Kansas City's schools hit a new low
Entire district loses accreditation Monday; educators wonder how to proceed from here.
KANSAS CITY, MO
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.