Failed deal between KC schools, Academie Lafayette reveals city’s issues with race and education

Fourth-graders attended a music class at Academie Lafayette recently. The school’s majority-white student population, rare among Kansas City’s charter schools, was a concern for some opponents of a proposal to partner with Kansas City Public Schools.
Fourth-graders attended a music class at Academie Lafayette recently. The school’s majority-white student population, rare among Kansas City’s charter schools, was a concern for some opponents of a proposal to partner with Kansas City Public Schools. The Kansas City Star

Unraveling Kansas City Public Schools’ broken bid to partner with its charter school rival, Academie Lafayette, will be hard. Very hard.

The city’s longstanding divisions over race, economics and the ownership of public education lace the autopsy lying before city leaders and communities.

When the district and the charter last week called off their dramatic plans to roll out a charter-run high school for charter and district students at the former Southwest High School, opposing forces on school and community board rooms could stand down.

But the pressures that prompted the surprising partnership are only mounting.

Families are still leaving Kansas City’s public school system — both district and charter schools — sucking away much of the city’s vitality.

The school district is plagued with gaping spaces in many of its high schools, and the charter system overall continues to lack either the resources or the capacity to turn the tide.

“We need some strong people,” Kansas City Mayor Sly James said, “to step up and fight through their problems and get past uncomfortable feelings with race and with concepts of change.

“If we let our discomfort stop us now, we’ll never solve those problems.”

More “tough dialogue” will come, said Kansas City school board president Jon Hile.

The proposal, though now defeated, “was proof that the district and charters can work together creatively,” Hile said. “But as a community, we’re not quite there yet.”

Support for the school was strong throughout the city, Hile said, and many are “deeply disappointed.”

But opposition also was strong.

At a news conference by multiple community and ministerial groups, the Rev. Rodney Williams of Swope Parkway United Christian Church warned that a partnership with a majority-white, more economically affluent charter school population would be an “insidious” step toward “resegregation.”

The Metropolitan Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2) and the NAACP stood against the partnership for ceding control of the school from Kansas City’s elected school board to the charter school’s unelected, appointed board.

They worried about the health of the district’s selective school, Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, if Southwest opened as a selective school across town.

Divisions within the Kansas City school board also were threatening the plan. Some board members who opposed the plan argued that handing the building to the charter would involve a sale or lease of the school, which requires six of nine votes to pass. Supporters argued it would be a use agreement that needed only a simple majority of five votes.

Ultimately, district and charter leaders said, they could not devise a palatable solution for serving the roughly 400 current students at Southwest who would be displaced by a fresh-starting high school.

James is leading a call to get the deal back in play. “I ask people to go back to the table,” he said. “Work together. Get past the discomfort. …We have a chance to raise the vision and whole concept of high school in this city.”

Wide gaps

Opposition is complicated, said MORE2 executive director Lora McDonald, and often strikes personal chords.

She knows how some parents bend toward choices outside the Kansas City school district. She made such a choice when she enrolled her son in a small private school.

But she has since come to believe that engaged parents can help secure a high-quality education in their neighborhood public school. Charters, she thinks, dilute resources and attention from children in schools that need them most.

“Academie Lafayette was not the target (of the opposition),” she said. “We want everyone to focus on the students who are in the district.”

More diversity and more parents with resources would bring vital strength, and she wants investments in schools that might help revive confidence and support in neighborhood Kansas City schools.

“But that’s hard,” she said, “because a lot of people are carrying around baggage (of harsh impressions of KC schools) like I was.”

Academie Lafayette, as the lone charter school with a majority white enrollment, arouses complaints that it is resegregating education. But most other charters and most of the area public school systems show broader racial splits, whichever population is in the majority.

With 66.8 percent white enrollment, Academie Lafayette is the second-closest to a 50/50 racial split among Kansas City’s 20 charter schools, with only Crossroads Academy, at 38 percent white enrollment, being closer.

Of the more than two dozen surrounding Missouri school districts, only North Kansas City and Independence, both around 62 percent white, strike a closer racial balance.

The average gap between enrollment of white students and students of color in area Missouri districts is 66 percentage points. Among charter schools, the average gap is 85 percentage points.

Academie Lafayette board president Chad Phillips, like many of the school’s parents, looked for a comfortable public school option that would help his family stay in a city neighborhood they love for its racial and cultural diversity.

For many years now the K-8 charter school has looked for a way to extend its programming into high school grades. But the costs and sustainable logistics have been confounding.

The school district’s stability over the past four years has helped more of the charter community see value in collaborating in their education missions.

“I saw this as a way to bridge the gap,” Phillips said.

His son is an eighth-grader, meaning his hopes of continuing in an Academie Lafayette high school ended in January when the charter determined it would not be able to open anywhere in the fall of 2015.

“I had to tell him he wouldn’t be able to continue on … with friends he’d been with nine years, and it was devastating to him,” Phillips said.

Phillips had been deepening his search of high school options when he learned his son had qualified to attend Lincoln. But many families disperse in other directions.

Falling enrollments

The lack of enough attractive public high school seats shows in enrollment figures.

Kansas City’s number of families in public schools plummets through the high school years, according to an analysis of state data by The Star.

In the 25 largest Missouri public school districts surrounding the Kansas City Public Schools boundary, 30 percent of the students are enrolled in high school. In the Kansas City district and the charter school system combined, only 21 percent of students are enrolled in high school.

The school district is also looking at significant challenges ahead with increasing numbers of empty seats in many of its high schools, particularly at Southwest.

Five buildings that can hold some 1,200 students each — Southwest, Central, Northeast, Paseo and the African-centered program at Southeast — have an average enrollment of 597. Southwest sits among the lowest at 493.

The district previously bolstered the numbers in its general high schools by moving in seventh- and eighth-graders, an unpopular move that the district has now undone by re-opening two middle schools. The middle schools started with 600 seventh-graders this school year and will double when they add eighth grade this fall, emptying more high school seats.

In other words, the district will need partnerships in the future — whether with charter schools, higher education programs or community offices — if it is going to justify keeping so many high schools open.

The options remain wide open, Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green said, as the district’s administration continues its work with consultants on a master plan for the future, a process that has already featured numerous community gatherings for input.

Can there be enough common ground?

Clinton Adams, the chairman of the Urban Summit’s education committee, led much of the opposition to the Academie Lafayette partnership, decrying what he said would be “an elitist school for the Southwest Corridor at the threat of a blue-ribbon school at Lincoln.”

But, he said at the outset, “I would hope people want academic excellence and an integrated education system throughout the city.”

That’s one of the things that comes out of these conflicts, Hile said, “that there are still a lot of people who care about our public schools and our kids.”

So keep trying, James says.

“There is nothing to lose in working with people,” he said. “There’s nothing to be lost getting to know people on a personal level. This is doable.”