‘It was not fair to the kids’: Here’s why two Kansas City charter schools are closing

Nearly 400 children in Kansas City have to find new schools to attend this fall after two public charter schools announced they are closing at the end of this academic year.

The Kansas City Neighborhood Academy, sponsored by the Kansas City Public School District, is closing due to low enrollment. Meanwhile, Pathway Academy, sponsored by the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, is closing due to low student performance and declining enrollment.

In both cases, the decision was made by the charters’ school boards, said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association. Both closings were announced this week.

He said the boards concluded they were not able to fully implement their education programs, “it was not fair to the kids and there are better options for them out there.”

The Neighborhood Academy, which the district took on in 2016 as its first charter sponsorship, opened with 97 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Even as it opened its doors, Thaman said the school was under-enrolled by about 85 students.

The Neighborhood Academy was started by the Urban Neighborhood Initiative inside the former Wendell Phillips school building. The charter school, located at 1619 East 24th Terrace, was founded to be an anchor for future revitalization in neighborhoods along the Troost corridor.

“Despite vigorous efforts, we have struggled to meet our annual enrollment and budgetary goals,” Dianne Cleaver, school founder and chairwoman of the Neighborhood Academy school board, said in a statement. “Slower than expected housing development around the school and the increasing number of seats available in our city also present significant obstacles for KCNA and has caused us to analyze the long-term sustainability of our school. “

While enrollment did increase — reaching 163 students by 2017 and more than 230 students at the start of this year — Thaman said that for a third year of operation, the school was still under enrolled by at least 85 students.

“An enrollment issue means a budget issue,” Thaman said.

School officials said that an enrollment app that allows parents to apply to multiple charter schools around the city last spring showed that nearly 700 students had applied for spots at the Neighborhood Academy. Cleaver said the school did not expect all 700, but on the first day of class in August, only about 140 of those students showed up.

Since the first day of school this year, enrollment has dropped to 188 students, “primarily due to housing instability,” Cleaver said.

Missouri public schools are funded by the state on a per pupil basis. Charter schools are public schools sponsored by an educational entity and operated by an independent school board.

While Kansas City Public School District sponsored the Neighborhood Academy, it was not responsible for its day-to-day operation and had no say in its decision to close.

Pathway Academy had recently gone through sponsorship transition. The charter had been sponsored by the University of Missouri-Kansas City until late last year, when the university, after 19 years, decided to get out of the charter school sponsoring business. It let go of its eight charter schools, including Pathway. Pathway’s sponsorship was then picked up by the Missouri Charter Public School Commission.

Initially, Pathway opened in 2009 serving students in kindergarten through fourth grade. The school reached its enrollment height in 2012 with 435 students. But its current enrollment, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is 203, dropping by more than half in seven years.

But Thaman said the main reason for Pathway closing was because students were under-performing and school administrators “were unable to move the needle” on performance.

Thaman said that while Pathway this year had a high Annual Performance Report, scoring at 95 percent, “25 or 26 other charter and KCPS district schools performed above them in English and in math. And that speaks to the fact that there are a lot of other, better, options for students.”

While these charters are set to close, other charters are planning to open in the city.

In the fall, the Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy, the city’s first single-gender public charter school, plans to move into the Hogan Preparatory Academy Elementary School building at 5000 E. 17th St., off Van Brunt Boulevard.

An all-boys public charter, Monarch Collegiate Prep Academy, is under consideration, according to information on the Missouri Charter Public School Commission website.

Thaman said the closing of the two schools does not mean that opening new charter schools in Kansas City is a bad idea.

“If the question is: Are there more seats than there are kids in Kansas City, the answer is probably yes,” Thaman said. “But if the question is are there more quality seats than there are kids, the answer is probably no.”

Including Girls Prep, Kansas City currently has 23 charter schools. With the closings, that number drops to 21.

Thaman said the closings indicate that “we need to be more strategic in the type and location and quality of the charters that open in the city.”

And, he said, the KCPS district and the charters have to agree to work more closely to make sure the charters that open “are best serving the needs of the children in this city.”

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.