By Paul Thompson
Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) superintendent Dr. Mark Bedell shared a hopeful message with district stakeholders at Northeast Middle School on the evening of Tuesday, February 13, but he acknowledged that there is no magic pill to solve inherent issues with urban core education.
Bedell’s visit to Northeast Middle was part of the district’s Community Conversations series, in which the superintendent travels to various school buildings that share his vision and hear directly from the community. Early in the meeting, Bedell broke down five guiding strategic goals for KCPS, as constructed by district stakeholders.
“The work of improvement requires being intentional, being considerate, and it also requires a lot of communication,” Bedell said. “Too often people come in and they do these strategic plans, and then it just collects dust.”
Bedell pledged to ensure that KCPS will implement the district’s strategic plan; noting that his performance reviews include progress indicators related to the strategic goals. The five goals outlined by Bedell include: 1) obtaining success by the end of third grade; 2) creating a challenging, supportive and safe learning environment; 3) closing the achievement gap until every student meets or exceeds academic standards; 4) developing 21st century critical thinkers that can be competitive in the global market; and 5) ensuring that every student will graduate from KCPS with a solid post-secondary plan.
“If they fall behind, then you perform triage,” said Bedell about helping children achieve early success. “That gap tends to widen as they’re educated further.”
When discussing the goal for every KCPS student to grow towards achieving mastery in all academic subjects, Bedell was realistic about where many of the district’s students are coming from. He noted that by seventh grade, just about 27.5% of district students are reading at grade level standards for the State of Missouri. According to Bedell, that fact means teachers must adjust their curriculums to help cater to all students.
“They can’t just sit in class and teach all of these kids the current standards,” Bedell said. “The worst thing we do in urban education is that we just continue to plow through with the standard curriculum.”
Another priority for KCPS is the continued expansion of STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Superintendent Bedell noted that KCPS students need to be introduced to subjects like coding and robotics at a young age in order to keep up with the global economy. With those skills, Bedell added, KCPS students can be more prepared for careers after high school than ever before.
“We want to make sure that our kids truly are prepared for life,” Bedell said.
At present, plenty of roadblocks remain for the district. For instance, Bedell noted that statistically, students who have been with the district for more than two years tend to perform at grade level. However, the district’s 41% mobility rate keeps students from developing that sense of normalcy which produces more effective educational outcomes. As it stands, Bedell acknowledged that mobility concerns are essentially an unsolvable problem for the district.
“I don’t have the magic potion,” Bedell said. “It takes a community to do this.”
One area where stakeholders can help the district, Bedell said, is by ensuring that students are at school on time every day. At KCPS, only 70% of students reach the 90-90 attendance threshold – an expectation in Missouri for 90% of students to attend school 90% of the time. The 90-90 metric can impact accreditation; the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) Missouri School Improvement Program 5 doles out points towards accreditation based on that attendance expectation. With 30% of KCPS students falling short of 90-90, Bedell said that the district will keep losing attendance points towards accreditation.
“This is killing us right now,” he said. “If I can’t even get them to come to school, we’ve already lost this battle.”
To Bedell, increased participation in athletics can help KCPS keep students engaged in the classroom. When the district purchased new uniforms for all athletic teams, for instance, students responded with an uptick in pride along with athletic performance.
“We bought brand new uniforms for every single kid in this school district,” Bedell said. “They look like a million dollars, and they’re starting to play like a million dollars.”
During the Q&A following the superintendent’s presentation, one parent asked if KCPS will invest in renovations to gymnasiums, as it has with football fields throughout the district. Bedell took the question as an opportunity to advocate for a General Obligation bond referendum for capital improvement projects – something KCPS has not had since 1966. In a follow-up conversation with the Northeast News, Bedell suggested that a potential bond issue will likely have to wait until a new school board is in place (elections will take place in 2019). The superintendent also understands that the community will almost assuredly expect to see substantial academic improvement by the district before approving a bond issue.
“If it’s not working, we’re not going to get the support anyhow. So I figure that I need at least three years of being here before I can even bring it up,” Bedell said. “The earliest would probably be 2021 or 2022, but I’m not certain yet.”
Perhaps a more immediate funding infusion could come in the form of a levy increase, Bedell added. KCPS stakeholders have not seen a levy increase since 1969. While bond issues support capital improvements such as building renovations, a levy increase could be utilized for operational needs.
The district could also receive additional operational funds through the State of Missouri. Bedell noted that the district supports current legislation filed by Missouri State Representative Kathryn Swan that would set aside state funds for early childhood education.
“100% of that increase, whatever it is, all of it is earmarked for early childhood,” Bedell said.
For now, Bedell says that KCPS can only operate within the system that’s in place. He added that the system is unlikely to change soon, as the State Board of Education is in a “freeze mode” following upheaval that included the termination of Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven.
“Right now, we don’t have a commissioner and we don’t have a board that can operate,” Bedell said. “You only have three elected members who have been certified to do the work, and you need to have a quorum in order to take any action. Everything, in essence, is kind of at a standstill right now.”
Area parents will have their next opportunity to talk to Superintendent Bedell about the issues he can control during the next KCPS Community Conversations session, to be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 22 at the Northeast Branch of the Kansas City Public Library (6000 Wilson Rd.). Questions can be sent to the district in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.