District struggles to shake off long-held perceptions, compete with charter schools

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The Kansas City Star
By: Rick Montgomery and Mara Rose Williams
August 25, 2010

A month ago, the Kansas City school board president hoofed up Forest Avenue to knock on doors and promote a district determined to reinvent local schooling.

He was a decade late.

What Airick Leonard West and two other volunteer door-knockers encountered was a neighborhood well into the throes of an educational sea change. It has been swirling for years around the words "choice" and "charter."

Along four residential blocks, the volunteers met four families with children enrolled in four charter schools -- publicly funded facilities not governed by the district.

Some households were unaware that their charters operated apart from the district. The schools were free, after all, and called "public." But their policies weren't set by elected school board members such as West.

Passion and confusion run deep in the arguments about charter schools, which now serve one in four children living within the boundaries of the Kansas City School District.

This much is clear: With the district's enrollment plunging by nearly 10,000 the last five years, and with two dozen of its schools shuttered this summer to meet budget, the district must stem the tide of families choosing charters or else face many more closures -- even extinction -- in the future.

"Transformation Is Happening! Did You Know ... ?" read the door-hangers being delivered in the summer heat to 73,000 homes districtwide. "Opportunity Knocks! Will You Answer?"
Will they? As school-choice advocates like to say, families vote with their feet.

They see it on Forest: One boy walks north to 41st Street to catch his southbound bus. His brother walks south for a bus zipping west -- each to his own charter.

School buses and carpools roar in all directions, shattering the stillness of the vacant lots they pass.

Nobody heads anymore to the red-brick building on the hill, the former Bancroft Elementary School.

It has been vacant since 2000 -- about the time that thousands of district residents were just getting introduced to the hodgepodge of charters.

As West marched by the old Bancroft, he only glanced at it. He would rather not dwell on the negative, "a part of the district's history we don't plan to revisit," he said of the weedy schoolyard before he bounded up the next front porch.

Morris Leapheart and his wife, Lucille, have owned a home on the 4100 block for 43 years, and they tell a volunteer everything has changed.

Before now, Leapheart says, the district did more to shoo away his neighbors than to win them back.

He frets for a 9-year-old grandson, his daughter's boy, who was attending Carver Elementary, a neighborhood school several blocks to the east. But as part of the district's rightsizing effort, this year it essentially closed Carver as a neighborhood school. The dual language program from the closed Swinney Elementary is moving intact into the Carver building.

"My daughter's about ready to have a nervous breakdown," Leapheart said of her weeks of uncertainty over where her son would go to school.

Unhappy with the nearest school, the daughter last week took two days off from work to arrange for her son to attend the district's Afrikan Centered Education Collegium lower campus, three miles from their home.

Leapheart said he suspected other parents also would seek to switch their children's schools even after classes begin next week: "It's going to be chaos."

How much difference?

With one Kansas City mother, Latrice Purnell, district volunteers needn't waste their door-hangers or their breath.

"I've given up on the district," said Purnell, a mother of three.

Her oldest child in May graduated from Hogan Preparatory Academy, a charter school. The middle child is enrolled this fall in a different charter school. (The youngest is in a private preschool.)

Charters have been the answer for many. Anecdotally, at least, examples abound of "charter kids" turning around their performance and attitudes about schooling.

On the whole, however, high-quality learning still eludes those living in the district.

Of the 23 charter schools in Kansas City, fewer than a half dozen post test scores better than those of most Kansas City district schools.

A recent national study suggests the same. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that, on average, charter schools are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior and overall school progress.

Purnell said her son did much better academically after he left district-run schools.

Troubled by persistent reports of local graduates being poorly prepared for higher learning, the mother and son chose Hogan "so that when he finished he could go to college," she said.

And this month he started his freshman year at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.

Purnell's sixth-grade daughter attends a charter middle school, KIPP Endeavor Academy -- "a better choice" than her old district school, Purnell said, "because she is getting help there."

