Kansas City's schools hit a new low

Entire district loses accreditation Monday; educators wonder how to proceed from here.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When the 32,000 students in the Kansas City school district stride into their classrooms on Monday, the teachers will still be there. So will the desks, books, and blackboards. But something fundamental to the legitimacy of the district's 72 schools will be gone - their official certification.

In a move virtually unprecedented in American education, the state of Missouri is stripping away the accreditation of all of the city's schools because of poor academic performance. While other states have taken over urban school districts, it is rare for a state to pull an entire system's academic credentials.

The decision, which holds far-reaching consequences for students and teachers alike, follows a two-decade quest by the city to diversify and improve its schools. But observers say that while it may have won some of the battles, it lost the war.

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Despite administrators' initial hopes, in the end, the $1.6 billion effort to lure white students to urban schools with elaborate new facilities and theme-oriented programs, such as computer science and French immersion, never succeeded in holding kids from the suburbs. Moreover, observers say, it ignored the needs of those already enrolled, contributing to a decline in student performance.

Now, having flunked tests required by the state to merit accreditation, the district is poised to become a test case for the education-accountability movement nationwide. The question is: When a state does pull a district's credentials, what happens next?

"Most of the [desegregation] court orders did not focus on student achievement," says Robert Bartman, Commissioner of Education for Missouri. "The district was focused on what the court required. They felt immune to any action by the state during those long years of court oversight."

That ended abruptly in October, when the state education department issued its de-accreditation ruling and pegged the effective date as May 1. (The following month, a federal court judge dismissed the desegregation case, saying the district, with 82 percent minority students, had made sufficient progress.)

Benjamin Demps, who is the 17th Kansas City school superintendent in 22 years, does not flinch from the state's judgment. "Yes, de-accreditation is warranted," says the longtime government manager, who has been in the position only nine months. "The children failed the test. There are arguments about the way in which the standards are imposed, but I suppose those kind of arguments could go on forever about any test. The fact is, it's a statewide test."

Mr. Demps can be forgiven for feeling besieged. In addition to the state decision on de-accreditation, there are continuing federal court mandates his district must satisfy. He is facing a $22 million shortfall out of an expected $276 million budget next year, and he feels less than all-star support from school families. He notes that nearly three-quarters of the district's students are eligible for free or reduced cost lunches, an indicator of tough economic circumstances at home.

Although Demps is "guardedly optimistic" the district will achieve re-accreditation before the May 2002 deadline set by the state, there is a possibility things could get worse before they get better. While both sides agree student performance reached its nadir last October when the announcement of the decision was first made, there are fears that teachers and students may flee to outlying, fully accredited schools.

Yet Commissioner Bartman bristles when asked if a decision meant to help schools might actually hurt students. "What we've determined is that the system is not performing. That means it has been hurting students for a number of years. Simply describing that is not going to have any material negative impact on students."

Inside Central High School, beyond the metal detector and phalanx of guards, senior Chirina Caldwell is not so sure. Interested in pursuing a career in computer animation, she will attend a local community college for two years and hopes to move on to the Chicago Art Institute.

But although a number of Missouri colleges and universities have pledged to accept graduates from Kansas City schools regardless of the district's accreditation status, it's not clear what the policy of elite institutions may be. "A lot of kids are upset because colleges have told them they won't let them in now," says Chirina.

If the district fails to earn re-accreditation, the state will implement one of several restructuring plans, including fracturing the district and divvying up the pieces to surrounding districts; establishing a three-member administrative board to take control; or creating numerous, small districts from the current whole.

Still, experts are skeptical as to whether any of the restructuring plans will work. "States have taken over school districts elsewhere - in Detroit, in Cleveland, in Baltimore - with mixed results," says Paul Hill, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

In the meantime, school administrators like Willie Bowie are left fighting an uphill battle. On this particular morning, the Central High principal is stuck in his office with two tense security guards. When he's finally able to meet with a visitor, he explains that a fight between students that morning led him to shorten a break period for safety reasons - which in turn led to a general student uprising that the guards had been hard-pressed to quell.

But that is a mere annoyance compared with his budget being cut from $1 million three years ago to $380,000 this year. The school used to have two main courses of study: computer science and physical education. But the latter was all but erased, so now the field house, pool, gymnastics center, and weight room stand largely empty, while computer classes are as crowded as the DMV at lunchtime.

Still, what bothers Mr. Bowie most is student apathy. "We're beating our heads against the wall trying to educate some kids who don't want to be educated. We need the parents and the community to back us on some of these issues. We're professional educators, not high-priced baby sitters."

While offering up no excuses, Bowie points out that something as simple as attendance can have a huge impact. State achievement tests - four out of 11 of which a district must pass in order to merit accreditation - must be administered to over 90 percent of the student body. Attendance at Central generally hovers around 75 percent. As a result, administrators had to round up truants who hadn't been to school regularly in weeks and herd them into testing rooms - with predictably poor results (the district failed all 11).

"I think our kids would test as well as the kids in the suburbs if we limited testing to the kids with regular attendance. We can't save every kid. In trying to doing that, the kids who are coming here for a real education are drowning," says Bowie.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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