When Kansas City Neighborhood Academy opened in 2016 with the district as its sponsor, it was supposed to start a new era of cooperation between the Kansas City Public Schools and charter schools.
Since 1999, they’d been in a fierce competition for students and resources. Now KCPS was sponsoring a charter. With support from the Chamber of Commerce, Kansas City Neighborhood Academy would be a model for what urban education could be.
But the charter ended up a neighborhood school without a neighborhood.
Few kids lived nearby, and neighborhood revitalization efforts soon stalled. The school was underenrolled and underfunded. Three years in, school leaders decided what they were trying to do was unsustainable. Kansas City Neighborhood Academy would close at the end of the school year.
The announcement sent families into a tailspin and raised new questions about the sustainability of a fragmented education system.
“We got a letter home on a Monday, and two days later the school was closing,” said Elizabeth Behrens, the parent of three Kansas City Neighborhood Academy students. “It was so overwhelming.”
‘Are we going to have to move?’
The majority of Kansas City Neighborhood Academy parents are black, but Behrens and her husband are white. They’re raising two white daughters and two black sons.
“We can provide our sons that we adopted with love and security and meet their physical needs,” Behrens said. “But we can’t give them their culture and a sense of racial belonging.”
She loved that the principal and teachers at Kansas City Neighborhood Academy demonstrated black excellence for her kids.
“We didn’t want them to have the model that black students are there to learn from white people,” Behrens said. “We wanted them to see that there are plenty of black adults who have Ph.D.s and master’s degrees that they can learn from.”
But only about 5% of Missouri educators are black, and most schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers of color.
The Behrens family felt their loss acutely. There were a lot of tears. Every morning at drop off, Behrens’ oldest daughter, a fourth grader, asked, “Are we going to have to move?”
Behrens and her husband seriously considered it. They loved Kansas City Neighborhood Academy, but their two oldest children hadn’t had a great experience at the charter school they attended previously. Behrens, worried about charter oversight and accountability, wanted to send her kids to the KCPS school in the neighborhood, only it didn’t seem like a good fit when her family visited.
“I hate this so much,” Behrens wrote in a Twitter message between touring schools and touring houses.
Why charters close
But families having to switch schools isn’t the worst outcome, according to Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
“Certainly, it’s disappointing, but it’s much less disappointing than having your child graduate from high school unable to read, write and perform math at grade level,” Thaman said.
Only Kansas City Neighborhood Academy wasn’t closing for underperformance. It was closing for financial reasons. The school model called for lots of extra resources to help students living in poverty or experiencing trauma, and that was expensive. The math just didn’t work.
So Kansas City Neighborhood Academy goes on the list of shuttered charter schools, 20 years into an experiment to reimagine urban education in Missouri. In the two decades since charter schools came to Kansas City, 32 have opened, and 10 have closed. In addition to Kansas City Neighborhood Academy, Pathway Academy is closing, too.
Students at other charters and district schools were scoring higher than Pathway students on state tests.
“It was time,” Thaman said. “I think it was a really good decision.”
Like most charter advocates, Thaman thinks underperforming schools should close.
But in Kansas City, that hasn’t really happened. More charter schools have been closed due to egregious financial mismanagement than underperformance. Nationally, that’s true as well.
And there are schools still operating with lower test scores than Pathway.
Last month, the Missouri State Board of Education considered the renewal of several charter school applications. This is a routine last step after a sponsor approves a charter school to keep operating for another term, usually five years.
The leaders of Academie Lafayette, one of the city’s oldest charter schools with the best test scores, received effusive praise. But the leaders of Kansas City International Academy got a grilling.
Kansas City International Academy, formerly Della Lamb Charter School, opened the same year as Academie Lafayette. For years, it’s had some of the lowest test scores in the state. Despite this, serious turnaround efforts didn’t begin until 2017. Students at Kansas City International Academy did a little better on state tests last year, but not great. Only 20.9% of students passed the new English languages arts test. Only 10.4% passed the new math test.
“Wait a minute,” board member Michael W. Jones said. “You mean they were worse than this?”
Jones and other board members scolded Kansas City International Academy’s sponsor, the University of Central Missouri, for allowing it to operate for so long with so little oversight. Carol Hallquist, who represents Kansas City on the state board, said she had “reluctantly” come around on Kansas City International Academy. She pointed out that the school is under new leadership, and Superintendent Steve Fleming oversaw the successful turnaround of another troubled charter, Gordon Parks.
State board members agreed to give the charter school one more chance.
“Charter schools need to prove to the state board and to their sponsors that they're worthy of being open and serving students in need,” Fleming told KCUR in an interview a month after the state board meeting. “I think we’ve done that.”
When Fleming came to Kansas City International Academy, he replaced almost half the staff. He hired new teachers certified to work with English language learners, as the school educates many refugees. Daisy Myrick, the ELL program coordinator, says the state’s accountability system can’t really measure the growth that students with limited formal education are making.
