This public charter school became the whitest in the KC district. It's trying to change

The Academie Lafayette charter school is the whitest public school in Kansas City. Nearly 70 percent of its students are white.

The leaders of the academically high-ranked French language immersion charter admit that's jarring for a school in the Kansas City Public Schools district, where almost 9 in 10 students are minorities. It's also a big change: The school started out nearly two decades ago well-mixed.

School leaders say the change happened by accident, before they knew what was going on, and now they're trying to rebalance their student mix.

"We recognize it now. We are trying to fix it," said Leslie Kohlmeyer, who until April was the admissions and outreach coordinator for Academie Lafayette. "Our parents would tell you they want their children in a quality school that also is diverse."

The school has two buildings, one for kindergarten through third grade at 3241 Cherry St. in midtown and one for fourth through eighth grades at 6903 Oak St. in Brookside.

Just 18 percent of the student body is African-American, and 5 percent is Hispanic.

The only other school in the Kansas City Public Schools district with a heavily white racial breakdown is Hale Cook Elementary.

According to the district, that school this year is 48 percent white and 44 percent black. Hale Cook, at 7302 Pennsylvania Ave., also in Brookside, was reopened by the district in 2014.

As a traditional district school, Hale Cook has neighborhood boundaries to contend with. A school in a neighborhood that is predominantly white should have a student population that is mostly white, and a school in a predominantly black neighborhood should have a student population that is predominantly black.

Nearly 80 percent of the residents in the Hale Cook neighborhood are white. Its attendance area runs from Brush Creek on the north as far south as 79th Street and from state line on the west as far east as the Paseo.

Hale Cook's 200 students "reflect demographics of the families who live in that neighborhood," said Natalie Allen, KCPS district spokesperson.

Academie Lafayette is a public charter school and has no neighborhood boundaries. To be eligible to send a child to the school, a family only has to live within the Kansas City district, where 55 percent of all school-age children are black.

That is perhaps why even some school leaders at Academie Lafayette and at other public schools in Kansas City are questioning the school's 66 percent white student body.

"But that is not who we are," said Kohlmeyer, who last month left Academie Lafayette to work for the education advocacy group Show Me KC Schools.

Before she left, Kohlmeyer was working on ways to attract more minority students. But she said the school, where her two children are students, is not likely to see any significant change for at least three or four years, when students who are there now begin to graduate and make room for a more diverse student body.

In the meantime, school officials spread the African-American students into as many classrooms as possible to create as much of a diverse learning space as they can.

This year's eighth-grade class, Kohlmeyer said, "is the whitest and largest in the history of the school."

Academie Lafayette Al-mbenge portrait.jpg
Elimane Mbengue, the head of Academie Lafayette Academie Lafayette

The head of Academie Lafayette, Elimane Mbengue, said that's because it contains students who enrolled several years ago at the start of a rapid "downward turn in diversity" at the school.

When the school opened in 1999, the first year that charter schools were allowed in Missouri, almost 60 percent of students were African-American, Mbengue said.

Academie Lafayette looked a lot more like other public schools in Kansas City. "That was our template," he said.

The big demographic turnover occurred in 2009. But looking back at the numbers, Mbengue, who has led the school for six years, said things actually began to shift in 2003. That's when the school moved a few blocks north from 68th Street and Holmes Road into a former Kansas City public school at the Oak Street address in Brookside.

That school had been vacant for several years, and the families who lived around it were wondering how the old building would be used.

"People take notice when a new school moves into a neighborhood," Kohlmeyer said

The move, Mbengue said, "created more awareness among the white community, so the number of white families that applied to the school ticked up."

Then in 2008-09, the Great Recession peaked. Many parents in the predominantly white Brookside neighborhood and even parents in more affluent nearby neighborhoods, who might have planned to enroll their children in private schools, decided they didn't want to pay private school tuition. So they went looking for a top-performing public school.

From the beginning, Academie Lafayette students have consistently performed well above average on the state's standardized tests. As recently as last year, Academie Lafayette was again one of the top-performing schools in the city on the state annual performance report, which measures how well a school is doing in several areas, including student performance, attendance and graduation rates.

And in 2008-09, at the time that Brookside-area parents went looking for a top public school, the Kansas City Public Schools district was on the brink of losing its state accreditation. The district, which is now provisionally accredited, lost accreditation in 2011.

So in 2009, Academie Lafayette got its largest pool of applicants ever — 139 kindergartners. Until that point, the language-immersion school, which admits children only at the kindergarten level, had enrolled about 80 or so kindergartners each year.

That year it took in all 139 students. Seventy percent were white.

And even though white kindergartners for the first time in the school's history outnumbered black kindergartners 3 to 1, "nobody realized it the year we took those kids in," Kohlmeyer said.

"Nobody realized it the next year either, and then the third year is when people were like, 'Hey, wait a minute. We took those kids and now we have their siblings and there is a problem.'"

Academie Lafayette also gives preference to students' siblings. In that 2009 class of kindergarteners, "almost all of them had at least three siblings," Mbengue said.

In subsequent years, Academie Lafayette began admitting students through a lottery selection. The school had space for 120 kindergartners each year. But if you have 120 seats and half the students applying are siblings getting an automatic acceptance, Mbengue said, that leaves only 60 available seats to be drawn randomly from a pool of applicants that continued to be significantly more white than black.

Another factor affecting Academie Lafayette's numbers was that African-American families had started moving out of the the Kansas City district's boundaries into more suburban areas such as North Kansas City, Raytown, Independence, Blue Springs, Lee's Summit and Kansas City North.

And, Kohlmeyer suspects, families with less income, who disproportionately happen to be minority, or less education or both were not as savvy about researching the best schools or about applying early.

"We had two problems," Mbengue said. "Our diversity was going down and our low-income population was going down, too."

He said that at one point, the school was being "perceived as being white and elitist" by some black clergy and civic leaders.

As a first step to try to attract more black and Hispanic students, the school partnered with the Jewish Vocational Services to recruit Somalian refugees who speak French.

School officials thought the Somali students might fit in, even at some of the upper grades, because they wouldn't have a language barrier. But the school quickly realized the Somali students hadn't experienced the educational rigor their students were used to. That plan failed.

Academie Lafayette then received grants, one from the Stanley H. Durwood Foundation, another from the Kauffman Foundation, to start community outreach targeting preschools in minority and low-income neighborhoods.

If they could send Acadamie Lafayette teachers to spend time exposing preschool children to French and tell their parents about the immersion program, they might increase the number of African-American applicants.

Academie Lafayette now has two teachers working in area preschools and three recruiters visiting minority churches and school registration events. Recruiters help parents fill out applications, which the school has simplified by not requesting paperwork — such as proof of residency — until after the child makes it out of the lottery.

It was through outreach that Cassandra Wainright, a member of Kansas City's Concerned Clergy Coalition, a predominantly African-American, faith-based community engagement group, got interested in Academie Lafayette.

Wainright said once she heard about the school, its high performance and that it was looking to increase the diversity of its student body, she was ready to help. In the fall, two of her grandchildren will attend.

But even with all the recruiting, Mbengue realized that to reverse the numbers, the school also had to increase the amount of seats available each year.

With 120 seats and 60 promised to siblings, there would be only 60 seats to offer. With a lottery pool that was still predominantly white, minority growth would be slow.

With the $4 million purchase of the former Derrick Thomas Academy building and plans to eventually include a high school there, Academie Lafayette was able to increase its kindergarten class to 198.

"That gave us 130 seats to work with," Mbengue said.

It's paying off, he said. This year's incoming kindergarten class is 52 percent minority and 48 percent white. "I hope this is a trend," he said.

"I'm hoping that in three years, the school will look more like the rest in the city. I think in three years the trend will be reversed, something close to 47 percent white and 53 percent minority, or maybe 50-50."