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After balancing challenges and scrutiny, is the KCK school district emerging stronger?

When the pandemic drove school online, it represented just the latest in a series of challenges and disruptions affecting the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools over the past two years. But the collaborative leadership style of figures in two key positions has helped make conflict easier to manage and fostered work toward a common purpose. Still, plenty of challenges and uncertainties remain.

Facing trial after trial, the Kansas City, Kansas school district has been shaped by uncertainty and turbulence over the past two years. Just maybe not in the way one might expect.

First, the KCK school board weathered an uncommonly bruising election in 2019.

Community members were also divided over the 2018 hiring of Superintendent Charles Foust, who had come to Kansas City after brief stints at school districts in North Carolina and Texas. Some teachers and administrators, dissatisfied with Foust’s leadership style and his focus on state test scores to measure student performance, left the district. And some of those who stayed endured low morale and a micromanaging board.

If that sounds like a crisis that would only continue to grow amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it was. Until it wasn’t.

Foust is gone, having abruptly resigned his post last summer for a job in North Carolina.

His replacement, interim superintendent Alicia Miguel, is earning praise for managing the district’s pandemic response, as well as a host of challenges that include staff shortages and the deaths of almost two dozen students in the past year.

So is the board’s president, Randy Lopez, one of two new members elected in November 2019, along with Yolanda Clark. At 39, Lopez is the youngest board member, but he brings experience from a number of non-elected boards and has earned a reputation as a skilled facilitator and listener.

“He’s working very diligently to have the board work as a team,” says fellow board member Janey Humphries, an incumbent who won reelection. “And I feel that the board has been growing in the past few months in their ability to work together for the good of the district.”

The shift in the district toward a more collaborative leadership style by key authorities – open, engaging and focused on finding common purpose rather than lingering on divisions – appears to have paid dividends.

Spencer Martin, the district’s science instructional coach for secondary schools, says he can see the difference at the instructional level.

“Instead of micromanaging and trying to control everything, we’re actually trying to develop capacity,” says Martin. “People are no longer afraid to try something because they’re afraid they’ll get blowback. We now have a supportive leadership structure that’s willing to let people try things.”

 

Spencer Martin, the Kansas City, Kansas school district’s science instructional coach for secondary schools, is pleased with recent changes in district leadership. But there’s work to be done, he says, particularly in the area of retaining teachers and administrators.

 

Steady Amid Uncertainty

Of course, few educators in Kansas or across the country would report a surge in morale these days, and those in Kansas City are no exception. The pandemic has spawned burnout and frustration among many, according to a study from the Rand Corp. And fears that remote learning will give rise to a “lost generation” of underperforming students are especially acute in Kansas City, the state’s poorest school district.

But the district has thus far avoided the reversals the pandemic has created in other communities. It has not, for example, repeatedly transitioned between remote and in-person learning, as some districts have.

For most of the school year, the KCK board has adopted a stay-the-course approach by providing online instruction to all but its most vulnerable students – those in special education classrooms and students who speak English as a second language.

Yet this approach has received increasing scrutiny across the country, including in the Kansas Legislature. At a legislative committee hearing in February, one lawmaker questioned whether the KCK and Wichita districts could be stripped of about $300 million in relief funding because they hadn’t returned to in-person learning.

“The intent was to get the kids back in school as quickly as possible,” state Rep. Sean Tarwater,  a Stilwell Republican, was quoted as saying by the Kansas National Education Association, the teachers union. “I mean that’s 300 of 500 million (dollars) and they’re not teaching anyone.”

By mid-March, the district was the last one in the state remaining in total remote learning and lawmakers were passing a law to require all schools to offer an in-person option before the end of the month. In testimony to lawmakers, Miguel said the district had remained in remote learning because of Wyandotte County’s extraordinarily high COVID-19 infection spread, which reached a 43% positivity rate among those tested in early January, according to a report from the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Tarwater questioned Miguel about why Catholic schools in Wyandotte County were in person but not KCK. Miguel responded by explaining the district’s students live in multigenerational households, which can create health risks that facilitate the spread of the disease. But Tarwater said such reasonings sounded like excuses, according to a tweet by Scott Rothschild, communications specialist with the school board association.

