Efforts to revitalize a target neighborhood in Kansas City’s urban core got a big boost this week with state approval of a key element — a new charter school.
The Missouri State Board of Education approved the Kansas City Neighborhood Academy, the first charter to be sponsored by Kansas City Public Schools.
While no specific site has been named, some connected with the efforts to open the charter said it will likely be in one of the school district’s shuttered buildings. The charter application proposed placing the school in an area bounded by 18th Street south to 52nd Street and from Troost Avenue east to Prospect Avenue.
The school definitely will be within a target area of roughly 200 blocks identified by the Urban Neighborhood Initiative as one of the Big 5 ideas backed by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. The plan envisioned a community-conceived idea to build a safe and prosperous, mixed-income neighborhood anchored by a “life-changing” school.
Over the last decade or so, charter schools have become popular alternatives to public schools. Charters are usually sponsored by educational institutions, foundations or even private companies, but not the public school district where they are located.
In its first year of operation, the new Kansas City district charter school expects to serve about 180 students in kindergarten through second grade. A grade would be added each year up to grade six, according to the charter application.
Like other public charters in the state, the school would be operated with state per-pupil dollars.
The Kansas City district got approval from the Missouri State Board of Education to sponsor a public charter school earlier this year. This week the state approved the charter that the district has chosen to sponsor.
When charter schools were established in Missouri in 1998, school districts were among the groups allowed to sponsor them. But in 2012 the law was changed to require sponsors to apply to the state education board for approval. That was the same year the Kansas City district lost full accreditation, so it had not asked to sponsor a charter until now.
While the school district will monitor how well the charter functions administratively, financially and academically, the charter will be operated by its own board.
But unlike other charter schools in the the city, state money for Kansas City Neighborhood Academy will go through the Kansas City Public Schools.
The Neighborhood Academy’s test scores will mix in with district test scores, affecting the Kansas City district’s annual performance report, which is the measure upon which the state bases a district’s accreditation.
“There is a trust factor here,” said Robbyn Wahby, executive director at Missouri Charter Public School Commission. “The district believes the school’s performance will be good enough and the school accepts that its money goes through the district.”
Wahby said she believed it’s a good arrangement for the school, the district and the community.
“It gives us the opportunity to provide the best service we can for our community with one school complimenting the other rather than competing with one another,” said Al Tunis, interim superintendent of the Kansas City district. One advantage is that the new charter would have access to resources that the school district already has in place, Tunis said.
Although the charter would have autonomy, the Kansas City district could shut the charter down if the school fails to consistently demonstrate sound performance and responsible governance.
But not everyone supports the idea of another charter in the city. This is the second charter approved for Kansas City this year. Citizens of the World Charter, sponsored by the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, plans to open in midtown next year.
“Our stance has been that we do not support more charter schools,” said Jan Parks, chairwoman of the education task force for Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity.
“We know people should have choices but we think that Kansas City has reached the tipping point.” The concern, Parks said, is that the 28 charter schools in Kansas City have diluted the district schools.
As for Kansas City Neighborhood Academy, turning out high-performing students isn’t the only thing riding on this new charter.
“The charter school is a key ingredient in the chamber’s ‘Big 5’ Urban Neighborhood Initiative,” said Jim Heeter, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. “It is so important because it is an anchor, a key building block for the revitalization of an entire neighborhood.”
Urban Neighborhood Initiative, the nonprofit organization coordinating the revitalization effort, is expected to improve the quality of life for thousands of residents who live in the targeted area.
“UNI is about the business of partnering with good neighborhoods and trying to make great neighborhoods,” said Dianne Cleaver, UNI executive director. “This is a major step forward in this effort and we are very excited about it. And we are every excited to be partnering with Kansas City Schools.”
Neighborhood Academy is modeled after a proven Atlanta charter, which started in 2000 as one of the lowest-performing Atlanta public schools and is now among the highest.