A teacher works with a small group of students in a fourth grade classroom Oct. 13 at Garfield Elementary in Kansas City. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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Garfield Elementary is a good place to learn, said Abshir.  

“When I came here I really couldn’t understand anything,” said Abshir, a 10-year-old fourth grader who also speaks Somali. “And now I really do understand everything, and it’s helped me learn English and talk properly.” 

Kansas City Public Schools administrators are proud of the work that goes on at Garfield, a northeast neighborhood elementary school that serves about 405 students from more than 20 countries. Principal Doug White says he often searches for new flags to hang in the cafeteria to make sure all students’ homelands are represented. 

Dedicated staff help immigrant students strengthen language skills, but students pitch in as well, welcoming new classmates and teaching them English, said Noelle Kirkman, a fourth grade teacher. 

“My absolute favorite thing is all of the cultures represented here. It’s incredible,” Kirkman said. “I have five languages spoken in my room alone.”

But as KCPS looks to the future, it’s also aware of the shortcomings of Garfield and other district schools — aging buildings, limited extracurricular activities and course offerings, confusing grade structures and staff spread too thin. 

Blueprint 2030, the district’s long-term planning initiative, seeks to address those issues with input from the community. 

Changes may be painful, likely including school closures and consolidations. But administrators hope the district will emerge more efficient, more equitable and more competitive with charter schools and suburban districts. 

KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell says feedback from teachers, staff, students and parents will make sure the final plan serves the community’s needs for the next decade. 

“It’s not about what Dr. Bedell wants, right, this has to be about what the community wants,” Bedell said during a recent roundtable with reporters. “Because Dr. Bedells come and go. The community will always be here.”

Fixing KCPS inefficiencies may mean closing schools

Bedell said what he’s imagining for the district could shift dramatically as he receives more input from the community. 

KCPS has already collected responses from teachers and students, and more recently has been reaching out to parents to learn more about their ideas and priorities, including in a series of meetings the week of Oct. 18-22. 

The district will then use that input to create a variety of possible scenarios and propose them to the public, including what would happen if the district doesn’t act, Bedell said. 

The district anticipates scheduling more open houses for feedback in the coming months, with a school board vote on a plan possible as early as February. 

Blueprint 2030 Feedback

Timeline

  • November 2021: Scenarios proposed
  • January 2022: Recommendations prepared
  • February 2022: School Board vote

How to give input:

Kansas City Public Schools’ K-12 enrollment has dropped by more than 20,000 since 1999 — a decrease of about 61%. 

Much of the decline was caused by students leaving for charter schools, according to a district analysis from 2019. Charter schools are publicly funded, free to attend and mainly exist in Kansas City and St. Louis. They operate outside of district control and are free from some of the rules that govern traditional public schools. 

The Independence School District also annexed some KCPS schools in 2008. 

A district analysis found that in the 2017 school year, more than a quarter of transfers out of KCPS schools were to other Missouri districts in the Kansas City metro. 

Bedell said KCPS in some ways still operates like a larger district, creating inefficiencies that make it even harder for the district to compete. 

For example, despite having closed some schools over the past two decades, KCPS has a high number of school buildings that are below capacity. A district presentation from late September estimated the district could close five elementary schools and one high school, merging their students into other buildings, for a total savings of about $17.9 million.

That under-enrollment causes a variety of problems:

  • It increases the number of partially full buildings the district has to pay to maintain. 
  • It makes it harder to field sports teams or offer other extracurriculars.  
  • It makes it more difficult to have full-time music and art teachers, dedicated building substitute teachers, extra support staff or community partners located in each building. 
  • It limits courses schools can offer, like additional foreign languages. 

Bedell contrasted the district’s large high schools, like East High School and Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, with some of the district’s smaller high schools. 

Lincoln has an undefeated football team. Meanwhile, Southeast High School had to cut its football season short this year in the face of COVID quarantines and injuries. 

Bedell also compared KCPS to similarly sized suburban districts like Independence and Blue Springs, which have about half the number of high schools as KCPS and are able to offer more activities and courses. 

Though KCPS has focused most urgently on its core academic subjects as it works to regain full accreditation, it’s also aware that strong extracurricular activities can draw students to a school. 

White, the Garfield principal and a former elementary music teacher, would like to see the school’s music program expand in the younger grades. 

“We had strings in the elementary where I taught. We had instrumental music starting in fourth grade,” he said. “We don’t have that anymore. We haven’t had that for years. … I want my kids to experience that.”

Principal Doug White leads a tour of Garfield Elementary on Oct. 13 in northeast Kansas City. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

White and Phillip Jones, interim assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at KCPS, also said colleges now emphasize leadership, community involvement and activities rather than just academics and test scores. 

“There are a lot of scholarships that our students just can’t get to right now, because they haven’t had the years and years of practice that you find in some of these other districts,” Jones said. 

KCPS changes could mean more dual language programs 

At George Washington Carver Dual Language School, a roomful of elementary students translated verbs between English and Spanish and analyzed their conjugations. 

The lesson — the sort that would happen in a middle or high school Spanish class — was possible because the students are already bi- or multilingual. The school uses an immersion model to ensure students are fluent and literate in English and Spanish by the end of sixth grade.

At Carver, students can apply to enroll no matter where in the district they live. Vice Principal Andrew Murphy said the school’s kindergarten classes filled up about a week before the school year started. 

First-time Carver students can enroll in kindergarten or the first few weeks of first grade no matter what languages they speak — otherwise they have to pass a language screening to apply.

KCPS officials would like to expand popular programs like Carver’s. Jones said the district is exploring how it might extend dual-language programs into the older grades or open them to more students in the younger grades. 

Phillip Jones, interim assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Kansas City Public Schools, talks about his hopes for the district during a tour of Garfield Elementary on Oct. 13 in northeast Kansas City. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

One possible way for Carver to accept more students per grade could be for sixth graders to move out of the current building, which is near capacity. Changing Carver’s grade structure could also promote the goal of making KCPS less confusing for families. 

The district doesn’t always make it clear which schools feed into others or when a student should transfer to a different school, Bedell said. For example, Lincoln College Prep Middle School starts at sixth grade, meaning it overlaps with some neighborhood schools and schools open to enrollment from anywhere in the district, like Carver.

Creating clearer paths forward during transition years could help with KCPS’ retention problem. An analysis from a few years ago showed that the district, including charter schools, lost 47% of kindergarteners by 12th grade. 

However the community asks KCPS to move forward, Bedell said he wants a focus on equity — allocating the district’s finite resources to ensure students can attend nearby schools that offer similar amenities no matter where they are. 

“How do we address that piece so that the school district is truly able to say all of our communities matter?” Bedell asked. 

“Is there going to be discomfort? Are we going to experience some frustration and pain?” Bedell added. “Every system I’ve been to where we’ve had to do something like this … there is some discomfort. I think we have to be willing to go through this discomfort to get to a better day.”

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.