Dominick DeRosa, NEA-KCK president, believes the district did everything it could to balance the need to educate its students with the need to keep them and educators as safe and healthy as possible. “We need to make sure the legislators in Topeka know we’re still working here, still struggling here to do everything we can to take care of our kids,” DeRosa says. “And they need to understand that just because we’re teaching remotely doesn’t mean that we’re not really teaching.”

DeRosa has been impressed with how the administration and the board have included staff in the discussions about how and when to return to class. He and Martin are especially pleased that the district has honored the staff’s need for health and safety – and that it is conforming with the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for getting students safely back in the classroom.

“I think our district in all transparency has done so much to make sure that when we do return it’s in the safest possible manner,” DeRosa says. “We have safety protocols and backups to support administrators to make sure they maintain all those mitigating protocols.”

This process has required its share of long and sometimes tedious discussions. Eventually, the district fell in line with legislation passed last month requiring all Kansas schools to offer in-person classes by March 31. That move, however, only came after a series of deliberations and two votes that underscored the challenge of balancing the needs of the students with the need to keep as many people healthy as possible.

At its Dec. 1 meeting online, the seven-member board considered a proposal to extend remote learning until April. Some board members wanted more information about how remote learning had affected student performance. Others questioned whether the decision should be delayed to see if infections would begin to decline. But the fact remained that the number of cases in Wyandotte County had soared during the fall, and that was enough to persuade the board to keep students out of the classroom for several more months. Their vote to return to the classroom in April was unanimous.

Then in February, the board, on recommendation from administration, revisited this decision and voted to bring back students who need more reliable online access than they have at home.  Staff and computers will be available for these students so they can continue with their remote education. The board’s vote was in line with the consistently cautious approach it has taken throughout pandemic. As wrenching controversies roiled other urban districts, the KCK board had set a course that teachers and at least some parents support.

 

Micki Welcome Hill, whose daughter Trinity attends Sumner Academy, is generally pleased with the new tone that’s been demonstrated at school board meetings and with the course the district has steered to deal with the pandemic. However, she remains concerned about factionalism and is considering running for a school board seat this year.

 

“I think the direction we’re going is one of the better we’ve seen,” Martin says. “Other districts have had to open and shut down, open and shut down. Some districts as much as six times Being fully remote is difficult, but the whiplash is difficult for a whole lot of different reasons.”

Even with vaccine distribution ramping up, a majority of Americans think school reopenings should wait until all teachers who want the coronavirus vaccine have received it, according to a February survey by the Pew Research Center. But white, upper-income Americans are more likely to say that schools should reopen as soon as possible. There’s also a huge partisan division, with nearly two-thirds of Republicans supporting a quick reopening compared with only 20% of Democrats.

Micki Welcome Hill, whose 16-year-old daughter attends Sumner High School, thinks almost everyone  in the district – teachers, administrators, students, and parents – is doing the best they can with a horrible situation. “It’s been stressful,” she says of her daughter’s experience, “but she is doing well with her grades. Like all of her peers, she has not gotten the same level of an education as she would in person.” However, Hill thinks that the alternative – exposing students and staff to the virus, especially when its spread was acute – is unacceptable.

To be sure, the district’s steady, consistent approach has come with a cost. Miguel says that recent assessments have shown that students – especially those who have had issues connecting to online instruction – have experienced “learning loss” during the pandemic. Addressing that loss, she says, is her top priority. But to do that, she adds, requires making sure she hears from teachers, parents and administrators.

“As a leader, I think it is important to listen to others,” Miguel says. “I want to hear and listen to all aspects of ideas on how we navigate from remote learning to in-person instruction.”

 

‘A Stressful Time for All of Us’

Under Foust and before the current board took the helm, the district had been under scrutiny for failing to listen to and include parents, educators, and community members in its decisions. Critics also contended that the board was micromanaging the district’s day-to-day business rather than tending to the big picture. These issues came to the surface during the 2019 KCK school board campaigns, focusing especially on the tenure of Valdenia Winn, who also serves in the Kansas House of Representatives.

