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Reporter's Notebook: A Charter That Serves Kansas City's Most Vulnerable Students

Elle Moxley
Mark Williamson is executive director of DeLaSalle Education Center, for students at risk of dropping out. The charter is a public school that receives state funding, but it also relies on many donors.

The halls of DeLaSalle Education Center are quiet – for now.

“It’s a silence that will go away in about two weeks – and that’s a good thing,” Mark Williamson, the school’s executive director, says.

DeLaSalle, a charter school at 3737 Troost Avenue, only serves kids at risk of dropping out.

“If you’re on grade level, if you’re well-adjusted – or as well-adjusted as a teenager can be – this isn’t the place for you,” Williamson says bluntly.

The org chart at DeLaSalle looks more like a social services agency than a school, Williamson says. Kids growing up in Kansas City’s poorest zip codes face problems their peers don’t, whether it’s “crime, violence in the home, addiction, mental illness, the hopelessness of being so far behind academically you don’t think you’re going to catch up or having a baby at 16.

“I think of it like this tarry, oozy stuff holding them down,” Williamson says, then he shakes his head because this apparently is the metaphor he uses too often. “If we don’t provide some relief, how can we ever expect them to pay attention in algebra?”

Missouri has a 90/90 attendance rule – 90 percent of students in class 90 percent of the time. It’s a good year if Williamson can get 83 percent of kids above that threshold.

“If you’re late to school,” Williamson says, “we’re calling your cell phone.”

Every school in every community has its share of at-risk youth – the difference is every DeLaSalle student is at risk.

“There’s not a student in the building not burdened by significant academic skills deficit,” says Williamson.

He’s always asking kids why they’re there.

“I hear ‘to get back on track’ a lot,” he says.

DeLaSalle’s graduation rate hovers around 50 percent. About a third of graduates go on to college, mostly to two-year institutions like Penn Valley. The rest go straight into the workforce, which is why Williamson invites me back in the fall to check out the culinary arts program.

“This isn’t a made for TV movie,” Williamson says. “A kid doesn’t come in and 90 minutes later she’s going to Harvard.”

Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. Reporter’s Notebook is an occasional preview of what she's working on. Find Elle on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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