Kansas City’s first charter school for girls only opens next week with a staff that reflects the diversity of its students and the community.
Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy is entering a crowded charter market, but school leaders are counting on a curriculum that highlights the contributions of women and people of color to attract and keep students.
Parent Monique Cannon decided to move her daughter, Dieerin Jamison, from another charter school so she could have more teachers of color.
“I wanted her to be at a school where she could be herself, be familiar with people who look like her, have the same dreams,” Cannon said.
Only 7% of Missouri’s teacher workforce is nonwhite, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. But KC Girls Prep has been able to build a diverse staff by making sure 75% of applicants are candidates of color.
School leader Tara Haskins was one of the first hires at KC Girls Prep. Haskins, who has a black father and a Latina mother, didn’t have any teachers who looked like her growing up. And at family dinners, parents of prospective students told her the same thing.
“I almost get emotional because for a mother to say, ‘My daughter goes to school and none of her teachers look like her,’” Haskins said. “I didn't hear it from one parent. I didn't hear from two, I heard it at almost every single dinner or event that we had.”
Haskins says it’s easier for educators of color to create connections with students of color, some of whom have only ever had white teachers.
“Our humanities class is starting with an indigenous people unit, but it's not told from a story of pain and oppression. It's not told from the point when Columbus came,” Haskins explained. “It's through the story of a young girl ... navigating her culture, and our girls are able to form a connection and see the beauty of indigenous people.”
Fighting the patriarchy
In the beginning, Tom Krebs took some heat for being a white guy who was the public face of a movement to open an all girls college preparatory school for students of color. But he’s committed to building a feminist, anti-racist institution.
“Most schools don't start with that as an explicit focus from the very beginning and therefore tend to replicate paternalistic, racist systems,” said Krebs, who’s helped open charter schools across the country.
KC Girls Prep is part of a network of all girls public schools started in New York by Kansas City native Ann Tisch. There are The Young Women’s Leadership Schools all over the country, including a sister school in St. Louis.
Krebs said tuition-free public schools like KC Girls Prep let girls whose families can’t afford private school access rigorous, college preparatory instruction, even if they come in with gaps in their education.
“There’s been a very clear goal from our board from its earliest days because of the influence of our community conversations and sort of the mission of the school to make sure that our demographics match the neighborhood that we serve,” he said.
Challenges for charters
For the last several months, KC Girls Prep has been trying to build relationships with families who live in the neighborhood but might not know there’s a school for their daughters at 17th and Van Brunt.
“So families who may not know how to navigate schools in Kansas City. Families who may not know that we are tuition-free, we are test-free,” said Haskins. “Our goal is to get you here.”
So far that strategy is working. KC Girls Prep is on track to open next week with 100 fifth graders. The plan is to grow one grade per year until the school is full.
But that could be difficult. Within the district boundaries of the Kansas City Public Schools, 45% of students already attend charter schools, and three charters have closed in the last two years.
One strategy that might help KC Girls Prep grow is a willingness to backfill, or take new students when seats open up, which a lot of charter high schools don’t do. It’s one of the reasons why advocates for traditional public schools argue charters get to play by different rules.
“We see ourselves as public entity with a duty to serve every student we have capacity to serve,” Krebs explained. “So if we have an open seat at any grade level, we are going to make sure that a kid is here being educated.”
Lessons from St. Louis
Mary Stillman is the founder of the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, which in 2015 became the first single-gender charter school in Missouri. The inaugural class just started eleventh grade.
“They don’t seem to miss the boys,” Stillman said. “We have our homecoming dance and we say, ‘Oh, you can bring a date.’ Nobody brings a date.”
Stillman said there are more leadership opportunities for young women in an all girls school.
“Our elected student student representatives are girl, girl, girl, girl, girl,” Stillman said. “There are a lot of opportunities for our girls to grow that aren’t available in a coed school.”
But there have been challenges, too. Because so many Hawthorn students come from high trauma backgrounds, they’re often several grade levels behind by the time they enter the school in sixth grade. Even though school leaders anticipated that, they didn’t really know how long it would take them to catch up.
“It’s complex work,” Stillman said. “Some of our girls are more advanced and ready for the more rigorous academic program in 10th grade, and some are not. That's a challenge. But we have small class sizes, and we're able to give each girl really individualized attention.”
For now, Hawthorn is a very small school. Last year, there were only 200 students in sixth through tenth grade.
KC Girls Prep is already thinking bigger. Next year, the school hopes to welcome 200 fifth- and sixth-graders.
School starts Monday.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.