Kenya Davis is a product of the Kansas City, Kansas, school district, as is her oldest daughter. But Davis’ enthusiasm for public schools waned when her youngest daughter, Sasha, entered Kansas City Public Schools.
Sasha attended John T. Hartman Elementary for kindergarten, but Davis moved her to Troost Elementary the next year in search of a better educational experience. Sasha cried after the first day of summer school at Troost and begged not to return.
“This just wasn’t a good fit for us,” Davis said. “I had to do something.”
Then she found out about a new school opening at Broadway and Armour boulevards in Kansas City, which was close to her job. Davis checked it out, and loved it.
And that is how Sasha came to be part of inaugural class at Citizens of the World Charter School in 2016-2017.
“I wouldn’t go back [to public schools] now that we’ve had our experience with the diversity and creativity Citizens brings,” Davis said. “Public schools work, but they just didn’t work for us.”
It takes a community
Community members planted the seed for Citizens of the World in the spring of 2013, when they gathered at the home of Andrew Johnson and his wife for a discussion about schools. They heard the traditional narrative that they hoped to change: People planned to live in Kansas City until their kids were school-age and then move.
At a second meeting that summer, parents who wanted a better educational option than moving to the suburbs figured they could work with Kansas City Public Schools to reopen a shuttered building (a la Hale Cook) or help the district improve nearby Longfellow Elementary, at 28th Street and Holmes Road.
Or, the group thought, it could go the charter route by partnering with an existing school or opening their own.
They decided to forge their own path, even though they had no money, no building and no educational experience. But they did know what they wanted in a school.
So they issued a request for proposals, which was answered by the district, another local charter school and Citizens of the World. Johnson said they considered all three options and were ‘blown away” by CWC.
CWC opened its first charter school in 2010 in Hollywood, California. Its other locations now also include Los Angeles and New York.
The Kansas City parent group loved CWC’s commitment to schools that reflect their socioeconomic, racial and cultural surroundings. The feeling was mutual, said Kriste Dragon, co-founder and chief executive officer of Citizens of the World Schools.
“They [the Kansas City group] had given a lot of thought to the kind of school they were wanting to open, and their focus on diversity and equity resonated with us, as well as did their humility,” she said. “They were upfront that they didn’t know how to run schools, but wanted to do it in partnership with us.”
Dragon said Midtown fit well with CWC because, according to its analysis, the area schools did not reflect the area’s natural cultural diversity.
Children are best served when there is at least 10 percent of any one economic or ethnic group within the school population, said Kristin Droege, principal of CWC Kansas City,
In its first year, with 124 children in seven classes of kindergarten and first grade, the school nearly met its diversity goals: 50 percent of children were low-income, 45 percent black, 32 percent Caucasian and 15 percent Hispanic.
Davis, who is black, particularly appreciated the diversity.
“I didn’t want Sasha going to an all-black school,” she said, “because when she gets out of there, and goes to college, and the rest of the world, there’s more than just black.”
Parent involvement is also important. Opportunities for participation include an active family council and potluck meals.
A volunteer contract signed by families stresses that the school couldn’t have been created without them — and also can’t run well without their support. Their help is welcome inside or outside the classroom, Droege said.
“The energy is still there,” she said. “People want to do something positive and put their various gifts and resources toward something they value.”
Johnson said getting Citizens off of the ground became a bit of an obsession for the parents who were involved. That’s because there was a lot of work to do.
Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter School Association, said he tells groups to expect the process of opening a new school to take at least two years.
Start-up tasks, he said, include regular meetings, building acquisition, and raising upwards of $250,000. Organizers must also submit a lengthy charter application to the state — CWC Kansas City’s application ran 354 pages — recruit students, adopt curriculum, and hire staff.
In all likelihood, this was easier to do in Midtown than it would be in other areas of the city, where families have less time and fewer resources.
“Getting that accomplished takes organization, time and connections and is easier to accomplish in some segments of the community than others,” said Al Dimmitt, superintendent of Guadalupe Centers Schools, a group of charters on Kansas City’s West side that serves the Latino community.
Take the parents at his schools, for instance.
They are undoubtedly committed to their children’s education — parents line up for PTA meetings. But many are new immigrants, and given some of the challenges that come with that, “it is a bit hard to imagine them organizing for the establishment of new educational options in the way that we see in other communities.”
There are resources available to help families regardless of their skills and means, Thaman said. It just takes a “willingness to stick with it and work together as a group and figure out how to get past different hurdles,” he said.
Parents can consult educational service providers and recruit board members who are experienced in areas like fundraising or real estate. Thaman’s organization also helps groups develop a timeline and identify legal and real estate experts.
“Education needs to be parent-driven, and if they feel their needs aren’t being met by traditional schools, they ought to be in a position to affect change in that system or seek alternatives,” Dimmitt said. “That’s important whether they are in Brookside, Midtown or the East side.”
—Tammy Worth is a freelance journalist based in Blue Springs, Missouri.
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This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.