The Center School District’s teenagers know something of the hard-edged moves that turned Center into the Kansas City area’s top-performing urban district.
They’ve seen thatall
students can take algebra by eighth grade and leap toward higher level math courses. They’ve seen the higher reading level expectations, recalibrated all the way down to kindergarten.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
No more making up entire failed courses in summer school. The end of free passes. This is the way to college. They know that.
But they see the success of their school experience in the softer touches.
Like when many of them as Center High School band members encircled the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Memphis, Tenn., crying together as only a close family would.
Or when Tre’Vanna Wilson, 18, talks of being suddenly alone after her mother, her only parent, died in a motorcycle accident her junior year — and school is the place she wants to be.
Robert Jones, 18, transplanted back from the suburbs his sophomore year, tells how he worried about returning to the city. Worried about an “urban” school district. Saying now that he “feels loved.”
And the names roll off the students’ tongues, mentioning their teachers, principals, counselors, the registrar, the social worker — how they catch them in the halls, talking of college applications, recommendation letters, scholarship opportunities.
“Everyone is juston
you,” senior Hope Noll, 17, says. “You can’t go under the radar.”
It’s fair to say high performance is hard when three-fourths of the students in this south Kansas City district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, when 40 percent or more move in or out of the district each year, when you are a district trying to hold on to those families in your community who have the wherewithal to seek out private or suburban education.
Retiring Center Superintendent Bob Bartman tells a Joe Frazier story, how the former boxing heavyweight champion had to learn to fight out of a bullish crouch to bear in on Muhammad Ali.
That’s the urban school district: bobbing and weaving, pressing in — but if you rise up out of the crouch when you’re tired, that’s when Ali stings you.
You have to keep the tension on.
“You’ve got to change habits so everyone believes we are different,” Bartman said. “Everyone throughout the system thinks of themselves differently. The students think of themselves differently.”
Now Center stands as a model district — for preparing all students for early algebra, not just selected students; for sustaining growth in state test performance; for its ability to include special-education students in its growth.
It’s riding the front edge of an areawide rise in urban district performance, with Grandview and Raytown pushing their achievement higher and Kansas City projecting performance that could return it provisional accreditation this fall.
“Center has a reputation for strong leadership, where all kids get access to great education,” said Susan Everson, the director of the Educational Leadership program at St. Louis University. When doctoral students seek sites for internships, Center is a popular choice, she said.
“We know they will have a good model,” Everson said.
As districts near and far share their best strategies, many are sending teams to Center.
“It’s been extraordinary” what Center has done, said Gayden Carruth, the executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City. “There has been total improvement, each year higher and higher.”
Center’s narrative could have gone down a different path.
The 1990s threw the small district of 2,500 students into turmoil as it watched its demographics transition from majority white to majority black, and its proportion of economically disadvantaged students rise.
A district that had been used to a stellar reputation watched voters reject a levy increase in 1995. A feuding school board fired Superintendent Ray Feltner, then they sued one another over accusations of Sunshine Law violations.
The state knocked the district down to provisional accreditation in 1996.
Board elections in 1996 and 1997 resolved the divisions that had crippled it. But old rancor brought one last casualty when Superintendent Bill Hawver abruptly resigned in 1998.
“We had lost our focus and had a loss of trust,” said David Leone, who is the special assistant to the superintendent and who will take over the top job after Bartman retires July 1. “It was snowballing.”
Leone was a principal in the district during the wars, and at one point considered leaving himself.
Bringing Center back started with Superintendent David Smith. The old ball coach, still a team guy even as he took on high administrative roles, came on in 1999.
“We are family here,” Leone said, “and he brought that back to us.”
The district accepted what it was, “an urban district,” and it was going “to shine,” Leone said.
Confidence was coming back. It showed when the community passed a $39 million bond issue in 2000 to remodel its schools.
In July 2001, the state restored the district to full accreditation. And when the district had to go through painful budget cuts in 2003, the large audience of staff and community members that had watched the process play out over several community meetings recognized the difficult end result with a standing ovation.
