The Kansas City, Missouri School District’s loss of state accreditation last Tuesday was the second embarrassing blow to the troubled district in recent months.
The first was the resignation of John Covington in August which revealed a dysfunctional school board and noncommittal superintendent, who used the district as a stepping stone to a $225,000/year contract as superintendent of a newly-created district in Michigan that oversees the state’s worst schools.
Covington’s departure dashed the hopes many had that he would continue to bring change and reform.
When Covington became superintendent in 2009, the district, which at one point had 75,000 students, had dwindled to enrollment of 17,000, leaving behind an overabundance of buildings and bureaucracy.
Covington’s bold decisions to shutter half the district’s schools and force all principals to re-apply for their jobs were praised by civic leaders and Kansas City Star editorials.
Now, Covington’s tenure has become the epitome of the failed administration he promised to reform.
Had Covington followed through with his promised reforms (district officials begged him to stay on), the picture would be different.
Leadership is key to the success of any organization, and effective leadership requires not only dedicated leaders, but continuity. The KCMSD has had 25 superintendents over the past 40 years.
In contrast, the school district I attended, Shawnee Mission USD 512 in Overland Park, has had only two superintendents over the past 20 years.
Some challenges the KCMSD faces are not unique.
Although the district contains many affluent areas, its enrollment consists of some of the city’s most economically disadvantaged students.
Eighty percent of the students receive free and reduced lunches, meaning their families’ incomes fall within 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
Low-income children are at a disadvantage from day one. Studies have found low-income parents are less likely to read to their kids and help with homework.
While many low-income parents care deeply about their child’s education, many lack the resources to give them the help they need. Others simply do not care or value education. Students who come from homes where abusive behavior and drug use are prevalent are prone to behavioral disorders that lead to disruptions in school.
Inevitably, inner city teachers are left with the daunting task of being a teacher, babysitter and disciplinarian to students at the same time.
The same story can be retold in most metropolitan core cities.
A handful of KCMSD schools have solid reputations, such as Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, but the district’s overall performance is dismal.
The advent of charter schools has been a hit and miss. Some, such as Academy Lafayette, are models for success, while others fare worse than KCMSD schools.
Past attempts to fix the KCMSD have failed, largely due to the district’s mismanagement.
The more than $2 billion the district received from the state in the `80s and `90s from a court-ordered desegregation plan could have done wonders. Instead, the money was squandered on lavish new buildings and convoluted signature programs, such as magnet high schools.
Meanwhile, the district continued to hemorrhage enrollment and underperform on basic reading and math assessments.
The KCMSD lost its accreditation in 2000, but showed enough improvement to regain provisional accreditation in 2002 and avoid a state takeover.
This time, if the district doesn’t show compelling signs of improvement over the next few years, a state takeover in 2014 could mean one of three things.
One option would be the appointment of a special board to run the district, which wouldn’t give local residents much of a say in how the district is run.
The second is the possibility of merging the KCMSD with other districts, although this would likely be unpopular with the other districts, given the KCMSD’s troubled past.
The third option, the best of all, would involve splitting the KCMSD into several smaller districts. Starting from scratch would eliminate the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the district and the negative stigma attached to it.
It would also place an emphasis on neighborhood schools and community involvement, which would help schools improve their performances and grow enrollment.
Having several smaller districts would encourage each to step up its act and outperform the others. The state could incentivize competition by rewarding the district with the best performance on the state assessment and highest graduation rate.
The success of any plan for district, state takeover or not, will depend on its execution and follow-through.
Seeing any one approach as a magic bullet solution will continue to undermine the quality of education and will get Kansas City nowhere.
The KCMSD’s problems are multifaceted and have been decades in the making.
Likewise, solving them will require a comprehensive solution and dedicated leadership to see the solution implemented over time.