SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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SIMON: Students look alert and engaged in Sandra Castillo's third grade class at the Primitivo Garcia elementary school in Kansas City, Missouri.
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SIMON: But the entire public school system in Kansas City has flunked. The state board of education revoked its accreditation on January 1st. The Kansas City Public Schools met just three of the 14 standards set by the Missouri Board of Education for basic proficiency. They got failing grades for attendance, graduation rates, math, and reading and writing scores.
Last week, we reported on the decades of mismanagement, declining enrollment and revolving door superintendents. Now there's a struggle for the future of the schools that may be a battle for Kansas City itself. Sly James, the new mayor says...
MAYOR SLY JAMES: I can't think of anything that I'm supposed to do as the mayor of this city that isn't some way affected by or built on education - nothing.
SIMON: From lowering crime to creating jobs, and making the city grow.
JAMES: But I can tell you that the perception of having things that are not functional does not help you attract people and keep them in the city and the neighborhoods. They go to where they can find success for their children.
SIMON: Mayor James - the Sly is for Sylvester - is a large, solid man who speaks with short, blunt stabs of his hands. He says that he should take charge, as mayors have in New York, Chicago, Boston and other cities. He believes that only a mayor can wrestle bureaucracies and rally private resources and public opinion to save schools.
JAMES: It is a crisis, and it's one that we have to address if we're going to stay vital, and if we're going to repopulate this city and stabilize our tax base and grow.
SIMON: The mayor would abolish the elected school board and create a corporate structure, headed by a CEO - chief educational officer - that he would choose. James is a lawyer and new to politics. A lot of people in Kansas City laud his determination, but question the results of mayoral control in other cities. Some also see another option for reform that's right next door.
A bill introduced in the Missouri state Senate would disband the Kansas City Public School District and force adjacent districts to absorb the city's public schools.
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SIMON: We met Dr. Jim Hinson, the superintendent of the neighboring Independence, Missouri School District at Van Horn High School. Now, Van Horn was part of the Kansas City Public School District for over 50 years. It's now run by the Independence School District because five years ago, people in Kansas City and Independence voted to turn over Van Horn and six other Kansas City public schools to the Independence district.
Test scores and graduation rates improved. Seventy percent of the students at Van Horn come from families below the poverty line. The school offers counseling, meals, even dental service.
Dr. Hinson said he saw Kansas City lose accreditation this year and asked...
DR. JIM HINSON: If I have students that literally live across the street that are not in our school district, but I know historically the lack of success, do we have an obligation to try to be part of a solution? And the answer for us is yes.
SIMON: But critics say the apparent success Independence has had with a few schools shouldn't be a plan for all of Kansas City.
CRYSTAL WILLIAMS: We're not saying everything is roses in the district. I don't think that parceling our schools out to suburban districts is a way to solve the problem.
SIMON: Crystal Williams is a county legislator and parent with a son in the Kansas City Public Schools. She's a small woman with short brown hair and a direct challenging manner, who describes herself as part of a crew of concerned parents who log long hours in community and committee meetings. They call themselves the Do-Gooder Mafia. She believes Kansas City should be left to work out its own solution to its school crisis.
WILLIAMS: This city is ready and willing to go forward and come up with the solutions we need.
SIMON: But the city has had 20 years. Why should anybody give them even another 20 months?
WILLIAMS: Because we have more engagement in this community than we've had since we've lived here. I think there's may be more engagement than there's ever been. Sometimes, when you're threatened with a loss, you finally get your crap together, and you move forward and do what you need to do.
SIMON: But the number of families with children in the public schools has dramatically declined. Enrollment reached 77,000 in the late 1960s. It's just under 16,000 today.
Steven Green became Kansas City's interim school superintendent suddenly this summer, after the previous superintendent unexpectedly resigned. Dr. Green has thick glasses, a trim beard and speaks in calm, unhurried sentences. We asked if the numbers in Kansas City have dwindled so seriously because most Kansas City parents just don't feel that their schools are good enough or safe enough for their children.
DR. STEVEN GREEN: Yep, and I think they have good reason. I think we have not performed well. It's our responsibility to reverse that trend, to change that. Particularly to change it in 180 degree is going to be an uphill climb.
SIMON: When you say things like we've got to change it 180 degrees, and it's slow process...
GREEN: Over time.
SIMON: To a parent that's not a good argument for them to entrust their children to you right now.
GREEN: Well, lots of people say that I can snap my fingers and make it happen right away, but that's the reality. And I'm saying three to five years of turnaround is going to take.
SIMON: Any turnaround will have to meet modern educational metrics: the hard numbers that translate to achievement. Dr. Green laid out the math problem that he has to solve.
GREEN: If five or six students per grade level per building were to make movement from below basic to basic, or basic to proficient, we will meet these academic achievement targets.
SIMON: Dr. Green says the district has already met two more of the 14 standards to win back accreditation. So far, none of those standards has been academic. And there are nine more measures. And schools have responsibilities these days that may not be tied to accreditation but are vital. Like this: by their own numbers, roughly 9 percent of Kansas City Public School students are homeless.
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SIMON: So, this year, the district opened a shop in which parents who can't afford them can pick up school supplies and uniforms for their children - even socks and underwear.
FRED HUDGINS: I don't know. How many people you think we served that day?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Fifteen hundred that day.
HUDGINS: Fifteen hundred people.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mm-hmm.
SIMON: That's where we found Fred Hudgins who's had three children in the public schools. He's a heavy, smiling man who wears a union coat and hat. He's a crane operator, but between jobs now, and volunteers his time at the shop. He believes that Kansas City's failing grade could be a kind of wrecking ball to help the schools build something better.
HUDGINS: You have civic leaders. You have politicians. The mayor even came in and gave a plan, which has never happened that I'm aware of over 40 years. And I think we're starting to look at how do we fix our city because, truly, this is a citywide problem. It's not just in the school district. And I think that this thing is going to come off. It's got to come off or I mean, you know, there's no other option right now.
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SIMON: Kansas City public schools have two years to try to gain back the state's accreditation. That's time they may not get. The bill working through the State Senate would dissolve the school district this summer. So, the schools operate in uncertainty each day, which poses a question for any parent who sends a child into those classrooms: Do you want your child to stay in the Kansas City Public Schools while the adults work out their problems?