All good. But even if KIPP (which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program) and Hogan manage to outperform the schools the Purnells fled, both report test scores below the state average.

The 47 graduates at Hogan, for example, in 2009 averaged a composite 16.3 on their ACTs. That's well below the Missouri average of 21.6 for the college-entrance exam, but four of the district's five high schools scored even lower. Only Lincoln College Preparatory Academy scored better.

About 29 percent of sixth-graders at KIPP (one of 82 KIPP charter schools in 19 states) scored "proficient" or higher in communication arts this year in the Missouri Assessment Program. Again, sixth-graders across the state averaged better, but the district's average was lower.

The district, like most underperforming charters, makes generous use of anecdotes when promoting itself.

"DID YOU KNOW ... that two (district) 2010 graduates earned over $350K in scholarships for college?" the door-hangers herald.

That's just one of the messages the Kansas City district badly needs to spread around.

Between 30,000 and 35,000 school-age children live within district boundaries. Most -- about 25,700 -- are enrolled in public schools.

But fully one-third of those kids, or 8,800, attend public charters.

Yes, charters are public -- even if nationwide polls show only about 40 percent of us know that.

(The lack of understanding probably is tied to the rarity of charter schools outside urban centers. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. school districts don't have charter schools with which to compete. Missouri allows them only in Kansas City and St. Louis.)

Charter schools get money from the state to educate each child. That's roughly $8,000 per student in Missouri, similar to the state aid for students in the Kansas City district.

Charters also can qualify for federal aid, such as money to feed poor children or to lend special assistance to children with learning disabilities.

For the district, all of it is money lost. State money follows the child from district to charter.

In cities where large populations have switched to charters -- here and in St. Louis; Detroit; Dayton and Youngstown, Ohio; the District of Columbia -- the traditional public districts "feel a squeeze," said Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, a national think tank.

"It is a problem for them to maintain finances, because the fewer students, the fewer dollars you get," he said. "It is a major problem."

Seeking alternatives

The problem is worsened by what Kansas City chief of staff Jeffery McDaniels calls the district's "exposure to all the negatives" that go with running urban schools in a public spotlight.

News media attend Kansas City school board meetings. Unfavorable audits instantly go public. Board candidates sound off at election time, and the teachers union argues for its contract.

Each charter, on the other hand, is operated by an independent board. State law allows the schools to employ fewer certified instructors than the district can. Collective bargaining is rare.
Some charters pay for-profit school management companies to handle administrative duties.

Charter boards are required to hold open meetings and provide state overseers an accounting of school performance. But with those meetings dispersed across the city and no single governing board overseeing them, charter schools get a fraction of the media attention that the district attracts.

Even parents dedicated to the district cause have bolted -- and not always to public charters -- out of concern for their own children's education:

When seven years in district-school classrooms hadn't prepared Ellen and Gary Goebel's daughter to test into the district's premier high school, Lincoln Prep, he and his wife tried home schooling.

Clinging to faith in public education, the Goebels were dead set against paying big bucks to a private school. And the best charter schools would have meant joining thousands on waiting lists. (At University Academy, the list stretches to 2,000 waiting kids, almost double the enrollment.)

"I do think Kansas City is one of the most goofed-up systems there is," said Gary Goebel, "but Lincoln is the best in the system. We believed, and still do believe, that we can stick with the system and make it work."

After a year in which Ellen Goebel taught her daughter at home, the girl retested to enter Lincoln -- and passed.

Christine Taylor-Butler and her husband, Ken Butler, sampled education choices as if they were picking from a buffet. They tried them all -- district, charter and parochial schools.

They sat on parent committees in the district and got to know its teachers and administrators.
But in the end, they decided their youngest daughter would finish her last three years of high school at a boarding school in Watertown, Conn.

Ken Butler said that even if students at Lincoln met the lauded school's expectations, his daughter could come up short. Lincoln boasts an average ACT score just above 21, out of a possible 36. That remains three or four points lower than the minimum needed to be considered for some of the best private colleges.

