Kauffman School leader Hannah Lofthus wins the national Ryan Award

Kauffman School CEO Hannah Lofthus got hugs from students after hearing she won the Ryan Award for leading the Kansas City charter to a high achieving level.
Kauffman School CEO Hannah Lofthus got hugs from students after hearing she won the Ryan Award for leading the Kansas City charter to a high achieving level.

When Hannah Lofthus walked into work at Ewing Marion Kauffman School on Friday morning for the last day of classes before summer break, she was hit with a big surprise.

Students and teachers greeted her with the news she was one of two school leaders in the nation to win the 2016 Ryan Award.

The Ryan Award is given every year to an urban school principal who has demonstrated accelerated results in underserved schools over a minimum of four years and served a sizable percentage of urban, low-income and minority students.

The prestigious award, established in 2013 by the Accelerate Institute of Chicago, is named for Pat Ryan Jr., who served as an inner city teacher and gang narcotics officer. He then launched Accelerate, which operates one of Chicago’s most successful charter schools.

Lofthus is chief executive officer of Kauffman School, a Kansas City charter public school started in 2011. The school, in a newly constructed building at 6401 Paseo, opened with 100 fifth-grade students. It serves middle and high school students and has added about 200 students a year since it opened.

“I had no idea I had won this,” Lofthus said. “It just blew me away.”

Lofthus, 31, had been nominated for the award in the spring and last month was one of six finalists to receive a visit and on-site interview from Accelerate.

“The Accelerate Institute recognizes the important and challenging work of school leaders across America who are giving students a chance by believing in them and holding student success as the only barometer to their own professional success,” says a statement on the Accelerate website.

Lofthus said she was happy to receive the award because it would help to “shine a light on her students.”

Along with a $25,000 honorarium, Lofthus and the Kauffman School will be the feature of a case study done by The New York Times in conjunction with Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Lofthus then will be guest lecturer for Ryan Fellows in the summer program of the Accelerate Institute at Kellogg.

At the Kauffman charter, the school day is longer than at a traditional public school. Students are in school from 7:30 a.m. to about 4 p.m. every day except Fridays, when they are out by 1:30 p.m. That’s when teachers get extra time for collaboration and professional development.

Those are two of the things that Lofthus said makes a difference in the performance outcomes Kauffman sees. That and administrators and teachers who expect excellence from their students and make sure the students know it.

Five years ago, the Kauffman Foundation commissioned a study from Mathematica to determine whether the charter school’s methods are working to bring students who start behind grade level up to par. Mathematica looked at three years of data.

Study results show Kauffman students are learning at a higher rate than other public school students in the Kansas City school district boundaries. Kauffman students also outpaced students at charter schools in Boston and New York, according to Mathematica.

“Kauffman students achieved approximately 1.61 more years of learning growth in math and 1.64 years more of learning growth in reading beyond similar students in Kansas City,” an excerpt from the Mathematica report being released later this month says.

Now with this award, Lofthus said, people will know about her students’ achievements. That could open doors for them as they compete with students from highly recognized schools for college admission slots.

“It is hard to get national trust for our kids,” Lofthus said. “It is hard to get people to look at our kids.”

But she said the study results and the Ryan Award help to erase some of the stigma of race and poverty for her students. The majority of Kauffman students are minority and qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

And one more thing: Lofthus said winning the award will make it easier to recruit top teachers: “We will be able to say, come to Kansas City. We have a Ryan Award-winning school.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc