Searching for better schools in the Kansas City area
If only 4-year-old Henry could see 10 years ahead from down there.
Laughing in squeals, he lay across an ottoman in his family’s south Kansas City living room, back arched, head hanging over to get an upside-down view of his secretly troubled mother.
Last week was the height of lottery season in Kansas City’s school choice drama. Every spring, parents of new kindergartners try to predict futures they cannot see, gambling on schools they can’t really know.
The house around Henry is immaculate and freshly painted, ready for sale as his parents prepare for a likely move in pursuit of better education odds.
“How do you explain school districts to a 4-year-old?” said his mother, Kristin Marciniak. “How do you tell him there are imaginary lines …”
It’s hard to know how many families play the emotional lotteries each year. Many throw in their lots at several popular public charter schools and signature district schools within the Kansas City Public Schools boundaries: Academie Lafayette, Crossroads Academy, Border Star Montessori, University Academy, the Kauffman School, Scuola Vita Nuova …
Certainly there are hundreds of these families.
“We are the people who have ulcers from the lottery,” Erin Kelley said. She began last week waiting for word from Crossroads Academy for her 5-year-old daughter, Charlotte — just one of about 400 applicants hoping for one of fewer than 250 slots.
Academie Lafayette, where their daughter was one of 190 vying for 58 slots, would be sending out letters by the end of the week.
She was playing several options, none of them guaranteed. If her daughter was shut out, she said, “I’ll just cry.”
For Todd and Jasmin Moore, the week unfolded with 4-year-old son Zeke at play in his preschool, swatting balloons while his father affirmed his belief in the public, urban and diverse school environments so many of these families want.
“Prejudice exists in the education system,” he said. “These are the things you lose sleep over.”
Everyone waits on that email, or the phone call, or the letter in the mail.
Crossroads Academy jumbles numbered lottery balls, with each applicant assigned a number.
Academie Lafayette alphabetizes the names of its applicants, assigns each a number, then feeds each one into a randomizing generator that punches out a new list of numbers.
Every charter school that gets more applicants than available seats by state law must use some form of lottery. They’re conducted with witnesses, including representatives of the charters’ sponsors, which in most cases is a university.
Going into its lottery, Crossroads, which is opening a second school, still had 150 more applicants than spots. Academie Lafayette was overbooked by more than 130. Other schools already had waiting lists, including Scuola Vita Nuova (64), the Kauffman School (10 to 50 at multiple grade levels) and University Academy (nine for kindergarten).
New schools opening this August might ease some of the strain — if they prove popular. But history has shown it may take a year or two for large numbers of families to get on board.
The Kansas City school district is opening its district-sponsored charter, the Kansas City Neighborhood Academy. The charter school KIPP, a longtime middle school, has added kindergarten and elementary grades. And an effort led by midtown parents brought a Citizens of the World charter school, also opening in August.
There are 19 independent public charter schools with kindergarten, on top of the Kansas City district’s neighborhood and magnet elementaries — plus numerous private school choices.
“It can be very daunting,” said Bryan Love, who works with families at the St. Mark Child and Family Development Center. “You have to advocate for your child. … How many have the knowledge of where to go and how to go? How many have the time? How many have the courage?”
One week ago, Jasmin and Todd Moore were at their jobs, she with Johnson County, he at the University of Kansas Medical Center, peeking again and again at their email.
Worse than waiting for word on college applications, Jasmin Moore thought.
Then the message from Crossroads Academy popped up. She forwarded it to her husband with a note of her own.
Like diligent college applicants, they had a backup plan. This past year, they enrolled Zeke in Border Star’s Montessori preschool to secure a place in the school district’s popular Brookside neighborhood elementary magnet school.
They know they’re not leaving their Southmoreland neighborhood, though they weren’t always so sure.
(They say they know Border Star parents so feverish to get into Academie Lafayette that they have taken two cracks at it. If they missed out in the first lottery, their child would go to kindergarten at Border Star. The following year, the parents would again put the child’s name into the lottery for the French immersion charter. The child would repeat kindergarten if Academie Lafayette picked him or her on the second try.)
“We believe in public schools,” Todd Moore said.
“When we were looking for houses … in Missouri,” Jasmin Moore said, “we knew we’d have that schools challenge. (And we thought), we have a few years. Let’s find real options.”
Their quest echoes across generations in Kansas City.
Jasmin’s mother, Deena Smith, was in the same wedge of emotions 30 years ago: determined to stay with neighbor families in Kansas City when so many were fleeing for Johnson County and other suburban havens.
Back then it wasn’t charter schools but the district’s audacious experiment with desegregated magnet schools that had parents twisted over choices.
“We were socially conscious families living in Waldo and Brookside,” Smith said. “We wanted to stay. We wanted to build up the neighborhood knowing that if we all exited for private schools or Johnson County, we’re leaving the neighborhood to flounder and take resources out of it.
“There was a lot of nervousness about what people should do.”
Smith is the director of the Rainbow School in Kansas City, a preschool that sees its charges disperse to 10 to 12 schools for kindergarten: private and public, district and charter, Kansas and Missouri.