"I love living in Kansas City," said Roxana Shaffe, mother of three.

She and her husband were vocal boosters of Kansas City district schools. They chided friends who hightailed to suburban districts.

But their oldest son hadn't yet finished kindergarten when they determined that the district's Border Star Montessori School was not working out for him. Now he attends French-speaking Académie Lafayette, an acclaimed charter.

They had planned to stick with Border Star for their younger son. But this month, overwhelmed by the changes and uncertainty in the district, they enrolled him in a private preschool.

"Yes, I believe strongly in all that Kansas City can provide," Shaffe said. "But do I sacrifice my child for this idea?"

When competing for these families, McDaniels knows the district's greatest obstacle:
"We can't erase a 30-year history."

Eight moves

Ru'da and Joardy Looney speak to that history.

In the last two years they moved the oldest of their six children three times -- from a charter to a district school and back to a charter.

They said they were happy at the charter and wouldn't ever go back to the district.

"We had to go through a lot of schools before we got to where we are now," Ru'da said. "It was all trial and error."

Son John Looney is now at University Academy, one of the city's top charter schools. Two siblings also go there.

His travels in the choice lane say as much about the decline of the district as they do about the value of charters.

He began at the district's early childhood program at Pershing School (since closed); kindergarten at Bryant Elementary (closed); first and second grades at Hartman Elementary, at that time a district magnet (and still functioning).

Third and fourth grades at Hale Cook Elementary (closed). Those years convinced John's parents the district may not be challenging him enough.

Many would concur, as Kansas City district schools by then had been labeled "academically deficient" by the state of Missouri -- which took away the district's accreditation, and later barely granted provisional accreditation.

So the Looneys enrolled John and his younger sister, Bernadette, in a charter school -- Derrick Thomas Academy, a heavy advertiser on hip-hop radio. That schooling experiment lasted one month.

"We were not pleased with the teachers there," said Ru'da Looney.

It just so happened that University Academy at the time had openings in both children's grades.

Two years there.

John's progress remained questionable, so Ru'da and her husband returned the then seventh-grader to a district facility, Kansas City Middle School of the Arts (closed and consolidated this year with Paseo Academy of the Fine and Performing Arts).

Ru'da liked the freedom to visit the school during John's class times: "At least the district had an open-door policy, and that was what we wanted."

For a short while, at least. After a tussle with a bully, John was enrolled briefly at the Afrikan Centered Education program's Upper School (still functioning) before returning to the charter, University Academy, after it adopted an open-door policy.

That's eight building switches since kindergarten for John. He is 14 years old.

'Churning of students'

Proponents of charter schools note that parents who shop the education marketplace are, by definition, involved.

And all experts agree parental involvement is one of the most consistent predictors of classroom success.

But a growing body of research raises flags about too much "student mobility," particularly the kind that results from economic need or friction with school officials, more than from choices based on academics.

"High mobility in schools affects everyone," including the children who stay at a school but see new faces constantly come and go, concludes a recent report published by the National Academy of Sciences.

"The churning of students is likely to make instruction more difficult, to interfere with the continuity of programming ... and to disrupt social networks."

Some data link higher dropout rates and lower test scores to students repeatedly switching schools. But the research remains squishy and hasn't yet cracked a chicken-or-egg problem: Does high mobility lead to academic struggle, or is it the other way around?

Education scholar Russell W. Rumberger said researchers are still learning the best ways to track and analyze the progress of students who travel the charter school circuit.

"With the federal government encouraging mobility out of bad public schools, the effects of all this movement are worth watching," said Rumberger, of the University of California-Santa Barbara. "There's definitely a downside to having choices. You can imagine some poor choices being made" by well-intentioned parents.

Midtown resident Loria Fells can only pray she's doing what is best for her only son, Alvester.
"I think this might be the place," she said of Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology.

