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KCPS aims to fill gaps in community engagement after vote to close schools

A sign stuck into the grass off a sidewalk says "I (heart symbol) KC Public Schools" with the KCPS logo
Zachary Linhares
The Beacon
Signs outside of an enrollment fair held by Kansas City Public Schools on July 28, 2021, at Manual Career and Technical Center.

The district is hoping to keep people involved after a school closure plan drew widespread attention.

Beth Coleman’s son used to come home from his old school, a Kansas City charter, with a case of the “post-school blues,” she said. The third grader has ADHD and wasn’t getting his academic needs met.

But when he transferred this school year to Longfellow Elementary School, part of Kansas City Public Schools, that changed.

“He’s coming home happy,” said Coleman, who also has a kindergartner at Longfellow.

So it’s particularly disheartening for her family that the school is scheduled to close at the end of the school year, along with Troost Elementary School.

The KCPS school board voted 4-2 to approve the closures during its Jan. 25 meeting.

A few days before the vote, Coleman said KCPS hadn’t yet communicated a clear plan for Longfellow students.

And before this fall, she had no idea the school was even at risk of closing.

Coleman is not alone. Though the district sought to engage the public around its long-term planning, known as Blueprint 2030, some families and neighborhoods were left reeling when faced with an initial proposal to close 10 schools over several years. The events of the past few months have led district leaders to examine what went wrong with its community engagement and what it can do better going forward.

“We’ve learned that (in) our previous round, the engagement was perhaps not communicated as well,” said Hope Soriano-McCrary, KCPS chief marketing and communications officer. “They expressed that they didn’t even know that the engagement was happening. They didn’t have an opportunity to participate.”

After community pushback, the district scaled its plan down to two school closures, while noting that more could be on the horizon unless district enrollment and funding change dramatically.

The new plan relies on community outreach to help students transition smoothly from closing schools, to retain and attract students and to draw feedback and support from anyone with an interest in the district’s success.

Blueprint 2030’s success may depend on whether the district is able to fill communication gaps it discovered during the process and keep up the high levels of engagement sparked by the plan to close schools and redirect the savings to academic offerings.

‘Thinly veiled’: The struggles of the initial round of outreach

From the early stages, KCPS has emphasized Blueprint 2030’s goals to improve academics and the student experience by using resources more wisely.

“This really has never been a facility plan,” interim Superintendent Jennifer Collier said before the board vote.

But deemphasizing school closures may have backfired, said Spark Bookhart, a convener with the Parent Power Lab in Kansas City.

“If it hadn’t been thinly veiled as a community engagement process, rather than a school closing plan, then I think it would have had higher engagement,” he said. “…Nothing alerts community more than school closures.”

Rebecca Sundquist, a parent of a third grader and a first grader at Longfellow, said she discovered a Blueprint 2030 survey during research as she considered moving her children from a charter school. Sundquist is now the secretary of Longfellow’s school advisory committee and a member of the Longfellow Community Association.

She liked how the survey was laid out. But she wonders if it glossed over the impact of closures while raising excitement about how savings could support teachers and students.

“As I was answering that survey, I wasn’t thinking through, ‘What does this mean to those individual schools? What’s the plan for those schools?’ And so that’s where the cart got in front of the horse,” Sundquist said.

Sundquist added that she knows many parents didn’t see the survey at all.

“I don’t know how the communication was missed,” she said. “But it is very difficult to get important information in front of busy parents.”

Josh Jackaway, a father of two boys — a kindergartner at Hale Cook Elementary and a 3-year-old — said he participated in early Blueprint 2030 focus groups.

The original proposal was in line with feedback from focus groups, he said, but he also encountered many people who didn’t know the process was taking place.

“I wish that there was a way that we could have captured some of this feedback prior to the Blueprint 2030 being released,” he said of the negative reaction to the original plan.

Gregg Lombardi, who directs the Lykins Neighborhood Association and Neighborhood Legal Support of Kansas City, suggested the district could have reached out to neighborhood associations like his which already have strong “on the ground” connections.

Edgar Palacios, founder of Revolución Educativa, said the Blueprint 2030 conversations have been good reminders for him about the power of neighborhoods. He said some communities can face language, location or scheduling barriers when it comes to participating.

“We should be invested, we should be showing up, we should be taking the time to listen and learn, and I think that that is somewhat of the community’s responsibility,” he said. “I also think that engaging with systems like the district can be difficult for many of the families it serves.”

‘Build from this moment’

Speakers at the most recent meeting nearly universally praised district leadership, especially Collier, for listening to concerns and engaging with the public.

Collier “demonstrated the courage and leadership necessary to pause on something knowing that there’s an opportunity to build from this moment and to grow the ways that the district engages with the community long term,” Palacios told The Beacon several days before the meeting.

Sundquist said Collier and several school board members had scheduled meetings with Longfellow parents.

“We’re engaging, and we are getting a response,” Sundquist said. “So I would encourage parents who in the past haven’t felt that the district has been responsive to them to try again; give them another chance.”

Moving forward with the Blueprint 2030 plan, the district is planning “transition teams,” including administrators, school staff, parents and potentially students to promote a positive experience for families whose schools are closing and to keep them in the district.

KCPS is also creating a broad-based task force with committees on academics, safe schools, enrollment and marketing, the educational landscape, economic development and the bond the district plans to pursue in 2024.

The task force and committees will be co-led by an executive staff member, parent or caregiver and community member, with district staff, students, family, community members, neighborhood associations, alumni and business partners as members.

“It’s really taking a more granular approach to engagement,” Soriano-McCrary said.

The need for community engagement

The approved Blueprint 2030 includes a call to action for parents and others.

“We know that there are a lot of resources here in the city and there’s a lot of people rooting and advocating for KCPS and we need them, specifically them, also to join us at the table,” Soriano-McCrary said.

In particular, KCPS is asking Kansas Citians to:

  • Participate in the engagement process for the bond or serve on the related committee.
  • Join one of the task force committees. 
  • Mentor a student. 
  • Volunteer with KCPS Loves to Read. 
  • Volunteer at your student’s school. 
  • Sign up for a school tour. 

Lombardi said the Lykins Neighborhood Association plans to be involved in the subcommittees and has a proposal for a neighborhood-based engagement and marketing plan after families turned out to show their support for schools in the northeast.

Lykins’ idea — based on the strategy the association used to increase and diversify its own meeting attendance — is to pay parents who have good experiences to spread the word to friends, neighbors and family.

During a public comment at the school board meeting, Lombardi said the neighborhood association had raised $6,000 for that purpose.

“We hope that the district will invest as much as they can in this local neighborhood marketing campaign. We strongly feel that every cent that we put into it will be very well spent funds,” he said.

Palacios said another important strategy is having interpretation available at every single meeting and allowing extra time for interpretation during public comments that aren’t in English.

He noted the low engagement numbers on the Spanish-language surveys and videos and suggested the district could work with community partners to ensure those materials are not only available, but are actually getting to the people who need them.

Bookhart, with the Parent Power Lab, said schools should partner with groups like his that are experts on family engagement rather than trying to do it all themselves.

“School systems should do the work of educating children, and they should totally get out of the work of parent engagement work because they don’t do it well,” he said.

Sundquist, the Longfellow parent, said the responsibility for engagement lies with both parents and the school district.

“We’ve been asking for that dialogue, and now we’re going to need parents to step up and have that dialogue in a way that is open and representative of the broader parent community,” she said.

“They’re hearing parents say, ‘We want to be at the table as you’re making these judgment calls,’” she said. “But we haven’t had a table to gather around yet.”

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon.

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.
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