For years, district schools, charter schools and private schools have all competed for students in Kansas City, Mo.
This fragmented education system is a result of years of mistrust between district residents and the struggling Kansas City Public Schools.
Now the district is provisionally accredited and pushing back against its reputation. It's launching new initiatives in hopes of winning families back.
But some parents are worried their kids will get lost in the transition.
Carol Kelly is one of those parents. She loves the 100-year-old Brookside home she’s renovating with her husband and three children. It’s in a great neighborhood, and she says the city is a great place to raise kids.
Except for the schools.
“There’s a look of horror – when people say, where do your kids go to school?" says Carol. "And you say, ‘Oh, public schools.’ They look at you like you’re insane.”
The Kellys don’t seem crazy. Carol's husband, Dan, is an attorney. They moved to Kansas City from Texas a decade and a half ago when their oldest child, Riley, was 3.
“Everyone told us you cannot do public schools in Kansas City," says Carol. "It's not feasible. You’re going to have to do Catholic.”
But then Carol found out about Border Star, the district’s Montessori elementary school. At the time, preschool there was free. Carol and Dan figured they could put off paying private school tuition for at least a year or two.
Turns out, they never have. Riley stayed at Border Star through sixth grade, then graduated from Lincoln, a top-ranked high school she says precludes the district’s reputation. The Kellys’ youngest son, Jack, is still at Border Star. But this story is really about the Kellys’ middle child, Conner, a junior at Southwest Early College Campus.
Conner started on the same path as Riley – got into Lincoln, started in seventh grade. But Carol says Conner’s transition wasn’t easy like his sister’s had been.
“In Montessori, there’s no homework," says Carol. You don’t turn anything in, you move at your own pace. When he went from that to Lincoln, he really struggled.”
Trying a new school
So the Kellys moved Conner to Southwest. They thought it would be temporary, except he hasn’t left. By the time he got his grades up again, there was a wait list at Lincoln.
Meanwhile, Southwest was struggling to accommodate students from Westport High School, which closed when the district downsized. The influx of new students disrupted the early college program and created real safety concerns in the building.
“Conner never said he felt threatened," says Dan Kelly. "He said most of the fighting and the misbehavior was from the younger kids, the middle school aged kids, and the high school students aren’t participating as much in the disruptions going on at the school. If he had ever said he felt unsafe, we would have found an alternative.”
At this point, the Kellys’ aren’t eager to make changes. But soon they may have to – it’s likely current Southwest students will be displaced if the district and French immersion charter school Academie Lafayette turn the building into a jointly-run International Baccalaureate high school. Though the plan is far from finalized, Carol says so far none of options for current Southwest students look good.
“But where are you going to move them?" says Carol. "If you move the entire Southwest senior class to one of the other high schools, it’s still not graduating from your high school. I think that’s a shame.”
She says the district has great options like Lincoln for the academically driven and Paseo for creative kids. But she says she’s really worried about kids like Conner getting lost in the shuffle.
“Every single year, we have that conversation with parents of, OK, so my kid didn’t get it – what are you going to do?" says Carol. "And there are just not good options.”
A changing urban school district
Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Green disagrees. He points to new programs at East, Northeast and Central as evidence of the district's turnaround.
“I would challenge that thought that there isn’t a good option after Lincoln for students who may not want the rigorous boost," says Green.
Green has been at the helm for the past two years. Now that the district is provisionally accredited, he has two jobs: he has to get students who are already in the district to continue making gains, and he needs to convince families that have left the school system to come back.
Green points to the recently re-opened Hale Cook Elementary as an example – it’s 90 percent new-to-the-district families.
“So that’s a level of trust and a vote of confidence in the Kansas City Public Schools we’d like to see more of," says Green. "That was part of the motivation between the Academie Lafayette-Southwest Early College initiative is to begin to look at creative ways to partner with charter schools, partner with other organizations and create a new model that’s attractive and would bring families back.”
Green stresses that the deal isn’t final, at least not yet. It'll probably be a few weeks before the district has more details on when or if Southwest will close.
And it's still possible that the feedback the district gathered this summer could push the new high school’s opening back another year, leaving fewer families like the Kellys caught in the middle.
“Every time one of these things happens, there’s another example, you think, am I crazy?" says Carol. "But we like Kansas City, Mo. We don’t want to move to Lee’s Summit, we love the neighborhood. You keep thinking, so far, we’ve been really lucky, we’ve been able to make this work really well.”
So for now, the Kellys aren’t going anywhere.