Here's what might work for Kansas City Public Schools
The Kansas City Star
Jim Hinson, superintendent of the Independence School District, said something during a telephone conversation that I found startling.
We were talking about the Kansas City Public Schools. I asked Hinson if he thought that the district could progress by working collaboratively with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“I don’t believe the department of education has the expertise to provide the level of wisdom that school districts need,” he said.
That’s not a reflection on the people in the department, he said. It’s an observation that the department known as DESE, like all of state government, has been decimated by budget cuts over the last four years. It creates a hole, and Hinson, a straight-talking superintendent, has noticed.
Conversations I had yesterday with Hinson and Center School District Superintendent Bob Bartman provided a sobering window into how difficult it’s going to be to bring the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools up to a level that not only meets the minimum state standards but truly benefits children. With school districts bordering the trouble urban district, the two superintendents are very familiar with the challenges.
“The decision-making process has eroded over a long period of time,” Bartman said. “The community has lost confidence in the ability of the school district to fix itself.”
Change must start with a capable school board and a talented superintendent who is committed to staying long enough to turn the district around, Bartman and Hinson said. That almost goes without saying…but the problem is how to achieve those ends.
I think the current school board is well intentioned and that some of the reforms members have recommended for the board are wise, especially ending the practice of electing board members by subdistricts. That and other steps might lead to more vigorous school board elections and better-qualified members.
But the Kansas City school board has had solid members in recent years. Bill Eddy, Al Mauro and David Smith are three that come to mind. All had sterling credentials to serve on a board, yet their leadership wasn’t enough to keep good superintendents or fix the district’s administrative mess. I’m not sure at this point whether any board, selected in any fashion, can overcome the district’s dysfunctional culture.
Of all the things that have been tried over the long and troubled history of the Kansas City Public Schools, the one thing that has worked well for kids and families is the 2008 annexation of seven of the district’s schools into the Independence School District.
The turnaround was startlingly quick, especially at the high school and middle school levels. Student achievement and family satisfaction trended upward right away. Even this school year, the Independence district enrolled 400 students directly from Kansas City, Hinson said.
This is a hard conclusion to come to, but I think we ought to look at enabling more of the Kansas City Public Schools to be annexed by districts, such as Independence and Center, that are serving students well.
That would leave a smaller cluster of schools in the core that could be run as a reconstituted “recovery district,” with a newly formed board and new personnel contracts and procedures – in other words, a break from the failed policies of the past. The new district could link with social service and civic groups to address the many needs of impoverished students in a comprehensive way.
There was some energy in the Missouri legislature for enabling more annexations early in the session, but I don’t hear much talk about it now. That’s too bad. As I said, it’s the one thing we’ve seen that’s worked.