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Tensions Ease Between Charter Schools And Kansas City Public Schools

Sam Zeff

Last week a group of parents in Midtown Kansas City realized a dream: they raised enough money to get two new charter schools off the ground.

There was a time when such an announcement would be met with suspicion and perhaps even hostility from the Kansas City Public Schools.

Superintendent Steve Green says the district saw itself as a target.

"We isolated ourselves. It’s sometimes a typical response when you’re wounded or in some way hurting you isolate yourself. But it’s probably the last thing you should do," he says.

Perhaps the low point in the relationship between traditional public schools and charters schools was two years ago when the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tried to shut down the Gordon Parks Elementary School just off 39th Street near Roanoke Park.

Gordon Parks didn't get any support from educators in Kansas City, and the school had to go to court to hold on to its charter.

If Kansas City Public Schools serve a low-income population, Gordon Parks serves an even more desperate group of students. Not just low-income but sometimes homeless with parents in prison or just gone.

Kindergarten teacher Gladys Grove says without the small classes and intense staff attention, most of these kids wouldn’t make it through school.

"They need the structure, they need the individualized instruction, they need the love, they need the care. They need everything that we offer them and more," she says.

Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James was at Gordon Parks recently to read to fourth graders. He says it appears the détente between the Kansas City Public Schools and local charters is holding.

"I think so. Well, I don’t know if I’d say it’s in the past. That may be wishing a little bit ahead of reality, I don’t know. But I certainly think it’s lessened."

Nobody wins if schools are fighting over students, James says. "The concept of two institutions fighting over a child like the child is some sort of commodity I think is distasteful and destructive."

Gordon Parks Principal Joe Palmer, who joined the school this school-year after a long career in the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley districts, says all his interactions with the Kansas City school district have been positive and says he might even do a little bit better.

"We haven’t done a very good job of that but that’s something we really want to do is to be a partner with them and not be an adversary or a competitor, so to speak," he says.

Partnerships are exactly what the Kansas City district wants.

The district struck a deal to work with the highly successful Académie Lafayette on a program at Southwest High School. After some delay, that partnership is set to begin in the 2016 school year.

Kansas City superintendent Steve Green says it’s all about working together.

"Anyone trying to do something isolated, by themselves, without a willingness to come to the table and collaborate is probably not going to be successful," he says.

Of course not every agrees, especially Andrea Flinders, president of the local American Federation of Teachers union.

While not a fan of partnering with charter schools she says she understands that’s the future of the Kansas City Public Schools.

"I can live with this charter school idea with partnering and things but I think the union needs to be part of that discussion. I think our members should have a voice if they’re going to be working in these schools," she says.

The fact is charter schools aren’t going away. While the number dipped slightly last year in Missouri, the number of charter schools has increased in the state by 39 percent in the past five years.

Part of that are laws by a conservative legislature that encourages almost any alternatives to public education.

But it’s clear that at least some public school and charter school educators see working together as the future.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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