The conversations sound so much the same with parents today, she said.
“If we keep families in the district, we only strengthen the district,” she said. “We want to make the community stronger here.”
This talk pains Marciniak.
The family’s home in south Kansas City is on the market. She and her husband have printouts of Kansas homes for sale on their dining room table.
Their hesitation involves the Center School District in Kansas City, immediately south of the Kansas City Public Schools.
“We get asked all the time, ‘Where are you going to send Henry to school?’ ” Marciniak said. “And when we say, ‘Kansas,’ people act like we killed their dog.”
She laughs a little. They know friends are only kidding when they say they can’t be friends anymore, she said. But not completely. This is all very hard.
This is nothing like growing up in Iowa, she said.
“Schools are so divisive here,” she said. “Where you choose to send your kids to school tells things about your parenting style, about your status.”
Friends invested in the Center district say it is doing very well, and she hopes it’s true. But she also spies statistics that trouble her: a 75 percent graduation rate among white students, an 18.8 average composite ACT score.
“If I could see 10 years down the road and see the high school as it will be then …”
Do they leave Center? Do they move into the Kansas City school district, the only area district in Missouri that has charter schools, where they could join in the gamble of the lotteries?
And how good of a choice is Kansas anymore? She reads about its budget crises and another attempt to repeal state standards based on the Common Core.
“I understand: We all need to work together,” she said. “We (who leave) are the problem. Why can’t all schools be good enough?
“We’re not going to leave here without feeling guilty,” she said, imagining saying goodbye to a house they love, a neighborhood that’s dear, and all the city things so close by.
But: “Schools trump everything.”
Did you get in?
Erin Kelley got that text message mid-morning on March 7 from Jasmin Moore, after Moore learned they had been wait-listed at Crossroads.
Kelley had been checking all along and checked again. Still no email.
Don’t know, she texted.
“The market,” says Tricia Johnson of the information website Show Me KC Schools, “seems to be on the parents’ side.”
Not just with new charter schools, she said, but with creative options emerging from the Kansas City school district. The district’s Foreign Language Academy is doing well and attracting families to its Spanish and Mandarin programs. The district’s experiment in allowing a parent-led effort to reopen Hale Cook in the Southwest neighborhood is thriving.
One of the main characteristics of most of the popular, wait-listed buildings is a more balanced diversity along with strong or adequate academic performance. Many schools, including many charters, reflect a still largely segregated world, with minority enrollment of 90 percent or more, while significant numbers of white students cluster in just a few of the schools.
Some of the preschools and Show Me KC Schools are coordinating more efforts to help parents tour the different schools. Those parents are encouraging more parents to do the same, and the results have tended to go well for Kansas City’s school selection. Still, the field of schools remains highly mixed, strong to poor.
“Don’t assume what people are telling you,” said Kannie Donnell, who’s planning to enroll 5-year-old daughter Zai’Kiya Majok in the Foreign Language Academy.
She was encouraged to take a closer look inside by her mother, who is parenting again with school-aged cousins and is volunteering in the district’s Central Middle School.
“Public schools are better than they were back in the day,” she said.
Glenn Lewis, who learned that his daughter Avalee had gotten into Crossroads, said he is finding the same reassurances. He has been seeing schools both through St. Mark tours and also as a parent member of a Kauffman Foundation program that is visiting high-performing schools here and in other cities.
He thinks of the parents in Avalee’s dance classes at the Bolender Center, how they have talked and worried so much about schools. He and Avalee’s mother had come to the conclusion they’d find a Kansas City public school one way or another.
“The more I visit schools,” he said, “the more impressed I am.”
Todd Kelley’s phone buzzed an alert just as he was swinging into a parking space at Charlotte’s preschool. He was late. The summary of the email on his phone’s screen told him it was from Crossroads, but he couldn’t see the verdict.
Big breath. He was going to rush in and get Charlotte first, get her buckled into her car seat, then look.
Todd was picking Charlotte up because Erin Kelley was in a waiting room at St. Luke’s Hospital, where her father was newly fighting cancer.
An emotional day.
The other school options waiting out there if lottery attempts failed were still scary to her. All the spreadsheets she’d created on school information had led her to this pivotal moment, when Todd sent her his text.
Her mother and sister were with her in the waiting room, and it was to them she exclaimed, We got into Crossroads!
In the preschool parking lot, Todd twisted into the awkward position of a parent ready to high-five a child in a backseat car seat.
“Hey,” he said to Charlotte. “You got into the school we were hoping you would.”
She will go to Crossroads’ new school, Quality Hill Academy.
What none of the parents can know is how things would’ve worked out if their lottery fate had been reversed, or if they had chosen this district or that state instead of another.
“You want a guarantee,” said Marciniak. She’s looking at Henry — a mischievous sort who, when told in their game of Uno he needed to play “a yellow,” plucked a lemon out of the fruit basket and put in on the card stack.
“You want to know your kids are going to be OK. I hope we make the right decision. But we’ll never know. This isn’t ‘Back to the Future.’ We’ll never be able to see alternate realities.”