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Kansas City schools chief: ‘We are NOT the worst district’

Fallout from a meeting between Mayor Sly James and the U.S. education secretary brought out the ire in Kansas City Interim Superintendent Steve Green on Thursday.

“I refuse to let the district be used as a platform for campaign political rhetoric,” Green said.

The school superintendent was reacting to media reports that took Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s comments to James about one damning data point and suggested that the troubled school district may be the worst in the nation.

“We are

not

the worst district in the nation,” Green said.

James had explained his comments earlier, saying that Duncan shared a statistic that suggested that 60 percent of the students who enter the district as ninth-graders are gone by the 12th grade. That figure, Duncan told James, was the worst he’d seen.

James, who is lobbying state legislators for mayoral control of the district, said he did not intend for that data point to become political, and he made the same point as Green did: that wrestling over such statistics of past poor performance drives the community focus in the wrong direction.

“We need to be talking about how we get this thing turned around,” James said, “not what happened a year ago or five years ago. What he (Duncan) said was that our numbers are bad, and they are bad. But, frankly, was that a surprise to anybody?

“What we should be talking about is, what are we going to do to change this around?”

Kansas City schools, long a target for policy makers’ big plans, find themselves back in political turmoil since the state has stripped its accreditation.

Lawmakers are pitching plans from competing factions that want to break the district up, hasten potential state control, open more opportunities for charter schools or private school vouchers, preserve the district’s elected board system or give it over to mayoral control.

While James and Green have met several times in recent months, Green said tracking the political winds has been difficult and frustrating. As of late Thursday afternoon, Green said, he had not heard directly from James about the storm that came out of reports of his visit with Duncan.

“I’ve seen shifting collaborations,” Green said. “It’s hard to figure out where he really is.”

The mayor had not talked with Green about the visit because it hadn’t seemed necessary at the time, said James’ spokesman, Danny Rotert. The mayor’s comments were never intended to be personal, Rotert said. The mayor planned to make contact with Green Thursday night, he said.

James traveled to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to meet with some of the presidential Cabinet, including Duncan. And Duncan, Rotert said, had the data about Kansas City on hand when James arrived.

Duncan shared numbers known as a cumulative promotion index, which compares the number of students in the ninth grade with the number in the 12th grade three years later.

It isn’t a pure dropout rate because the number doesn’t account for students who leave for other reasons. And for Kansas City, attrition has been high as families have left for charter schools or other school systems.

Missouri uses a student-identification system to track actual students for each grade level — as most states are doing as data systems have improved.

State records show that Kansas City’s dropout rate is 16.6 percent, which is one of the worst in the state, but not as high as St. Louis, whose rate is 23.8 percent. Kansas City does have the poorest graduation rate in the state at 57.2 percent. St. Louis is at 62.3 percent.

The state average dropout rate is 3.4 percent and the average graduation rate is 86.7 percent.

While the statistic that Duncan referenced is not a pure dropout rate, it still indicates a district in trouble.

“We know about 60 percent of students in Kansas City public schools are dropping out of high school, and that is a huge concern,” Duncan said in a written statement Thursday. “Like many urban districts, the Kansas City, Mo., School District faces major challenges. Mayor James and I discussed some of those issues and how we can best support the district to ensure that students receive the world-class education they deserve.”

James was particularly interested in meeting with Duncan because Duncan was formerly the head of Chicago Public Schools, a mayor-controlled school system, and was appointed to that post by then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“He said we need to push mayoral control,” James said. “That’s the only system that’s going to work and gain control of this system. His words, not mine.”

Not everyone agrees, and James recognizes that there will be a struggle to convince enough legislators, many of whom have raised concerns about the viability and sustainability of mayoral control of Kansas City schools.

Green wants the political fight to not lose sight of the work that continues in the schools.

“I’d rather that the politicians work with us, join us, be part of the solution.”

The schools, which open for the next semester on Monday, will continue efforts that Green said are already pointing the district back toward accreditation.

He cited information, presented to the school board last month, that shows the district is in position now to meet at least two more state standards, which would raise the district from three standards to five, and possibly six.

The district projected it will pick up the college placement standard plus a bonus standard for anticipated improvement on state tests. One of the state’s performance standards, elementary math, might also be in reach this school year.

“We’ve moved the needle,” Green said.

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