The room at the Woodland Early Learning Community School on Friday was packed with smiles, hugs and applause to celebrate Kansas City Public School District’s highest scores ever in the latest state Annual Progress Report.
The 82.9 percent score KCPS pulled in puts the district firmly on the path toward gaining full accreditation by 2020, Superintendent Mark Bedell promised the crowded room and the Kansas City community.
“We have been at the bottom in the state for a long time and those days are over,” he said. “My simple prayer is that we continue on this path because the truth is, this school district’s full accreditation is within reach.”
APR uses several factors to measure every public school and district in the state, factors including attendance and graduation rates, career and college readiness and students’ scores on state standardized tests and end-of-course exams.
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Districts are expected to earn at least 70 percent of the possible 120 points available this year to be at full accreditation level. This time, Kansas City Public Schools, which is provisionally accredited, earned 99.5 points.
But state officials on Thursday told The Star that hitting the mark once is not enough. Kansas City will have to maintain an APR score of at least 70 percent for at least another consecutive year before the state will grant the district full accreditation.
“It is a very good start,” said Margie Vandeven, Missouri state commissioner of education.
Bedell said he’s OK with that challenge and is confident his district will bring in high scores again. “My attitude is we know what the bar is so we will do what it takes to get there.”
The teachers, district and state school leaders, along with Kansas City political and civil leaders who attended Friday’s celebratory announcement, seemed to nod in agreement.
“There is nothing like rooting for an underdog, that institution, that person that has been counted out yet they did not retreat, waiting on their time to shine,” said Melissa Robinson, who chairs the school board. “This is our time. Today is about education. It is about the liberation of our children.”
Bedell attributes the improvement to several changes since he became superintendent two years ago.
“We rewrote curriculum and that went into effect last year,” Bedell said. “We redesigned professional development and aligned it to what the state expects students to know, and we redesigned principal meetings,” to teach principals to be instructional leaders rather than just managers.
Bedell said the district also did simple things, such as having principals take the same assessment tests students take so they know what students are truly up against.
“We got back to the fundamentals of teaching and learning,” Bedell said. “I feel even better this year than I felt last year at this time.”
He made it clear, though, that he can’t take all the credit. “This is based on the hard work of our children,” Bedell said, adding, “and our teachers were working hard long before Dr. Bedell arrived.” He gave kudos to community groups and philanthropists as well as school board members who he said have supported the changes and doled out millions of dollars for initiatives vital to academic success, including new Chrome books for elementary students.
Then Bedell thanked his predecessors. He named former superintendents John Covington, Steve Green and Al Tunis, who he said all made tough decisions, including closing schools and gaining financial stability, that “paved the way for us to be here today.”
KCPS has been only provisionally accredited since 2014. It is one of six districts in the state that does not have full accreditation. But for the last four years Kansas City has been gaining ground.
In 2016 the district celebrated a score of 70 percent. At the time it was the highest score the district had seen in 30 years. But the district failed to maintain that level the following year. In 2017, due mostly to low attendance, the district dropped below 70 percent.
The new 2018 scores showed the district earned 5 out the the possible 8 points in social studies and 15 out of 16 possible points in English and in math. Science scores were not counted because the state was trying out a new test.
Because of changes in the tests, it will be another two years at least before all the test scores can be factored into a district’s APR measurement. Only then will districts be able to compare their improvement from one year to the next, Vandeven said.
“If you really want to look at whether we are improving as a state it will take a few years,” she said.
But Bedell said he will be looking at how his district fared compared to other urban districts and state averages. For example, 11.3 percent fewer Kansas City students scored at proficient and advanced levels in English this year. But the state number dropped 14 percent.
“So we are doing better than the state. We are closing the gap,” Bedell said. He said that overall the district is showing growth. “Two years ago we had 54 percent of students performing below basic; now we are at 47 percent.”
Bedell said he is also applauding the district’s performance in other areas.
Two years ago the district’s four-year graduation rate was at 68.7 percent. It is now at 70.9 percent. Bedell said the district is on track to meet the state’s rate of 89.2 percent by 2020.
But the district still struggles with student attendance. KCPS earned 6 of the possible 10 points in the APR for attendance this year. That score mirrors last year’s attendance score. But the district scored well enough in other areas that its overall score improved.
The state expects schools to have 90 percent of it students in class 90 percent of the time. That is a challenge for KCPS because its 40 percent mobility rate is “very high,” Bedell said. Four out of 10 students who start out the year at a school won’t be there at the end of the year.
The district is going to need “help from our families,” said Ray Weikal, a district spokesman. “We know that our families have challenges but the reality is we are asking our families to work with us.”
Most other districts and public charter schools in the Kansas City area also performed well, including Hickman Mills, another provisionally accredited district that received an overall score of 77 percent, its highest in five years. That district is also on the path to regain full accreditation.
Hickman Mills Superintendent Yolanda Cargile highlighted several areas where the district showed noted improvement, including an increase in the graduation rate to 86.9 percent from 82.3 the previous year. She said 96.4 percent of graduates enroll in post-secondary institutions, join the military or find jobs.
“We will continue our laser-like focus on reaching full accreditation,” Cargile said. “Our leadership team, teachers and staff are doing everything they can to help our students reach their full potential.”
Lee’s Summit, meanwhile, earned a 99.3 percent overall APR score.
“Students and staff have done phenomenal work reviewing and implementing systems and programs that have assisted with increased performance,” said Superintendent Dennis Carpenter. “We are so proud of our community. We have much to celebrate.”
▪ Blue Springs - 100 percent
▪ Liberty - 97.8
▪ North Kansas City - 97.4 percent
▪ Independence - 97.5 percent
▪ Oak Grove - 96.9 percent
▪ Park Hill - 95.8 percent
▪ Fort Osage - 90.9 percent
▪ Center - 90.4 percent
▪ Grandview - 90.2 percent
Three charter schools, Academie Lafayette, University Academy and the Ewing Marion Kauffman School all scored 100 percent. Most of the other charters in Kansas scored at least 80 percent or better on the state’s annual performance review.
Bedell said his district will celebrate its high score for now because, “these are real results.”
But, he said, “we have a lot more to do. We have a system now. We are positioned. Full accreditation is not our end game. It just gets the gorilla off our shoulders.”
Area supporters of the district said they see full accreditation in the near future.
“I’m ecstatic. I’m extremely optimistic,” said Gwendolyn Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. Grant said while she was a bit skeptical about what could be accomplished when Bedell was hired, she now has real confidence.
“He has articulated and demonstrated a mastery of his understanding of the problems and what is required to move the district forward. You can see they are doing the ground work. It is not pie in the sky.”