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Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013

Area districts cheer progress of Kansas City schools

The Kansas City Star

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Missouri report card gives Kansas City better grades

Amid all the enthusiasts you’d expect at a Kansas City Public Schools rally, eight sharply dressed men filled the second row.

Superintendents, all of them.

They sat there Friday morning, right behind the Kansas City school board members, almost lost in a room full of Kansas City staffers, volunteers, parents, students and supportive civic leaders as the district paraded its stunning report card news in front of a full bank of news cameras.

The superintendents came, some said afterward, because the future of the Kansas City district weighs over their schools and communities as well — particularly Kansas City’s quest to earn provisional accreditation.

“It would be a travesty if the (state) school board ignored their progress,” said Lee’s Summit Superintendent David McGehee.

The unaccredited Kansas City district scored securely in the provisional range in the first year of the state’s new accountability system, one year after it had come close to the mark in the old system.

“Kansas City deserves to be rewarded,” McGehee said.

But there is more at stake, he and other superintendents said.

They came from Lee’s Summit, Grandview, Hickman Mills, Raytown, North Kansas City, Park Hill, Independence and Grain Valley in part because they are concerned about the potential impact of a controversial student transfer law.

The law, already in effect in the St. Louis area, allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to nearby accredited districts with tuition and transportation costs covered by the unaccredited districts.

Two unaccredited St. Louis districts — Normandy and Riverview Gardens — combined had 2,600 of their 10,600 students seek transfers for this school year. While receiving districts mostly are working to accommodate the arrivals, the 8,000 students remaining behind are in districts that the state projects will be bankrupt within two years without funding relief.

“This transfer issue is so intense,” said Grandview Superintendent Ralph Teran.

Earlier at the podium, Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green had spoken his case that Kansas City’s two years of growth should warrant the higher classification from the state.

“I support his argument,” Teran said.

Districts in the Kansas City area have held off acting on the transfer law because a Missouri Supreme Court case involving several area districts is pending. But the same court upheld the law in a ruling handed down in June in a St. Louis area case.

The districts in the Kansas City case have argued that the law is unconstitutional because it compels districts to pay unfunded costs. In the St. Louis case, the court determined the law causes only a shuffling of costs.

The fact that districts in the St. Louis area are going bankrupt suggests “there is an unfunded mandate” in the law, McGehee said. “There is a mess.”

Kansas City Mayor Sly James, in a letter Friday to Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, stopped short of asking the commissioner to recommend provisional status for Kansas City, but he asked her to listen to Green’s case, particularly with the potential disruption of transfers looming.

“I have watched recent education-related events in St. Louis with great interest, sadness and fear,” James wrote. “As you are well aware, our community faces uncertainty around the accreditation status of Kansas City Public Schools.”

He said he would not presume to tell education professionals what decision they should make.

“However,” he said, “I do believe the district deserves to be heard and I hope you will consider listening to KCPS’ case for provisional accreditation…”

Nicastro plans to meet with Green and Kansas City staff in early September to talk about the district’s status, she said Thursday.

The state will consider the district’s argument, Nicastro said, but she reiterated that she believes that the district needs to show improvement for at least two years, if not three, under the new accountability system.

While she is concerned about the transfer law’s effects, Nicastro said, she thinks the transfer issue should be considered separately from the state’s accountability system.

Kansas City’s improved performance — reaching 60 percent of its possible points — is significant and laudable, she said, but many of the points were earned in recognition for growth in student test scores.

Seven out of 10 students in the district still did not perform at proficient or advanced levels in math and English language arts. So the district will have to build on its growth just to keep its score in a provisional range, let alone attain a full accreditation level.

Kansas City’s jump was just a highlight in what was overall a strong first showing for Kansas City area districts under the new report cards, said Gayden Carruth, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City.

She also joined with the superintendents at the Kansas City pep rally.

The pending student transfer law threatens what she sees as an otherwise encouraging education climate across the area — particularly with the improvement in Kansas City.

“The entire Kansas City area should be proud of what’s been accomplished here,” she said.

At the rally, Green assured the crowd that the district understands how it made its improvement, and also how far it still has to go.

“What we accomplished was not an accident,” he said. “It was by design. It was strategic. It was very intentional.”

He acknowledged that the community has seen bursts of optimism before over the past many years that ultimately fizzled.

This time, he said, will be different.

“The roller coaster is done in this district,” he said.

Thismorning, Green’s executive cabinet will be meeting with the school board at a retreat to talk about the work already under way toward next year’s state report, said board president Airick Leonard West.

“Milestones are worth celebrating,” he said. But the leadership and the board will be meeting, “and we will have the same conversation one more time: Here is the vision. How many steps can we take next year?”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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