Nearly two decades ago, Atlanta aimed to revitalize its crime-plagued “Little Vietnam” neighborhood, and an innovative charter known as the Drew School was a key part of the project.
Today, Drew is ranked as one of Scholastic’s 25 Coolest Schools in America. And Little Vietnam is held up as an example of a successful “purpose-built community,” where education is part of an overall effort that also includes mixed-income housing and a focus on wellness.
Now, Kansas City is looking to replicate Atlanta’s success in the struggling Wendell Phillips neighborhood, which is bounded by 18th and 27th streets between The Paseo and Prospect Avenue.
Kansas City’s distinctive model includes the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, a nonprofit that grew out of a community-improvement effort spearheaded by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. The educational component is a charter school known as the Kansas City Neighborhood Academy at 1619 E. 24th Terrace.
Now in its second year, serving students in pre-K through third grade, the academy is also distinctive. That’s because its sponsor is Kansas City Public Schools, which has traditionally held a dim view of the autonomous charters established within its boundaries.
KCNA is housed in the district’s old Wendell Phillips Elementary School, which was vacated when the student body moved to nearby Crispus Attucks last year. The neighborhood is in the northeast part of UNI’s boundaries.
If you build it…
KCNA Principal Robin Henderson said the school borrowed a number of aspects from Drew, including a wide range of exploratory classes, extensive social supports, and early, intensive interventions in math and reading.
KCNA is able to offer these services because charters are more nimble than traditional public schools. Henderson can create her own curriculum, hire staff and have longer hours and additional school days.
KCNA currently offers music, physical education and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). The STEAM class instruction ranges from gardening to computer coding. As the school grows, it hopes to offer as many as 10 classes that cover topics such as foreign language, dance and robotics. These are particularly important for children in families that don’t have the resources for these activities outside of school, she said.
“By the time students graduate, they will be exposed to a variety of things, will have a really strong academic foundation and know they can be change agents in the world with a well-rounded 21st century set of skills,” Henderson said.
John James, Wendell Phillips’ neighborhood president and KCNA board member, believes strongly in a STEAM education. He was raised in Kansas City public schools and said no one felt those skills were useful to children when he was young.
“We can talk about kids being poor or from a bad neighborhood, but if we afford them opportunities and give them the tools to make the right choices, that’s the key to success,” said James, now the audio/video integrator for the city of Kansas City.
Because a lot of KCNA families are affected by things like poverty and trauma, the school has enlisted a host of social supports, including a social worker, nurse and staff member whose job is focused on family services and after-school programming. KCNA is training to become a trauma-sensitive school and take part in a national program that helps kids graduate from high school.
Don Doran, head of school at Drew, said that when he worked at the Atlanta school district it was harder to make and execute decisions. Changes can be made — or unmade — at charters much more quickly. He also can tailor the school offerings to the distinct needs of the community instead of needing equality in a district.
“Creative principals can be that way whether they are in a traditional or charter school,” he said. “But it’s a lot easier to get there in a charter, and the politics are different than in a traditional public school setting.”
Is it replicable?
It’s not only the nimbleness of a charter school that sets KCNA apart, but also the support from KCPS and the greater business community.
Along with the support of UNI, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation donated $25,000 to KCNA. The school has had volunteers from organizations such as Truman Medical Center, Kansas City Power & Light, Kansas City Audio Visual, UMB and US Bank.
TMC’s volunteers have painted and help beautify the building. They supported their trauma sensitive training, assisted the social worker with getting families into housing and come twice weekly to eat lunch with students in the cafeteria.
Terry Bassham, KCP&L’s CEO, and his son have mowed the lawn and “circled the wagons” around the school by providing volunteers to paint and fundraise, said KCP&L spokeswoman Elizabeth Danforth.
They can’t do this for every school, she said. Bassham liked the idea of the purpose-built community and saw the school as part of a key piece in revitalizing the neighborhood, which is close to KCP&L’s downtown headquarters.
“KCNA represents a community’s revitalization, and the people that started UNI understand that it takes an entire community,” said Henderson, the principal. “We’ve been fortunate that a lot of people knew about the school before it ever opened and were excited. … That doesn’t happen with other schools.”
Henderson said it also would have been difficult to get the school up and running so quickly if it weren’t for the assistance from KCPS.
Not only did the district supply the Wendell Phillips building and allow the charter to purchase food services, but it also provided IT and facilities staffing. All of the technology, instructional materials and furniture were left in place for the use of KCNA when it opened. The district also left its two preschool classrooms already at Wendell Phillips there to act as a feeder into the school.
Jerry Kitzi, director of early learning for KCPS, said the district wanted to take part because of KCNA’s potential to bring families back into the district.
Instead of looking at charters as a competitor, Kitzi said the district wanted to sponsor a charter school to see how this model could help it be more effective and efficient and, in turn, learn the same for traditional KCPS schools. Over time, the district can measure the results and make informed decisions about future charter expansion in the district.
“We have been losing families once their kids reach high school. … District data shows population is cut almost in half,” he said. “If we do more of the same, we are going to get the same results. If we hadn’t gotten into this, we would have been set in the same way of thinking while families are continuing to leave our community.”
—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.