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Kauffman Charter School Sets High Bar, But Can It Be Replicated?

Elle Moxley

It’s a lofty goal for any charter – be the premiere public school in Missouri and a model for the rest of the country.

And for a new school, it’s especially bold. Yet that’s been the vision of the Kauffman School since before it opened.

This week while other metro-area kids were enjoying that first taste of summer, sixth graders at the Kauffman School were sitting in science class. It's quiet except for the scratch of pencil on paper.

“If we were to describe ourselves, I don’t think we would use the word strict," says principal Hannah Lofthus. "I think we would say this is our opportunity to help students build discipline.”

Lofthus isn't talking about the kind of discipline that lands a chatty 12-year-old in detention. She’s talking about self-discipline, the kind most people don't learn for years. She says her oldest students, seventh graders who were a part of the Kauffman School’s very first class, don’t even raise their hands anymore.

“They’re actually looking at the conversation, listening for pauses, watching the body language of their other teammates to be able to interject in the conversation, which is much more like the style of an adult conversation,” says Lofthus.

The Kauffman School’s whole focus is not just getting these kids through high school, but to college and beyond. The kids have a longer school day and a longer school year – it’s all part of what sets the charter apart.

Sydney Golston, 13, says most of her friends are fellow students at the Kauffman School. But she has a few at other schools in Kansas City.

“Their homework is like – their eighth grade and ninth grade homework – it’s like our sixth grade homework," she says. "I’m like, ‘I did that in sixth grade!’ They’re like, ‘Well, we’re just learning this.’”

Golston is only in seventh grade but already knows where she wants to go to college – Baylor. How she and the rest of her class fare in college is what Lofthus calls a long-term indicator – data Kauffman won’t have for years. So right now she’s focused on a short-term goal.

“We’re tracking our seventh graders right now," says Lofthus. "Are they going to meet that goal of being on grade level by the end of eighth grade, how do we know?”

The Kauffman School serves kids in grades 5 through 12. But unlike most schools, kids can only enter in fifth grade. If you miss the sign up, or don’t get a spot, you can't sign up the next year. If that sounds strict, Lofthus says it’s because so many kids come to Kauffman behind. The school needs time to get them caught up before high school, when they’re expected to do college prep coursework.

Kauffman is focused on six zip codes east of Troost – neighborhoods where administrators say few quality education opportunities exist within the Kansas City Public Schools. The Kauffman Foundation plans to continue supporting the district and other charters. But Lofthus says sharing innovations at the Kauffman school is now a big part of that plan.

“I was just working on a presentation this morning of the list of schools in Kansas City who have in some way come into our school, taken our curriculum, taken ideas, whatever it is, and taken it back to the school," she says. "The list is pretty long.”

It might seem odd that other schools are taking cues from a brand new charter, but pretty much everything the school is doing has been done elsewhere with success.

Lofthus says Kansas City is having the wrong conversation about education.

“This is district, this is charter, and we can’t do this, and we should be against you guys – let’s not talk district/charter. Let’s talk about what a good school is,” she says.

But Kansas City School Board Chair Jon Hile points to another good school – Lincoln Prep, which is also east of Troost.

“If you look at the course offerings and the options on the table with the Kansas City Missouri School District, we’re very competitive," says Hile. "We’re home to one of the best public high schools in the state of Missouri.”

The district is looking at ways to partner with the growing number of charter schools in the city. Hile says that has to happen to keep the fragmented education system together.

“I think this community has to come to grips with the idea that we have to have an education system that offers parents options, but it cannot be 16 different systems within one small school district area,” he says.

Hile points out that test scores are going up – the district should be eligible for provisional accreditation this year, if not full accreditation. That could change perceptions about the role charters such as the Kauffman School play in Kansas City.

This look at Kansas City's east side is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what's being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences east of Troost with KCUR.

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