Kansas City Public Schools hits the full accreditation mark for first time in decades

Kansas City Public Schools officials hung balloons and struck up the band Monday for a long-awaited celebration.

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the district has scored at full accreditation level on the state-issued report that measures progress in a number of performance areas, including how well students did on standardized tests.

But the district may have to wait another year before the state grants it that status. State officials have said they first want proof the district can sustain its newly reached performance level.

That didn’t stop students from shaking colorful pom-poms and even singing and dancing a bit as a band played at Wendell Phillips at Attucks Elementary School, where Superintendent Mark Bedell made the announcement and called it “a historic moment.”

Full accreditation, Bedell said, would not only greatly change the district’s long-held reputation as being full of struggling schools and low-performing students, but it could also help attract more top teachers to the district and lead to increased district enrollment. Building enrollment was announced as a district priority this school year.

“It gives us leverage,” Bedell said. “It allows for the community to say Kansas City Public Schools are trending in the right direction.”

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Monday morning released the annual performance scores for every district and charter school in the state. Only seven districts in the state scored below full accreditation level.

In the Kansas City area, Hickman Mills was among those that missed that mark. But for the first time, state officials said, no district in Missouri scored below 50 percent on the progress review — the level needed to be at least provisionally accredited.

Kansas City jumped up from 22.5 Annual Progress Report points in 2012 to 98 this year, out of the 140 possible APR points. Those 75.5 points, gained over four years, put the district over the line for full accreditation at 70 percent.

That’s why a giant 98 adorned the celebratory cake district officials cut after Monday’s announcement.

“We are especially pleased to see significant improvement in APR scores in unaccredited districts,” said Margie Vandeven, Missouri commissioner of education. The Missouri School Improvement Program is the state’s school accountability system for reviewing and accrediting public school districts.

Of the 553 traditional public school districts and charter public schools with an Annual Progress Report, scores averaged at 90 percent, according to a state news release.

Kansas City school officials said they are ecstatic to have finally scored in the full accreditation range.

“Of course we feel really great about the growth and progress we have made,” said Vickie Murillo, the chief academic and accountability officer for Kansas City Public Schools. “We feel the district is poised to receive full accreditation and continues to move in the right direction — upward and forward.”

Murillo gave much of the credit for the improved scores to “a focus on teaching and learning. We were strategic, we met students where they were and crafted a plan to make sure that students made growth and progress for the next year,” she said.

But she was quick to say that while the district has reached full accreditation levels in its scores, “there is no breathing” room.

Two area charter schools — University Academy and the Ewing Marion Kauffman School — this year achieved all 140 points for a 100 percent performance score.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James expressed pride in the accomplishment made by the schools in the city, making special note of the Kansas City school district improvements.

The announcement “proves that if we continue to set high expectations for our kids, they will rise to meet them,” James said. “I want to congratulate Kansas City Public Schools on this great step towards accreditation, and I’m hopeful that KCPS will continue to do whatever it takes to ensure the success of their students.”

The Kansas City school system’s performance review results “have improved by more than 75 points in four years,” said Natalie Allen, district spokeswoman.

Currently, Kansas City, like Hickman Mills, is provisionally accredited, which means that until now, the district has consistently landed in the range of 50 percent to 69.9 percent of the possible APR points.

But hitting that full accreditation level is not enough. State officials have said a district has to maintain performance at that level or higher for at least another year before full accreditation is considered.

“While we are on the right track, this type of revival by an urban school district like KCPS is very rare,” said Bedell. “This is not the end. We are on the starting line for greater things.”

He said that now that the district has hit the full accreditation mark, “we will have to work that much harder to stay here.” Should that happen, he said, Kansas City will apply for full accreditation next year.

Bedell, who became superintendent before the start of the current school year, unveiled a plan Monday to help the district sustain its new gains.

The strategy includes growing an innovative program to address trauma-sensitive schools “to make sure we are supporting our kids not only academically but socially and emotionally,” Bedell said. He also talked about nurturing a mentorship program that within the next five years would connect every student to a positive adult mentor who is not a member of their family, growing the district’s early childhood education program, and pushing for more community and business partnerships with schools.

The APR score is comprised of points for each of five performance standards: academic achievement, subgroup achievement, high school readiness or college and career readiness, attendance rate, and graduation rate. The majority of the points come from how well students do on standardized tests. Districts get points for moving students up on the academic performance scale from below basic to basic, from basic to proficient, from proficient to advanced.

This year overall, 35.2 percent of the students in Kansas City Public Schools scored proficient or advanced in English, 23.8 percent landed in the top areas in math, 44.9 percent hit the mark in social studies and 22.8 percent in science.

Districts across the state this year struggled to reach high scores in science, and state officials have said they are looking at recalibrating the way science is scored.

Bedell said getting more students scoring proficient or advanced in all the areas assessed by the state — math, social studies, English language arts and science — won’t be easy going forward for the district.

He said the district is challenged with having one in five students for whom English is not the first language, a 41 percent student mobility rate, and 100 percent of its students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, a state measure of poverty in a district.

Those are some of the very challenges that made fourth-grade teacher Sarah Roberts nervous about stepping into a Kansas City public school classroom for the first time this year.

But Roberts, who also is a parent with two children attending Kansas City’s public schools, was smiling at Monday’s announcement. When she heard the news, she said as a parent she was “relieved and excited. As a teacher, I was very proud.”

Melissa Robinson, who chairs the Kansas City Public Schools Board of Directors, praised students, staff, leadership and partners for their significant achievement. Robinson pointed out that the gains were earned over time even with a constantly shifting educational landscape in Missouri.

“The state’s academic achievement standards are widely considered among the most rigorous in the nation,” Robinson said.

State educators expect districts to have at least 75 percent of their students scoring in the proficient or advanced levels in each subject area tested by 2020.

Some other area districts saw their APR score slip this year. Center School District, in south Kansas City, for the first time in three years saw its score fall out of the 90-percent level to 80.7 percent this year, down from 92.1 in 2015.

“We are still solidly in the full accreditation category,” said Kelly Wachel, a district spokeswoman

Dennis Carpenter, superintendent of Hickman Mills schools, said he has been working toward turning around his provisionally accredited south Kansas City district. While the district showed improvement in all five areas measured this year, it still missed the mark on reaching full accreditation level.

“Contrary to what the state APR suggests, I would put Hickman Mills’ academic performance results up against any district in the state with the same demographics,” Carpenter said.

He said poverty in the district and the tremendous amount of mobility of students in and out of the district daily present unusually difficult challenges for urban districts like Hickman Mills, where 100 percent of the students get free and reduced-price lunch.

Katie Roe, director of professional development and college and career readiness for Hickman Mills schools, said district officials working toward full accreditation are concerned more broadly with how students are being served, rather than looking only at “how kids are performing on that single test in May.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

Area scores

How some other area districts scored this year on the state’s Annual Performance Report:

Lee’s Summit: 97.9 percent, up from 96.8 in 2015

Grandview: 78.6 percent, down from 82.9 in 2015

Blue Springs: 99.6 percent, down from 100 percent in 2015

Fort Osage: 92.1 percent, up from 89.3 in 2015

Center: 80.7 percent, down from 92.1 in 2015

Raytown: 79.6 percent, down from 81.4 in 2015

Independence: 89.6 percent, up from 89.3 in 2015

Park Hill: 97.9 percent, down from 98.2 in 2015

North Kansas City: 96.4 percent, down from 97.5 in 2015