Academie Lafayette is technically a public charter school, but it has the reputation and feel of an exclusive private school.
Its French immersion curriculum lures parents looking for rigorous academics and keeps out those hoping to enroll older children who haven’t learned the language. Last year, it was one of only a handful of Kansas City schools to get a perfect score on the Missouri state Annual Performance Report. Its kindergarten waiting list is lengthy.
The main drawback, parents have said, is it runs only through middle school. After eighth grade, families have had to hunt for openings at high-performing high schools, often feeling they must move to the suburbs.
Now in its 20th year, Academie Lafayette is finally planning to open its own high school next fall. And while a lot of parents say they are relieved, others are worried.
In a departure from Academie Lafayette’s main drawing card, the high school will not be French immersion. That has some parents concerned that the high school will be open to students throughout the city.
“I think there are things they really have to work out first,” said Azure Guidry, who has two children at Academie Lafayette and two more at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy — which draws many Academie Lafayette graduates. “I don’t think they have worked through all the details.”
“I would hate to have students come and feel like outsiders,” said James Crawford, who has a first-grader at Academie Lafayette. Crawford, whose wife is a Lincoln Prep choir teacher, said he still likes the idea of another high school option in Kansas City. “But I still have a lot of question marks about it.”
Other parents said they worry the new school may be too small to offer the extracurricular activities — competitive sports, theater, band, orchestra and debate — that help create a traditional high school experience.
But Crissy Dastrup is thrilled. She has three children at Academie Lafayette, and in the past year she’s been stressing over where her oldest, now in eighth grade, will attend high school.
“I was already thinking about school tours and I was having dreams that I had missed the deadline,” Dastrup said one recent morning outside the middle school on Armour Boulevard that will also be home to the new high school. “Oh my God, that whole time was so stressful. It was almost like getting your child ready to choose a college.”
Now her son will be a member of Academie Lafayette’s first freshman class.
For years, the lack of a high school meant that Academie Lafayette lost a fair number of students to suburban or private middle schools that feed into a high-performing high school. Because the charter is a public school and is mostly funded with per pupil dollars from the state, for school administrators, losing students is like watching backpacks full of money walk out the door.
“Over the years, many Académie Lafayette families felt they had to move out of the KCPS (Kansas City Public School) district,” administrators wrote in a Facebook message to parents.
Of those who stay through eighth grade, “24% of them move out looking for a good high school for their child,” said Chris Neher, spokesman for the school.
“When there is not a pathway to high school that is crystal clear, yeah, you are going to lose families,” said Michele Markham, who has a second-grader at the school.
Parents say public high school options in Kansas City are limited. Many hope their child can test into Kansas City Public Schools’ Lincoln Prep, the highest-ranked public high school in Kansas City. It’s 19th in the state, 218th in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report’s latest rankings.
Last year, half of Academie Lafayette’s graduating eighth-graders went on to Lincoln. If they don’t make the test-in cut, their parents are likely scurrying to get into one of the top charter high schools, such as University Academy or Frontier School of Innovation, which have limited space and long wait lists. The Ewing Marion Kauffman School, for the most part, does not accept new students past the sixth grade.
Other parents who don’t want to move to the suburbs go into their pocket and pay for parochial or private school.
“But not all parents can afford to choose the option of sending their child to private school,” said Markham. “I just don’t know what can not be good about this new high school.”
What’s the plan?
Academie Lafayette opened as a French immersion elementary school at 6903 Oak St. in Brookside in 1999, the first year charter schools were allowed in Missouri. It is open to any student in kindergarten and first grade. Anyone older than that hoping to join the school must already know French.
The formula worked. The school expanded to a second building, at 3241 Cherry St. in Midtown, which houses more students in kindergarten through third grade.
That expansion created space to admit roughly 70 more kindergarten students each year, said the head of Academie Lafayette, Elimane Mbengue. The second building also created an opportunity, he said, to “at the same time increase our diversity.”
Last year, The Star revealed that the school had the largest portion of white students of any public school in the city — nearly 70%. Mbengue said the school began targeting minority communities by sending recruiters to help families fill out enrollment applications. It sent French teachers to preschools in those communities to help 3- and 4-year-olds become comfortable with learning a foreign language and interested in attending Academie Lafayette.
This year’s kindergarten class is 52 percent white, he said.
“Now we are shooting for a 50/50 ratio of white students and students of color,” Mbengue said. That kind of diversity is something parents at Academie Lafayette have said they find attractive — it’s something that keeps them out of the suburbs — and they would hope to see it continued in the high school.
They also like the diversity of the teachers, who all speak French and come from all over the world.
“As a black woman, I like that when my son sees the head of schools he is seeing someone with black skin,” said Lisa Benson, who has a first-grader attending Academie Lafayette. “He may not be an African American, but still my son is seeing someone in authority who looks like him.”
It’s why, Benson said, she is happy about the new high school. She doesn’t want to have to send her son to a private or suburban school, “where he will sit in classrooms where he is only one of very few.”
Academie Lafayette started planning for a high school about seven years ago as a way to further expand. It spent about $6 million to acquire and renovate the building at 201 E. Armour Blvd., the former Derrick Thomas Academy charter, and moved its middle school there last year. About 270 students in grades six, seven and eight are in classes on the first and second floors, Mbengue said.
Currently, the third floor is filled with sixth-graders from Citizens of the World, another Kansas City charter school, which will operate there for two more years.
To start, high school students will be located on the fourth floor and will later also take over the third floor. Common areas such as the gym, library, art and design room and cafeteria are on the ground floor.
“The high school will begin with the ninth grade and add a grade level each year,” Mbengue said. The first year it will serve only students who had been attending Academie Lafayette. “But because the high school will not be a full immersion program, it will eventually be open to other Kansas City families,” Mbengue said.
What are parents saying?
Some parents worry about the size of the new high school. “It will be a tiny school,” Mbengue said, which, he knows, will not suit everyone.
Academie Lafayette currently has about 1,400 students, 81 of them in eighth grade. Mbengue doesn’t expect all of them to stay for ninth grade at the high school next year, so he’s planning for a freshman class of about 50 students the first year. Even when it’s full, he said, at most the high school will have 450 students.
While high school students won’t be immersed in French in every subject, language will remain a strong part of the curriculum, which Mbengue said will also include Mandarin and Spanish. And the school will offer an International Baccalaureate academic program.
Some parents expressed concern that students who have not been part of the rigorous academic program that Academie Lafayette is known for might not be able to keep up.
Last year, Academie Lafayette was one of the six schools in the area to score 100% on the Missouri state Annual Performance Report, which measures every public school and district in the state on such factors as attendance and graduation rates, career and college readiness and state test scores.
Dastrup, the mother of three, has faith the school leadership can maintain the high performance and bring students who come from other schools up to par.
“We should have a lens of abundance,” she said. “We should be able to educate kids as many as we can. We are a public school. We should be able to do both if we are as good as we say we are.”
She said she’s excited to help the first class of students “make this a great experience. I wish that everyone would stay.”
Guidry says she has been in love with the French immersion program and is glad she has time to wait and see how well the high school does before she has to decide where to enroll her two younger children, who are in second and third grades at Academie Lafayette.
“I think there is going to be a learning curve,” Guidry said. “I worry whether they will be able to deliver an International Baccalaureate program because it is so rigorous at the high school level. It is not just the new children coming in but hiring the teachers who are qualified to teach I.B.”
But Mbengue said he’s certain the school is ready. “I have no doubt,” he said. “When we have one of the best middle schools in the state, why wouldn’t we be among one of the best high schools in the state?”
Markham agrees. “I’ve seen the success of this school over 20 years and I’m not nervous about whether they can start up a school. We have a great school culture here.”
The education landscape
A new high school simply presents more options for Kansas City parents, said Tony Kline, superintendent at University Academy, another top-performing public charter. “I welcome the addition. Anytime anyone is going to offer high quality education to our city it is a welcome addition because it helps bring families to Kansas City and helps keep families in Kansas City. It’s a good thing.”
Kansas City has 23 charter schools on top of the 37 Kansas City Public School district schools and 20 or so private and parochial schools. Some educators have argued that’s just too many for the number of students in the city.
For years, leaders of the Kansas City district have blamed the flood of charter schools for its drastic enrollment decline. While it’s good for parents to have choice, they said, too many schools have too few students. KCPS leaders declined to talk with The Star for this story.
This fall the Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy, the city’s first single-gender public charter, opened at 5000 E. 17th St., off Van Brunt Boulevard. There’s talk of an all-boys public charter to open in the city soon.
“There is a difference between too many public school seats in the city and whether they are all seats of quality,” said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association. ”Even if there are a lot of open seats available in the city they are not seats that parents want to put their students in.”
He said the evidence is clear when some of the city’s best performing schools have nearly 100 students on a wait list, and many other families leave the city for good schools.
Thaman said he spoke with Academie Lafayette school leaders about the new high school and cautioned them, as he does with any group planning to open a charter in Kansas City.
“If you are going to consider expansion you have to make sure that you understand the community and make sure there is demand or that the school is not going to be so small that it’s not feasible or sustainable,” he said.
But parents have to understand, too, that high schools today look different from the high schools of the past.
“Kids today are different. They have different experiences,” Thaman said. “Kids today have more options available to them, and they are looking for a much different way to receive their high school education, and that is not the high school of the ’50s and ’60s that was that big box.”
Parents who still want that for their child, he said, can still find it in Kansas City.
But what is most important to compete in a crowded field of schools, Thaman said, is that Academie Lafayette, like any school, is going to have to bring quality education. Schools offering subpar education won’t make it, he said. “Those school will simply close.”
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How did The Star learn about this story?
Education writer Mará Rose Williams knew for years that Academie Lafayette hoped to add a high school. She learned from a press release that the school’s board of directors approved the measure Sept. 9. But it was parents’ comments on social media, both pro and con, that spurred her to write the story.