Lewis Diuguid

Kansas City superintendent carries the torch for civil rights

Stephen Green, superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools
Stephen Green, superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools

Many of Stephen Green’s preschool and elementary school children may hold the top jobs 50 years from now that the “babies of the civil rights movement” have today.

African-American baby boomers became “firsts” in high positions because of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Green said it should be a “no-brainer” for Kansas City Public Schools children to continue to make King’s 1963 dream a reality.

“However, I think the vestiges of segregation are still with us,” said Green, superintendent of the Kansas City district, where 60 percent of the children are black. Young people today also don’t possess a direct connection to the civil rights movement that could motivate them to build on the successes and sacrifices of earlier generations of blacks.

“People bled, fought and died,” said Green, whose career as an educator began in Indianapolis, where his mother worked as a teacher and his father as a letter carrier. “We dare not let them down. An appreciation for young people may come retrospectively.”

But for kids, it’s history. The debilitating color line has mostly faded for them.

Green said young people’s drive is: “I’ve got to do this for me. They’re in the movement for themselves.”

That’s different from black boomers whose admittance to colleges and careers was tied to doors opening because of the civil rights movement. For many it happened in the explosive wake of the riots after King’s assassination in 1968.

“There has been an evolution and progress made and racial tolerance to a degree,” said Green, who joins others for this column series looking at 50 years of civil rights advances while sharing a vision for the next half-century. “But I don’t know that it has fulfilled King’s dream.”

Green recalls that the black community and his parents propelled him through school, college and into a career in education. Busing to achieve integration was changing previously white school districts, and they needed black educators like Green to help achieve a smooth transition.

“We became kind of a resource,” providing a bridge of cultural sensitivity through home visits to bond black families and white schools with the shared interest in a good education. Green’s career rise continued with top administrative posts in New York City and then at the Kauffman Foundation.

What he noticed, however, was although legal segregation had ended with the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, schools still segregated students of color from advanced placement courses. That limited their chance of going to college, graduating and having successful careers.

Green, still “carrying the torch” for civil rights, has a goal to end such inequity. He did that with Kauffman Scholars, and he’s doing that with children in the district.

Right now, student performance is two- to three-grade levels behind where it should be. The district is moving from remediation to readiness, expanding its preschool program and enabling more seniors to graduate with both their high school and associates degree from a community college. The business, civic and faith communities must get behind Green as people did with King to ensure kids’ prenatal to college and career success.

“Education plays a large role” in leveling any playing field, Green said. It’s why the district in the next school year plans to provide iPad-like tablets that connect to the Internet to all students. It is to help today’s youths be ready for tomorrow’s opportunity.

Green sees students by 2063 creating companies, not taking jobs. The emphasis will be on creativity on a global scale.

“I have that kind of optimism,” Green said. The traditional high school to college to career route will yield to an entrepreneurial matrix.

Green’s job is to help get them past the hurdles of poverty, crime and violence so they don’t fall short of their own and King’s dreams.