Fourteen-year-old Damon Mondaine caught a glimpse Thursday of the larger struggle of the Kansas City public charter school movement.
After more than a decade as one of the city’s first charters, his school, Genesis Promise Academy, finally has a library.
“Now I can be in my library in my school relax, chill and read books,” he said. “I can be a normal teenager.”
He was one of the students greeting the schools’ benefactors and supporters as they arrived for the ribbon cutting for a basic school amenity that everyone agreed was a long time coming.
“It’s taken us a little time to get to this point,” Genesis Executive Director Pamela Pearson said, “but we’re here.”
Joining those celebrating was Mayor Sly James, a former president of Genesis’ board, who, as mayor, has thrown himself on top of the more sensational wrangling over the future of the Kansas City school district.
Genesis’ $136,000 library — cozy and finely appointed with furniture and art — reflected a refreshing collaboration of community supporters.
“Considering the state of education in this city and this state today,” James said before helping with the cutting, “when you focus on education above all other tasks, you see what can happen.”
Most charter schools, however, struggle for the extra funding they need to secure and maintain buildings and to stretch their public funding, particularly a school like Genesis that relies on smaller class sizes in trying to serve many high-needs children.
The school, which has an enrollment of less than 170, had been raising library funds since 2007. The per-pupil funding through the state doesn’t go far.
“The smaller you are, the longer the process (of building school amenities) takes,” said Jerry Cooper, head of the charter school office at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which sponsors Genesis. “It takes outside funding.”
Many charters also struggle — as do many of the Kansas City Public Schools — to push students to proficiency on state tests.
Genesis, since 1998, had been an alternative middle school, but expanded its mission two years ago to serve kindergarten through the eighth grade. While the school has always been a hybrid of a neighborhood school and an alternative school, Pearson said, it targets high-needs children, aiming to spawn success from students who might not be thriving in other schools.
More than 95 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
As a middle school, it was taking on many students who were several grade levels behind. The school’s board now believes the school can be more effective if it serves children from kindergarten.
But the transition to a K-8 school has been hard, with 8.9 percent of its tested students scoring proficient or advanced in communication arts in 2011, and 13.3 percent scoring proficient or advanced in math, both less than the Kansas City district.
The school is working with the state’s school improvement team and has made several changes as it has revamped as a K-8 school, bringing in a new principal, Philip Hickman. It changed over half of its classroom staff with new teachers through Teach for America, a national organization that recruits top graduates from various fields and trains them to serve at least two years in some of America’s neediest classrooms.
“We see that many of our children have no materials in their home,” Pearson said. “They may not live close to a library. We know that reading —
— is critical.”
Having books dispersed among the shelves in teachers’ classrooms was no longer enough, if it ever was. The school had to mark its commitment by finally finishing the long-planned library, Pearson said.
The library is linked by computer to the Kansas City Public Library System. Students will be able to request books online, have them delivered and then return them through the school.
Parents will be able to use the library. The school will provide adult literacy classes as well.
Malik McMath, 14, imagined the impression the library will make on the kindergartners and first-graders.
It’s not large, said fellow student Damon, but it sends a big message.
“They really want us to succeed,” he said. “They want to set us up to succeed in college.”