charter schools came at a heady time. Enrollment periods are open. Lotteries that determine who’s in and who’s out at the popular, oversubscribed schools are a month away.
Several parents, gathered by St. Mark Child and Family Development Center and working with Show Me KC Schools, took to the tour as if it were a test as profound as any that await their children down the road.
All of them have kindergartners for next fall. And kindergarten is your best and sometimes only shot to get in the school you want.
“A lot of hard decisions,” said Shannon Baylis.
She and her husband, Henry, had their notes splayed out between them. They were setting up a rating system ranging from “Yes,” “Cool” and “All right” to “No.”
With 10,182 children enrolled in Kansas City’s 20 charter schools in 2014-2015, the independent public schools now serve more than 40 percent of the public school children within the Kansas City Public Schools district boundary.
The school district, after dropping to 14,100 students a year ago, saw its enrollment rise in 2014-2015 to 14,228.
The landscape can be confounding to parents, said Deidre Anderson, executive director of United Inner City Services, which operates the St. Mark program just east of downtown.
The district, once unaccredited, is provisional now and pushing for full accreditation. It has its own mix of popular schools and struggling schools.
Charters — some of them now 15 years old — vary from clear and popular successes to schools that failed in either academics or financial management or both. Five have closed in the past four years.
The debate remains hot whether charters and school choice have equitably improved public education for all — but there’s no question the competition has changed the way charters and the district create and define their schools.
At St. Mark, Anderson has watched parents in its early childhood program approach that critical kindergarten year beset by anxiety.
Some have the economic means to consider moving but want to stay in the city. Others can’t leave and are desperate to make a good school choice.
They want to sort out “the alphabet soup” of state testing and accountability acronyms, she said.
And often, “the people in the greatest need of choice don’t know how to do that.”
The stakes could hardly be higher, parent Kelley Davis said. She and her husband, Chris, are picking a school for 5-year-old Violet.
The child has an artist’s zeal, “cutting out anything cute that she can glue to furniture,” Davis said.
“School is going to help define who she is, and I don’t want anything less for her than I had for myself,” she said. “To find the right place, you have to be involved. You have to be an advocate.”
Then there are the parents who didn’t make the tour. Most of them have jobs. Some were unable to leave work to attend.
Some didn’t know to try.
St. Mark’s history is rooted in the civil rights movement, Anderson said. And there are times she worries about “the re-segregation of schools.”
Aggressive parents surround their children with the children of other aggressive parents in the market’s better school offerings.
Struggling schools are left with disproportionately high numbers of children whose family supports aren’t as strong.
“We all want prosperous futures for our children,” Anderson said. “But it’s gotten super complicated.”
Tricia Johnson, a Kansas City parent, started Show Me KC Schools to try to bridge the information gap.
The organization has been gathering school information, setting up parent fairs and now tours to help them sort out what is typically “the first question on the playground” when they meet at the park.
She wants to alter habits that have some families enrolling in their assigned district school, unaware they have choices.
Other families have summarily dismissed the district, unaware that they have choices within the district that are popular and successful.
Some have chosen any charter school, either unable or unwilling to sort through the differences.
But Johnson sees changes happening. More informed parents are driving change.
The stronger charter schools are building on their support and expanding. The school district is innovating and promoting more school choices — including partnering with charters.
The district is expanding its dual-college credit programming, adding more career education programs, infusing technology — and some charters are, too.
“There is no shortage of great schools,” Johnson said. “More parents are investing time. … Creative and positive things are happening. Parents are starting to identify what makes a great school, and schools are trying to respond.”
The district, which rarely dealt with charters in the past, is striking up partnerships with successful programs.
“We have to find ways to be competitive,” Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green said. “You’re going to see more collaboration, more working together.”
Green, who served on charter school boards before becoming the district leader, has some reservations about the charter movement.
One of the foundational ideas is that charter competition compels schools to innovate and be successful, or shut down if they fail.
“You could argue that is how entrepreneurship works,” Green said. “But a failed charter is different than a failed business. You’re affecting families and children. You’re disrupting education.”
But he’s not going to deny a family’s desire to be able to choose.
“From a consumer standpoint … the power of choice is a good thing,” he said. “And (the responsibility) is on all of us to make sure that choice is an informed choice.”
Deony Blakely, 5, is ready for kindergarten. “She wants to be a TV star,” her mother, Kyla James, said at St. Mark.
When the child was last at their pediatrician’s office, her personality paraded in full display, James said the doctor told her, “You’ve got to get her in a good school.”
Queshelle Lark’s 4-year-old twins — Cameron and Camille — are ready.
Camille is enamored with the cartoon character Doc McStuffins. She’s thinking doctor, certainly playing one. And Cameron is into “sports all the way” and talking lawyer, judge or a dietary manager (his dad’s job).
Just what schools James will find for Deony, and Lark for her twins, they don’t know. But they’re determined to get it right.
“These are my investments,” Lark said. “These are my seeds!”