school leadership

Small Enough to Manage, Big Enough to Matter: Kansas City’s Latest Attempt at School Reform

Some education reform efforts in America’s larger cities struggle to go to scale. Think Los Angeles and laptops, New York City and school turnarounds, or Detroit and school choice. More modest-sized districts, like Camden, New Jersey, with 15,000 students, are just small enough that face-to-face communications and meaningful community input is achievable with a critical mass of parents and other stakeholders. In the last three years, Camden has become a national model of reform built around deep community engagement. Kansas City, Missouri has about 27,000 students with a little over half in district schools and the rest in charter schools. Kansas City also has committed local and national funders and buy-in from key stakeholders, like the mayor, the school superintendent and the business and faith-based communities. About 18 months ago, one of the local funders, the Kauffman Foundation, hired Awais Sufi, a Topeka-born lawyer who has worked for an international non-profit focused on youth development, to develop a comprehensive reform strategy. His first step was to make friends with as many people as possible. “My goal was to make this really integrated and owned by the community,” Sufi said, adding that he still devotes about 60 percent of his time to community outreach. Sure enough, in attendance at the launch of his new initiative, SchoolSmartKC, were community leaders like Pastor Cassandra Wainright of the Concerned Clergy Coalition of Kansas City. Because Sufi started the work by listening intensively to the community, he has a very clear sense of the challenges and a feel for just how much change the community can stomach. “The community felt like they had tried everything,” he said, including massive increases in spending, school closures, desegregation and choice. None of it seemed to work. The district was at risk of losing accreditation for a third time in less than 20 years after years of leadership changes. It also faced the looming possibility of a state takeover. Part of the problem was a weak charter authorizing environment that initially led to a “Wild West” of for-profit charter schools, which have a mixed record across the country.  Lately, there has been more focus on non-profit charters in Kansas City, which are now out-performing the district. Sufi’s initial goal was to find areas of agreement even before developing the plan. For example, there was consensus that out of school challenges affect school performance and that reform is less likely to succeed if they don’t try and address them. There was also consensus that the overall mission of SchoolSmartKC should be to meet the state average in student performance. And finally, there was a shared willingness to engage an independent third-party evaluator to avoid the kind of factual disagreements that bedevil many reform efforts. The result is not only shared ownership of the plan but a specific set of investments to start the work, funded by the Kauffman Foundation, the Hall Family Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. The first investment, which was announced at the launch in early April, will focus on improving the delivery of social services in six district and four charter schools. The second investment, announced a week later, is to invite a dozen district schools to submit proposals for comprehensive strategic planning grants to help them close achievement gaps within the state. Some of the schools will also get grants to implement their plans. The third investment—announced this week—will enable two high-performing charter schools to serve more students. The total dollar value of these investments is a little under $5 million, which won’t move the needle for the entire district but will create proof points if successful. Sufi said there is also a shared understanding that improving Kansas City schools is a long-term effort with at least a 10-year horizon. But he’s optimistic that Kansas City has a chance to prove that reform, done collaboratively, can work at scale.  As the locals put it, “We’re small enough to manage but big enough to matter.” Stay tuned.
Photo courtesy of SchoolSmartKC.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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