“You want to see a student making a year's worth of gain from wherever they started. But if a student going into fifth grade started at a kindergarten reading level, maybe he’s grown a whole year, but there’s still a significant gap,” she explained.
Students who are learning English get a one-year exemption from the English language arts test in Missouri, but they still have to take math, science and social studies exams. These tests are frustrating because they’re linguistically out of reach for most English language learners, Myrick said.
Less leeway for districts
Of course, there are neighborhood schools in KCPS with similar demographics – at James, Garfield, Gladstone, Trailwoods and Whittier, more than half the students are English language learners, and they’re doing as well as Kansas City International Academy or better.
At James Elementary, 35.8 percent of students passed English language arts test last year. They did even better in math, surpassing the state average.
But when the leaders of urban school districts point out that they serve just as many, if not more, hard-to-educate students, they rarely get any leeway from state education officials.
At the same state board meeting where Kansas City International Academy got a reprieve, KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell and St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams asked for greater flexibility to hire and retain teachers. Bedell explained that KCPS is having to recruit a lot of ELL teachers from other states, but there isn’t much he can to do to incentivize them to come here.
“We need to be able to compensate teachers at a higher rate in hard-to-fill subject areas and more challenging schools,” Bedell said.
Bedell has said repeatedly that the district must learn to coexist with charters because they aren’t going anywhere. But lately, he’s been just as quick to point out all the inefficiencies in a system with so much choice.
“I think it is about time that we are given some flexibility,” he added. “It’s been a lot of experimentation on Kansas City and St. Louis.”
The right seats
Mike Reynolds, chief research and accountability officer for the district, said KCPS didn’t have anything to do with the decision to close Kansas City Neighborhood Academy, the only charter the district was sponsoring.
“Kansas City Neighborhood Academy is its own, autonomous institution,” Reynolds said. “They have their own board. They run their own finances.”
Reynolds said that KCPS might consider sponsoring other charters in the future, but district officials need to understand the education landscape first. Recently, the district passed on a proposal to open a project-based learning school in the old Southwest High School building, citing an education landscape that “has become increasingly fragmented and challenging for families to understand and navigate.”
Reynolds said new charters continue to open, even though a KCPS market analysis found that at least one in five school seats is unoccupied.
“Kansas City Public Schools’ official position right now is that there is excessive saturation of the educational landscape in Kansas City, and that is why you are going to continue to see what we just saw with Pathway Academy and Kansas City Neighborhood Academy,” said Reynolds, adding that KCPS is currently conducting that whole-system analysis. “We’re all playing in the same sandbox here.”
Thaman, the charter school advocate, agrees that more charter schools will close, but not because the market is oversaturated.
“Do we have enough quality public school seats in Kansas City? That answer, in my opinion, is no. There are plenty of seats if you’re just looking for a place to warehouse students, but we want really excellent seats in schools where students are going to receive the kind of education that moves them forward,” Thaman said.
There is evidence that Missouri is entering a new era of accountability for charter schools. The state board has asked sponsors to step up oversight, and state lawmakers are considering a bill with an automatic closure provision.
“If students are just not moving forward, then we think it’s time for either a major transformation or for the school to be closed,” Thaman said.
But the same bill would allow more charter schools to open, including in districts where students are doing well. And while eight years – how long it would take the automatic closure provision to kick in – might not be long in the lifetime of an institution, it is in the lifetime of a child.
About a quarter of public school students in Kansas City – about 7,500 kids – are sitting in the lowest performing 5% of schools in Missouri. It’s both charter schools and KCPS neighborhood schools, says Rebecca Haessig, a local blogger who collects data about public school enrollment.
“We have 53% of kids who are attending traditional public schools, we have 47% in public charter schools, and we have 100% of kids that actually deserve a quality education,” she said.
To get there, it’s going to take tough conversations about all the schools in the system – and the system as a whole.
Too many charter schools?
Families caught in the middle, though, don’t really want to hear that some schools will have to close for the good of the system. Parents like Behrens says it trivializes the disruption their kids have experienced.
“The state has got to stop accepting charters for new charter schools in Kansas City,” said Behrens. “There are too many. Our charter schools are only at 79 percent capacity right now, and there are additional charter schools opening next year.”
Her oldest daughter will attend one of them, Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy. In the end, Behrens and her husband decided to stay in the city. They didn’t want to sell the house they’d bought when the girls were babies, the only home the boys have ever known. So next year, they will drop off and pick up kids at two different charter schools. Behrens’ oldest, the one attending the new charter school, has stopped crying on the way to school.
Still, Behrens can’t help but worry.
“We’re starting her there, but in two or three years, will we get the same letter home? I don’t know. There’s no way to know with charters if they’re going to close,” Behrens said.
Correction: Charter advocate Doug Thaman's name was misspelled throughout the story in an earlier version. It has since been corrected.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.