Editor’s note: To fulfill Startland News’ mission of highlighting challenges in Kansas City, we asked Dr. Mark T. Bedell, the Superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools, to share his vision reintegrating local schools. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone.
I have a mission in Kansas City, Mo. to help lead the reintegration of schools into our community.
Reintegration doesn’t mean uniformity or a lack of choice. It means working together and leveraging resources to create a cohesive, highly functional educational system that’s mission-focused and designed to ensure that all of our children have a legitimate opportunity to achieve their dreams.
When I left Baltimore last summer to become superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools, I came to a community with enormous potential and equally imposing challenges. Our city is rich with smart, energetic individuals with a passion for making this one of the best places in the world to live. At the same time, we are fettered by deep and historic economic, social and educational fissures that keep us from leveraging our resources for the betterment of all.
Our school system is a great example. Many very smart and well-meaning people, organizations, agencies and businesses have poured a lot of resources into education in Kansas City. The result has been some outstanding individual successes, but a community where many families still lack access to high-quality classrooms.
I recently heard someone say, “The mission is my boss.” That’s the attitude we need in Kansas City, especially when it comes to public education.
Our mission in KCPS is to provide a quality education that prepares all of our students – regardless of background or circumstances – for success in college, their career and life. I have reason to believe that most public educators in Kansas City have the same goal, even if they are not part of KCPS.
Focusing on that mission means that we need to bridge the gaps in our community and begin to cooperate toward a common end.
Our commission to move forward together on behalf of all children is fueling the engine of my administration at KCPS. This is why I have been meeting regularly with charter school leaders to share best practices and address conflicts. Setting aside our self-interest, our children face the same endemic social, emotional, economic and educational challenges regardless of whether they are enrolled in a charter school or KCPS. It’s worth noting that 41 percent of all children who live within our attendance boundaries will change schools during the academic year. That high “mobility rate” is a challenge faced equally by KCPS and charter schools.
Focusing on our mission to serve all children has led KCPS to craft a unique partnership with the Consulate of Mexico in Kansas City. Together, we launched our new Plaza Comunitaria, which is providing complementary educational and other services to Mexican nationals and other Latino families with students in KCPS.
Remaining mission-centered prompted us to forge an innovative partnership with Sprint after recognizing that we had inadvertently created a digital divide in our community by providing laptop computers to students who don’t have internet access at home and can’t complete their homework without connectivity. The result is that our high schools are piloting the 1Million Project, which is providing Sprint WiFi hotspots with data plans free-of-charge to about 500 students.
Focusing on the mission means results. These are just three of many examples. If we can all turn our attention to the mission, we can unify as a community.
Kansas City has had a very open, entrepreneurial and decentralized approach to public education for many years now. I actually think there was real value in that process. It fostered the development of some very exciting and effective schools and programs, like the Kauffman Scholars and the Lean Lab. But we continue to have work to do in order to positively affect this new school “marketplace.”
Murray Woodard, a program officer in education for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, talks about “doing ‘for’ families, not ‘to’ families.” That’s the attitude we need to have as a unified community of educators. We will be on the right path if we acknowledge that the mission to serve Kansas City kids is our boss. The time is right to rejoin our forces, share what we’ve learned during this exciting time of experimentation and work for the common good.
Dr. Mark T. Bedell is the Superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkBedell_KCPS.