Fells enrolled Alvester there this summer, before the start of fifth grade. At a Banneker carnival on the playground last month, she helped collect tickets for the Space Maze, an inflated attraction, and recalled her son's circuitous path since preschool:
From a private, pricey Montessori to a less expensive parochial school. Then, when her income took a hit, a few years at Brookside Charter School -- until Alvester grew tense and distracted from run-ins with a certain school official.

And now to Banneker (not to be confused with the district's Banneker Elementary on Askew Avenue), which Alvester calls "OK -- I like the math and science."

His mother said Alvester's best interests dictated every switch.

"I like living in the city, but parents here just have to be wiser" because the district's sour reputation has driven so many to pick through the plethora of charter possibilities, Fells said.

"Having all these options doesn't always feel like a good thing.

"The neighborhood I grew up in, we all went to Katharine Richardson Elementary. Then Central Junior High. Then Central High," said Fells, who graduated in 1979. "My sisters and all my friends -- friends I still have today -- we knew where we were headed, together."
"It seemed more stress-free, you know?"

Fourth in the nation

In the 10 years since charter schools opened in Kansas City, thousands of families have fled district schools for charters.

But Doug Thomas, director of the Midwest Center for Charter Schools and Education at the University of Central Missouri, notes that parents chose to opt out of urban district schools long before charters came on the scene: They were going private, or leaving the city altogether.

For that reason, he said, charter school choice "is not hurting urban education. It's supporting it by keeping the population in the city."

New Orleans leads the nation in choosing charter schools. More than half of its school-age children attend them.

It took nothing short of a hurricane there to turn around declining performance in New Orleans' public schools. Since Katrina's fury in 2005, test scores have trended up, if by no means dramatically, at the charter schools.

Pop quiz: Who's gaining on New Orleans in the "top 10 largest market share of public charter school communities," according to the National Alliance for Charter Public Schools?

Kansas City, at No. 4.

"I believe we are close to being the first school district, other than New Orleans, that had charters grow up from grass roots and (could see) the majority of our public school students enrolled in charter schools," said Crosby Kemper III, president of the Kansas City Public Library.

Kemper sits on a local committee to get charter and district schools working together for school improvement.

The group's philosophy: "It doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference what the governance structure is of a school if it is a great school," in Kemper's words. "Let's stop the fight between the district and the charters, and form an alliance."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has endorsed the idea of district schools and charters finding common ground on best practices for urban schools.

In a speech last month at the NAACP's annual convention in Kansas City, Duncan said he isn't concerned about whether a school is part of a district or a charter school, so long as it excels at educating children.

"I am not a fan of public charter schools. I am a fan of good schools," Duncan said.

An Obama administration campaign -- Race to the Top -- has pushed states to lift barriers limiting charter school growth so they can get a portion of $4 billion in federal school improvement money. As a result, states such as New York, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Illinois have made room for more charters to open.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Education Department promised Missouri about $7 million over the next three years, beginning with $2.1 million this year, to add or improve charter schools.

'Share the good news'

On Forest Avenue, the district's outreach scored a few points.

The Evans family thanked board president West for his visit. The mother, a new arrival, had not yet signed up her six kids for school.

Some residents who had no children in the schools nonetheless signed up to become mentors and serve on advisory committees.

A man in a wheelchair was glad to help out at two schools geared for teaching kids with physical disabilities.

"Many people don't know we have one school in our district (Lincoln Prep) that is ranked among the top 100 high schools in the nation. We have one of the top urban debate teams (at Central High)," said West.

He struck tones almost evangelical: "Part of the aspiration is to share the good news door to door."

But neighbors have trouble shaking off the fact that old Bancroft stands empty still, despite a developer's plans to reopen it for other uses. And the buildings that remain district schools have much to prove in the coming months and years.

"The school district is going to make or break itself," said Rodney Knott, president of the Historic Manheim Park Association. "I'm afraid, unfortunately, there'll be confusion at least until the end of this semester.

"But if it begins the process of better educating the children, then people will come back."

*| To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send e-mail to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

| To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send e-mail to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.*

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