Winning spirit, high expectations must dwell year-round in KC schools

“I want us to be resilient. We have to be fearless,” new Superintendent Mark T. Bedell told Kansas City Public Schools employees.
“I want us to be resilient. We have to be fearless,” new Superintendent Mark T. Bedell told Kansas City Public Schools employees. ldiuguid@kcstar.com

A lot of sports-themed trash talk filled downtown’s Music Hall, which was packed with Kansas City Public Schools teachers, administrators and staff this week during the district’s Game On 2016 Convocation.

“This year, watch us knock it out of the park!” one school representative told the audience from on stage.

“We’re going to kick butt in everything we do!” said a representative of a different school.

The auditorium swelled with a high level of enthusiasm, joy and excitement for the start of school on Monday. It has been a long, intensely hot summer.

Representatives with different schools went on stage in sports outfits, ranging from baseball to hockey, to talk about their students’ accomplishments in attendance, academic performance, behavior, and the schools’ parent engagement and community involvement. This year they promised to do more.

Administrators told how $1.1 million in additional funding is being redirected from the central office into the classrooms. Princeston Grayson with the Catalyst Fund explained how donations from the community were going to teachers in science and literacy training to benefit students. Students, parents and staff are asked to tweet what’s going on at their schools, using #kcpsfirstday.

Overall, the feeling among educators was different from previous years even though the district remains provisionally accredited, and with about 16,000 students the enrollment is less than half of what it was 16 years ago. Charter schools provide an increasing amount of competition as parents seek alternatives to the struggling district.

Also, the district’s tax levy of $4.96 per $100 of assessed valuation hasn’t changed in 21 years. The last year voters approved a tax increase was 1969, which also was the last time white students outnumbered students of color.

But the district is starting the school year with a new superintendent, and his energy, passion and commitment for the students has affected others. On Wednesday it showed.

“We are the ones who can rewrite history,” said Mark T. Bedell, who began his first superintendent’s job here in July. “I’m excited. Are you?”

The audience roared with cheers of affirmation as people twirled above them the blue Game On! towels they were handed as they entered the Music Hall.

Bedell had been assistant superintendent for high schools at Baltimore County Public Schools in Towson, Md. His work experience includes 12 years in the Houston Independent School District as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and school improvement officer. He has a doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University.

“We have to bring our ‘A’ game,” the former college basketball player (who tried out for the NBA) told the educators, who were treated on Thursday night to a Day at the K — a Royals game against the White Sox. Bedell threw out the first pitch with school board Chairwoman Melissa Robinson as the catcher.

Such symbolic working and playing as a team helps generate a shared commitment to high-quality schools, which the district has lacked in years past. “I’m just looking forward to the journey with all of us together,” Bedell said.

On Wednesday, Bedell shared his personal story with about 2,600 district employees. He told of his dropping out of school because a teacher told him he was dumb, ugly and would never amount to anything. He told of being homeless but having incredible teachers intervene at the right time. They saw what he was capable of and encouraged him to be an academic superstar.

Bedell said many students in the high poverty, multicultural, multinational, multiethnic Kansas City district are like him and need educators to make a difference in their lives.

“That’s what a great teacher does,” he said to more cheers. “I am living my dream. This is it right here.”

Bedell used PowerPoint slides of inspirational quotes to add to the motivation he provided for district workers. One from automaker Henry Ford said: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Bedell was right to insist that teachers hold students to high expectations — regardless of a children’s home or community circumstances.

“I want us to be resilient,” he said. “We have to be fearless.”

District educators, employees, parents and community supporters have to break down the barriers to learning for the kids’ sake — including Bedell’s three children, who will start school in the district on Monday.