New York charter looking to take over a struggling public school in Kansas City

A college preparatory public charter school may be on its way from New York City’s Harlem neighborhood to take over a struggling school in Kansas City, and a state charter schools agency has rolled out the welcome mat.

“I’m so excited,” said Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission. “This is one of those schools we fell in love with. They are what they say.”

The school, Democracy Prep, started in Harlem in 2006 and now operates 22 education programs in New York, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Louisiana and Las Vegas. Its credo, on its website, says “that demographics do not determine destiny and that low-income students can be successful in the college of their choice.”

The school is part of a spate of proposals in Kansas City’s charter school pipeline, according to state data on applications:

The 3-Trails Polytechnic School would be the first charter in the Hickman Mills School District. The neighborhood school, proposed to open in 2020, would provide a broad range of services for the entire community, including an on-site banking kiosk, transit passes, washers and dryers, a clothes closet, a food pantry and employment/family counseling.

The Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy, the city’s first single-gender public school, is set to open next fall in the Northeast area of the city. It is seeking applications by March 1 from girls living within the Kansas City Public Schools boundaries and entering fifth grade. The school plans to open with 100 students its first year.

A boys-only charter, Monarch Collegiate Preparatory Academy, had planned to open in fall 2019 but may be delayed.

Girls Prep will be the city’s 23rd charter school.

Missouri law allows charters to operate in the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts and in districts that have lost full state accreditation. Hickman Mills, like the Kansas City school district, is provisionally accredited.

Wahby said the state charter commission is especially excited about Democracy Prep and would plan to sponsor the school. The network’s first middle school has been touted as one of the most academically successful schools in Harlem. But it has not been successful in every venture. This year Democracy Prep announced it was pulling out of a Washington, D.C., charter school it had taken over in 2014. The reason, according to a Washington Post report, is that it could not give the 600 students there the school they deserved.

Wahby said Democracy Prep officials told her they might take over a struggling school currently operating in Kansas City, rather than forming a completely new school, finding a building, hiring a staff and enrolling new students. No school has been singled out.

Democracy Prep would bring in its own curriculum, programs and method of operations, but possibly keep the same staff and students, she said.

Jonathan Howard, vice president of network growth for Democracy Prep, said in a statement that the network is “committed to educating more scholars on their paths to college success and lives of active citizenship. As such, we look at cities where we believe we can make an impact, like Las Vegas, Camden, (N.J.), and perhaps Kansas City.”

“While we are in the initial stages of our process for exploring growth in Missouri, we believe our most critical step is finding a stellar local leader to spearhead our work of understanding the local education landscape,” Howard said. “We look forward to continuing to learn about the need for quality school options there and to exploring how we might help.”

That help, Wahby said, could be offered to one of the city’s struggling charters or district schools.

Eight years ago, the network had inquired about growing into Kansas City, but nothing came of it.

Kansas City Public Schools leaders have for years expressed concerns that Kansas City may have too many charter schools, and there aren’t enough students to fill empty seats. State funding is distributed to districts schools and charters based primarily on enrollment.

Mark Bedell, superintendent of KCPS, says he is not opposed to charter schools and giving Kansas City parents more educational choices for their students. In fact, in October, he announced that the district was looking to sponsor more charter schools itself. KCPS currently sponsors one charter.

“I have never opposed school choice. What I want is accountability,” Bedell said then.

Bedell also has said the district is “open to collaboration and partnership,” said spokesman Ray Weikal. Bedell has said the district could share services with charters, such as transportation and athletic fields.

“The question has to be: Do we need them right now?” Weikal said. “We are not advocating for the elimination of charter schools. We want to make this a better system.”

Wahby said she is not concerned that charters might face opposition.

“I see the better angels,” Wahby said. “People get into this work because they want better education for children. The district has a particularly vexing problem; the community wants schools to be better. The mayor wants to see the schools get better. And every superintendent I meet wants to see kids in a great school.”

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