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MO Education Commissioner Urges Community Leaders to Reach Consensus About KCMO School District

Art Credit: KC Education Enterprise - Photo Credit (Chris Nicastro): Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education - Photo Credit (Stock Image): 123rf

This is the text of the report Missouri’s Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro presented at the State Board of Education meeting in Branson earlier today:

Report to the State Board of Education
Regarding the Kansas City School District
December 2, 2011
Chris L. Nicastro, Ph.D.

Since the State Board of Education action on September 20, we’ve been talking with and listening to the Kansas City community, getting their ideas for how the State can assist the District in regaining accreditation, what appropriate intervention might look like, and how to ensure that the children of the District have access to quality education. We’ve met with the school board, the superintendent, members of the staff, parents, the leadership of the AFT, members of the clergy, business leaders, members of the philanthropic community, neighboring district board members and superintendents, legislators and others. We collected comments at town hall meetings and posted a feedback form for gathering ideas, feedback
and nominations of individuals to serve on some sort of advisory or governing board. To summarize:

• We received just over 500 written letters, emails and feedback forms. Some letters represented multiple groups/organizations who joined together to submit feedback in one document.
• The vast majority of the letters focused on the form of governance. Based on the written feedback, as well as the verbal feedback and discussions held in recent weeks, there are essentially five general options that have surfaced:

1. Status Quo:
This option has no advantages. The District is obviously failing the students. If nothing changes, the results won’t either. If nothing is done, the District will continue to fail and the children will continue to be short-changed. Confronting the status quo is exactly the reason we need to act immediately—as already determined—on January 1, to remove district accreditation. To delay this action is to ignore the failure of the district to serve its children.

2. Mayoral Control:
There is some research to indicate that some form of mayoral involvement has merit for urban school districts. In Kansas City, the current Mayor has assumed responsibility for bringing community leaders together to discuss developing a “community solution” to the Kansas City School District problem. The community is so divided that a community-driven plan will likely take some time to develop. Irrespective of what action is taken by the State Board of Education, the School District and the Kansas City community as a whole can only benefit from this collaborative effort to develop consensus.

As for a plan that gives the District to the Mayor to run, while this might resolve some of the operational issues, it would be critical to identify instructional expertise to provide the leadership necessary to improve student performance. In addition, while the community might well turn the District over to this Mayor, any plan that institutionalizes mayoral control will require legislative action and must consider the fact that at some point there will be another person in this seat.

3. Advisory Board:
This option requires no immediate change in state law. It allows for immediate support, keeping the elected board in place, which would be supported by many. Creating an advisory board as a first step allows DESE to use the least restrictive intervention approach, reduces the chance of litigation and delays, and allows more time for developing the “community solution” currently under discussion. Should this advisory board not prove sufficient, the next step of appointing a board with governing authority could be taken. If the advisory board does not prove effective, however, substantial student achievement improvement would be significantly delayed. Many community leaders will see this option as unsatisfactory and a repeat of the problems associated with a dual board structure under desegregation.

4. Dissolve the District:
This option has several versions. One is to dissolve the District officially, changing boundaries and attaching pieces of the existing District to neighboring districts. It is hard to imagine a viable metropolitan community without a school district. While many of the children might well be served in neighboring districts, the challenges associated with educating the urban core—poverty, socio-economic factors, family dysfunction and so forth—will not be addressed simply by dispersing the children.

Another version of this option has the District itself remaining intact and the neighboring districts assuming authority over pieces of the existing District, providing contracted educational services to the children of Kansas City in their current schools. To their credit, the neighboring districts have acknowledged that they have a stake in the future success of Kansas City Public Schools, and that the success of the District’s children is a collective responsibility that everyone shares.

On the other hand, the political and social fallout that this approach will bring can only serve to further disrupt the educational program for children. The assumption that the programs and services currently serving the children in the suburbs are the key to success for underperforming, urban, minority children would face significant challenge.

5. Special Administrative Board:
A Special Administrative Board, appointed to replace the existing elected Board of Education, would provide DESE with maximum authority to make necessary changes to move the District forward. Such a board has the potential to change the system in dramatic and important ways. Choosing the right individuals to sit on such a board is critical. However, creating an administrative board with authority under current law will most likely be subject to litigation. A lengthy court battle would consume already strained state and local resources, distract all parties from the essential work of improving student performance, and most important, could further polarize a community already characterized by division and conflicting agendas.

In addition to the form of governance, members of the community also weighed in on the desirable characteristics of the individuals who might monitor or govern the District. Although the list of suggested characteristics is long, those mentioned most frequently are below. Most of those submitting comments want board or team members who are:
• professionals;
• well educated;
• diverse;
• student-centered;
• residents of KC and/or Missouri;
• good communicators;
• organized;
• committed;
• honest and ethical;
• visionary;
• apolitical and agenda-free;
• change agents;
• leaders with experience and successful track records.

This represents a clear list of characteristics for the Department, the State Board and for the Kansas City community to consider as we work together to determine the appropriate governance structure and the best candidates to serve on a future governing group. It is, in fact, a good description of the leaders every community should seek out and elect or appoint to public office.

Further, it is critical that we not underestimate the stakes at hand. We are talking about the future of the 17,000 children in the Kansas City schools today. We are talking about generations of children—past and future—whose very lives are at risk. The District has been dysfunctional and underperforming for decades. This systemic failure cannot be allowed to continue. It’s bad educational policy. It’s bad economic policy. It’s bad politics. It’s wrong.

