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Leadership Change At African-Centered Schools

Laura Ziegler
A student in class at the old ACE school in 2010.

There’s been changing of the guard at Kansas City's African-centered schools.  

The program was started two decades ago by school leaders and community members who believe that teaching children from an afro-centric perspective leads to greater self-esteem and academic achievement.  

By the end of 2011, the curriculum, started by principal Audrey Bullard at Chick Elementary School, had become the basis of three schools, with almost 1000 students, making up the K-12 Afrikan Centered Education Collegium Campus at the site of the old Southeast High School.

But throughout the schools' history, and the constant turnover at the district, leaders of the ACE schools clashed with district administration over the autonomy they say they need to run the three schools effectively. 

Contract Established In 2008

In March, the district ended a contract with the Afrikan Centered Education Task Force, which had been running the schools since 2008.  The contract allowed the schools to control their own finances, hiring and curriculum, but still be part of the district.

UMKC economics professor Linwood Tauheed is a member of task force.

"We had had 19 years of fighting for African-centered education in the Kansas City, Missouri school district. Some boards were agreeable, some superintendents were agreeable, some not," Tauheed said. "So we got tired of that because it was causing educational disruption."

Tauheed said that at the time, ACE leadership was planning to apply to become a charter school, which means the schools would leave the district, and become accountable directly to the state.  Tauheed said the contract was a compromise to keep the schools in the district.

Court Battle Over Funding

But conflicts continued, and last fall, the ACE Task Force unsuccessfully took the district to court, alleging the schools were short-changed funding.   

Soon after the court decided in the district's favor, Superintendent Stephen Green decided to discontinue the ACE contract and resume administration of the school. He said at the time, according to The Kansas City Star, that ACE leaders had not accounted for all their funding, and had "deficient academic progress."  ACE leaders dispute both of those charges. 

Test scores from the past three years show about 30% of ACE elementary students are proficient in math and reading, but school leaders said almost 100% of high school students are graduating and going on to college.

Parents Consider A Charter School And Home-Schooling

Linwood Tauheed said it's now time to move on.

"At this point we are completely fed up with the district, so we are in the process of developing a charter school," Tauheed said.

ACE leaders won't be able to apply for a charter in time for this school year, which leaves the future of about 1000 students up in the air.  Meanwhile, hundreds of passionate parents are still protesting the superintendent's actions, and have interrupted district meetings.

"The thing that incenses and enrages parents the most is the way and the manner of which it was done," parent Spark Bookhart said. "Parents were not involved, were not asked, were not considered."

Some ACE parents will continue protesting the district, according to Bookhart, and are calling for the removal of the superintendent.

"As parents, we're to the point where we're saying we will not be ignored any further.  And [we'll] make it a very, very uncomfortable environment for the school board to operate in," Bookhart said.

Bookhart said many parents will not send their children to the district's new African-centered school, nor any other district school.  He said they plan to home-school until the old ACE leadership can establish a new school. Others have said they are looking into existing charter schools or moving to other districts.

Principal Joseph Williams Steps In

Some parents are opting for the district's school, which will be called the African-Centered College Preparatory Academy, and remain K-12.  About 300 students are currently enrolled for the fall.

The new principal, Joseph Williams, told KCUR's Susan B. Wilson that he's prepared to educate however many students show up.

"Whether it's 300 students or whether it's 600 or 800 … we're going to be ready to go with the students that show up on day one and we'll adjust the staffing needs accordingly," Williams said.

Williams is from Kansas City originally.  He's been a teacher and school administrator in Georgia for the past 18 years.  He knew coming into this position that he would face critics, and would have to convince some parents to give the new school a try.

"Parents of Kansas City are very blessed that they have school choice … if they choose not to send their kids to African-Centered Prep, that's their right," Williams said. "The parents that I'm going to be focused on will be the parents that have their children at the school, that believe in what we're doing."

Williams said he has no problem with parents being vigorous advocates for their children, but draws the line when they become disagreeable.

Some parents of students from the old ACE are concerned that Williams has no experience in African-Centered schools.  The district has arranged for him to consult with Temple University professor Molefi Kete Asante, considered the founder of afro-centrism, and has hired the Philadelphia-based company N-psy-T to help create the program.  In the spring, a team of Kansas City administrators, including Williams, visited Imhotep School, an African-centered charter school that N-psy-T runs.

Williams said he doesn't know how different the new African-centered school will be from the old ACE, because he doesn't really know how that school was run. All the old teachers and administrators will have to re-apply for their jobs, but Williams said he's been encouraged to hire some of the old staffers so that the transition will be smoother.

"At the end of the day, our students are going to have to meet the same academic requirements that any other student would have to meet," Williams said. "The only difference is in our school is that they will get their education from a rich, cultural perspective."

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Susan admits that her “first love” was radio, being an avid listener since childhood. However, she spent much of her career in mental health, healthcare administration, and sports psychology (Susan holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Bloch School of Business at UMKC.) In the meantime, Wilson satisfied her journalistic cravings by doing public speaking, providing “expert” interviews for local television, and being a guest commentator/contributor to KPRS’s morning drive time show and the teen talk show “Generation Rap.”
Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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