The district was ready for the next level. An even harder one. Time to get in its fighting crouch.
Not everyone was ready to buy what Bartman was selling.
Beth Heide, now the Center High School principal, was a teacher when Bartman, the former education commissioner for the state of Missouri, came on as superintendent in 2004.
She was one of several teachers tossed into intensive training to teach advanced placement courses. Center was going to provide a whole lot more of the college prep courses.
“It was shifting the culture of the school,” Heide said. “Teachers and students were seeing and believing what the school could be.”
Bartman was replacing principals and administrators, and one of his critical questions was:Do you believe all eighth-graders can do algebra?
The common practice in the region and the nation was to be selective in determining which students take early algebra.
Some of the staff pushed back, Bartman said. Just as some pushed back when the district ratcheted up reading level expectations, beginning with kindergarten.
“They said, ‘Our kindergartners can’t do this,’
” he said. But they were wrong. “Our kindergartnerscan
The district stopped letting students make up two semesters — a full year — of a failed course in 24 days of summer school. Only one semester could be made up. No more coasting. A student who failed one semester had better gear up and pass the second semester and then summer school to keep from falling a year behind.
When the first couple of years sputtered through the transition, “there were warring groups,” Bartman said. “It was a challenge. It forced us to think what kind of preparation” was needed from pre-kindergarten up through elementary and middle school to set the table for high-level high school courses.
The state’s first report card under a revamped accountability system in 2006 came as a jolt.
Center made the grade on only six of the state’s 14 standards, scoring at the provisionally accredited level.
The state wanted to send in a team to scrutinize the district’s practices, but Bartman urged officials to let the reforms in place find their footing. He did not want to foster the notion among staff or students that the district was in any way failing.
The district got help to work with teachers in benchmarking the skills students needed to succeed in higher level math. Strong algebra performance began to take root, and the benchmarking rationale began to inspire growth in other disciplines.
The percentage of students districtwide who performed at proficient or advanced levels on state math tests, which had been as low as 12 percent in 2002, began a steep rise in 2006, reaching 53 percent in 2012 before slipping back to 47 percent in 2013.
Performance in communication arts rose from 24 percent proficient or advanced in 2002 to 48 percent in 2013.
Broken down into subgroups, Center in 2013 exceeded the state in the percentage of students proficient or advanced among white, black and Hispanic students, as well as students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
One major goal lags behind the others — the average ACT college entrance exam score at 17.4 in 2013 remains stuck below the state average. But the percentage of graduates in four-year or two-year colleges has grown from 57 percent to nearly 80 percent in the past 10 years.
Center’s state report card score bounced its way up from six, reaching 13 out of 14 in 2010 and 2011, then a full 14 out of 14 in 2012 — earning the district accreditation with distinction.
High school counselor Neil Corriston, walkie-talkie in hand, watched the sea of students under brilliant sunshine flow back into the building after a simple fire drill.
A powerful diversity — students from two-career, two-car homes to those who visit the school’s thrift store sometimes to get clothes.
“We are their consistent face,” Corriston said.
Students like 17-year-old Christian Williams measure Center’s success in the way the district took to a mission of creating a chain reaction of kindness.
“You don’t see a kid left sitting by himself,” he said. “That’s who we are.”
Malik Burton, 18, with little college history in his family, can count the math and engineering courses that have him on his way to Iowa State University for computer science and engineering.
“So many people have to work together,” he said. “I see us as an entire organism.”
This year, the school district is on track to reach the state’s new, challenging attendance standard of 90 percent of the students in attendance 90 percent of the time.
Students want to be here, Corriston said.
He choked up, thinking of the times students and adults had come together when they needed one another.
There goes Tre’Vanna Wilson, who has said, “I never wanted to miss a day,” who misses her mother.
She’s bound for Missouri State University as a pre-med student.
“She’s a story people will talk about and remember,” Corriston said. “I can’t wait for her to come back and tell us what she’s done and know that we got to play a part in it.”