KCPS superintendent Mark Bedell overcame challenges, including his mom dying of an overdose
Kansas City’s new superintendent of public schools stood before a room full of high school students Monday afternoon — no podium, no script. He talked about his drug-addicted mother who had died of an overdose and his younger brother, who was found not guilty of second-degree murder.
Mark T. Bedell grew up in a rough neighborhood in Rochester, N.Y., and at one point as a child, he was homeless. Bedell faced economic, emotional and social obstacles during his school years, as many students in the Kansas City district do.
His story, one he is openly sharing with students during his visit to the city this week, already has made an impact.
“He is strong-willed,” said Sonia Badji, a senior at Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts who was among 17 student leaders who had lunch with Bedell on Monday.
“I think it is reassuring to hear his story and to know that he is not leaving where he comes from behind,” Badji said. “He knows that where he comes from is what makes him who he is. We can relate to that.”
Bedell, the current assistant superintendent of high schools in Baltimore County, Md., was here to officially sign his $225,000-a-year contract with the Kansas City Public Schools. The three-year contract includes a $31,000 retention bonus if he stays for the duration.
Monday at the Manual Career and Technical Center, 1215 E. Truman Road, the 41-year-old administrator chatted candidly with students and spent about an hour listening to them talk about their plans for college and experiences in the district.
Over lunch prepared by culinary arts students, the young school leaders asked Bedell not only what he will do to put the best teachers in their classrooms but how to assure students are challenged with more academic rigor.
They also asked him to guard against violence when students from a closed high school are moved to a rival school.
With an electronic notebook in hand, Bedell took down their concerns. He mentioned them later in a meeting with district principals.
“I think it is a wonderful opportunity to give these students a chance to address issues that matter to them, to give the students a voice,” said Yamimah Muhammad, whose son Jabriel Muhammad, a freshman at the African Centered College Preparatory Academy, was among the students who met with Bedell.
Bedell told students that “sometimes your environment can be a predictor of ultimately, your outcome in life.”
But, he said, “my job is to come here and to tell you all it doesn’t have to be that way. My job is to come in here and say to all of you it is no excuse. I made it. … I don’t want what you may be going through at home to become a crutch for why you can’t change the trajectory of your life.”
Earlier, Bedell talked about collaborating with community and business leaders, building trust among his staff and with parents and, most importantly, instilling a sense of hope in district students.
Jon Hile, the chairman of the Kansas City Public Schools Board of Education, said Bedell represents “a break from past leadership,” who he said came to the district with promises of a quick fix. “Dr. Bedell represents a new future for Kansas City Public Schools,” Hile said.
Bedell said that changing the district story will be one of the biggest challenges. “We have to convince people that this public school system is their system of choice,” he said.
Bedell said that losing students to charter schools affects the district financially. “The money goes with the student,” he said.
Bedell said the job will be tough “but no urban superintendent’s job is easy.” He said he expects to work “long days and long nights,” telling the story about “the good things going on in our schools. And if that means going into some tough neighborhoods I don’t have a problem with that. That’s where I come from.”
Bedell said he will enroll his three school-age children in Kansas City schools and plans a long stay as superintendent.
Bedell takes the reins of a district with shrinking enrollment, low test scores and a less than 70 percent graduation rate. Three years ago, a tight budget and low enrollment forced the district to close half of its schools.
Bedell said one of his priorities will be to bring the provisionally accredited district to full accreditation. He said he will institute a one-on-one mentoring program, which he thinks will narrow the achievement gap and improve retention and graduation rates.
“My expectations for Kansas City school students are the same as the expectations I have for my own children: that they become globally competitive,” Bedell said. “I want happy students. With happy students, you are going to get happy results.”
Shelby Payne, a junior at Paseo Academy, met Bedell during his last visit to Kansas City. “I walked away thinking, ‘I hope that he is serious about what he says because I want to see what he is going to do for this district.’ ”
DaVonne Bailey, a senior at Paseo Academy, said she was most impressed by Bedell’s student-first policy and the way he talked with students, but she intends to hold the new superintendent accountable.
“Even though I am leaving for college, I have brothers and sisters in school, and I want to make sure they have the support of someone who really cares about them and is not just talking at a podium,” Bailey said.
Bedell replaces Steve Green, who took a superintendent job in the Atlanta area. Al Tunis will continue as interim superintendent through the end of this school year. Bedell is scheduled to start July 1.