In determining the best course of action, the following fundamental principles, reflected in the statewide system of support, have been considered:

1. Students cannot wait for incremental improvement in their educational condition.
Kansas City has not met MSIP standards for over 20 years. While accreditation is important, what is more important is that the system supports quality education, every day, for every child. It will require significant and sustained change. All parties need to take responsibility for action. It is this imperative that caused the State Board to designate January 1 as the effective date for accreditation status to change to
“unaccredited.”

2. The process of targeted intervention requires a laser-like focus on implementation, dedicated project management and instructional improvement support.
While it describes a broad vision for the future, the Transformation Plan which the District developed needs enhanced focus on the central issue of student performance. The District will need to focus implementation clearly on identifying the specific instructional strategies that will begin to address student achievement. All resources must be focused on supporting this effort. Nothing is more important.

3. Monitoring progress…must be based on outcomes.
Specific performance benchmarks must be established, monitored and reported regularly, and adjustments in instruction made as necessary to meet these benchmarks. Teachers, administrators, parents and others must be accountable for results.

4. Collaboration between and among stakeholders is essential for sustainable improved student learning.
This may be Kansas City’s biggest challenge. The District cannot and will not succeed in a vacuum, or in a system that is characterized by dysfunction and a lack of unanimity around what’s best for children.

We appreciate the time and energy that the Kansas City community as a whole has expended in this effort. The best outcome of the lengthy and public process to date is the unprecedented engagement of the community in determining the future of their schools. Communities get the school district and the quality of education they expect and support. There is no successful school district in Missouri that exists without the active engagement and participation of its community. The work for the Kansas City community is not yet done.

While we believe that action is urgent, it is critical for us not to make a decision prematurely. It is evident that the community is just now coming to understand the magnitude of their responsibility and the imperative for immediate change. Advancing a recommendation for governance or other intervention prior to the community reaching consensus about what this should look like would simply add to the dysfunction and prolong the disruption for children and adults. The Kansas City community, the Kansas City School District and the Department must move forward as partners, not adversaries.

The following steps should be considered in the coming weeks:

1. The community—perhaps with the assistance of Mayor Sly James who has convened a number of thoughtful discussions on this issue in recent weeks—must come to a clear consensus on the best course of action and the appropriate form of additional state assistance and/or intervention. If the community wants the State Board to appoint a Special Administrative Board (SAB) with authority in place of the elected board, they need to ask for it.

2. The legislature—with the united leadership of the Kansas City area legislators—should immediately consider legislation with an emergency clause to give the State Board of Education full and clear authority to appoint a Special Administrative Board in place of the elected board following the loss of accreditation. The current law requires a two full academic year waiting period for the district to regain accreditation or lapse. This arbitrary time requirement does not serve the children of Kansas City, or any other district, well.

3. The Kansas City Board of Education must devote every minute to the job at hand: improving instruction and student performance. They must hold the Superintendent and his staff accountable for implementing specific instructional improvement strategies and monitor their progress on a frequent basis. They must—above all—recognize that this is an emergency situation for 17,000 children.

4. The Department will continue to take suggestions from the Kansas City community and will work closely with groups in the District to determine the best course of action moving forward. If necessary, if requested by the community, and if authorized by law, the State Board of Education will be eager to appoint a Special Administrative Board imminently qualified and fully committed to improving the quality of education provided for the children of the Kansas City Public Schools.

In addition, the Department will continue efforts to support the superintendent and his staff in improving student performance. Department resources will be allocated to implement the statewide system of support outlined in our state accountability system. Additional resources will be sought to provide intense coaching assistance within classrooms and buildings. We will work with the District to develop appropriate performance benchmarks, monitoring progress and reporting results to the community regularly. In short, we will continue and expand the efforts we’re making to impact classroom achievement.

To close, I would like to share a portion of a letter which urged the State Board of Education NOT to lapse the Kansas City Public School District and implement State authority. The letter states: “Changing this deeply embedded culture is more than the KCMSD can accomplish alone—and certainly more than a state-appointed three-person panel can force—but, fortunately, the Mayor of Kansas City has convened a Collaborative, consisting of representatives of all important interests, organizations and groups in Kansas City. The sole aim of the Collaborative is to marshal the resources of the entire Kansas City civic community to change the culture of public education in Kansas City so as to attain high…achievement for all children. To do so, the Collaborative is plunging head-on to implement strategies that will harness…the power of educational, racial, and political interests that have for too long been arrayed against progress. Unless the State of Missouri has some very specific plans for dealing with the existing…realities of the KCMSD…it should leave those necessary and potentially messy efforts to the Mayor’s Collaborative. Were the State to step in and lapse the (District), it would derail the work of the Collaborative and take the winds from the sails of its very promising efforts. If the Collaborative and the (District), working together, succeeds in changing the educational culture of the District, it will be noted nationally and tens of thousands of children here will be thankful that the State Board allowed it to happen.”

This letter could have been written by any number of people in the past few weeks. Sadly, it was written on October 17, 2001—over 10 years ago. The message is the same: leave us alone, we will fix the problem. Ten years after this letter was submitted, tens of thousands of children have, in fact, suffered continued failure on the part of the community and the District to serve their needs.

We pray that we aren’t having this discussion ten years from now. The 17,000 children in Kansas City deserve action now from the community, the legislature, the local board of education and from the Department. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to make a recommendation for action today. While we believe that an appointed board with full authority could provide stronger leadership and a more aggressive path to improving student performance, the additional conflict that such a decision would create without clear community and legal authority is not worth the risk. The District will be unaccredited on January 1. Action from the community and the legislature will allow us to act shortly thereafter.

_______________________________

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About jwmartinez

JoLynne is a journalist and educator. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Park University and is certified to teach high school journalism and English. Former employment includes work for Cable News Network and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to freelancing for clients such as the Kansas City Star and The Pitch.

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