Because she had recently served as board president, and because she had been criticized for micromanaging administrative duties, Winn, who did not respond to The Journal’s requests for an interview, became the focal point for those who argued the board should set policy, approve budgets and hire (or fire) the superintendent. Her critics portrayed her actions as being at odds with precedents set by previous boards that had largely stayed out of administrative affairs.

When the results from the November 2019 election were tallied, voters did not necessarily express a clear preference for one approach over the other. Although they elected three members who had advocated for a big picture approach – Lopez, Clark and Humphries – they also reelected Winn. Since the election, and especially since the board selected Lopez as its president, the tension created by the competing approaches has not completely gone away.

But it has softened.

Lopez says the board has benefited from monthly workshops with the Kansas Association of School Boards. Last year, before Lopez was selected as president, each board member completed an anonymous self-evaluation with questions drafted by the association. Marcia Weseman, a leadership field specialist with the group who facilitates the workshops, says the aim is not to paper over natural conflicts that occur on governing bodies. Rather, it is to help the board use its conflicts productively, without losing focus on its common purpose: to promote student learning. Listening to one another is a crucial part of making sure conflicts don’t interfere with that overarching aim.

“For all board members to be as effective as possible, they have to hone their ability to take on other perspectives,” Weseman says. “It doesn’t mean they have to change their own. But if they can seek to understand rather than be understood first, it helps them to find that common ground. I think all the board members have worked hard at doing that.”

 

Alicia Miguel, interim superintendent of the district, and Randy Lopez, president of the school board, have been credited with bringing engaging leadership styles to their positions after a period of contentiousness atop the district.

 

Lopez openly embraces that approach, especially during the board’s meetings. At the board’s Dec. 1 meeting, for example, Winn and board Vice-President Wanda Kay Paige spent several minutes questioning staff about nurse shortages, at times expressing dissatisfaction that staff did not have the answer to their questions and suggesting that the district would not be prepared to reopen for in-class learning.

Tensions rose for a moment when another board member objected to their rapid-fire questioning. Lopez took a stab at calming things down. He politely acknowledged that it can be difficult for staff to answer every concern that comes their way and noted that unanswered questions are written down and answered later. He also acknowledged the board members are within their rights to hold staff accountable.

“It is a stressful time for all of us,” he said at the meeting, “and we’re all doing the best we can. The questions that board members ask are good because they make sure that we are doing everything we can to keep our staff and students safe. So I don’t see any issue with questions. But I do want to make sure that our staff has the appropriate time to give the answers, or to find the answers if they don’t have them right away.”

In an interview, Lopez says he’s comfortable managing conflicts like this.

“When I was elected as board president,” he says, “I felt pretty good about being in that role because I had started building relationships with everyone and finding common ground and sharing what my ideas and vision were for our district, which more often than not were in alignment. Granted we have board members who have strong opinions and thoughts, but for me that’s a healthy thing: How do we learn from each perspective each board member brings?”

Hill, a longtime KCK school volunteer and board observer, credits Lopez with introducing a more civil tone to the meetings. “He talks to people and not at people,” she says. “I really think he listens. He doesn’t have an answer before you finish the question. Previous board leaders didn’t have that.”

Despite this change in tone, and despite her belief that the district is turning a corner toward stronger leadership, Hill cautions against complacency.

“Randy has been a welcome change and I think we’re having a unifying board, but there are still some factions,” says Hill, who is considering running for a board position in 2021. “We need people who are there not for their own personal and political gain, but are there for the students and the faculty, and are there to create an environment where they thrive.”

 

Schools everywhere began scrambling last year to deal with the pandemic. Dominick DeRosa, NEA-KCK president, thinks his district has done its best to balance safety and learning – an opinion that’s not universally shared within the Kansas Legislature.

 

Dealing with Turnover

When Foust resigned in late July, he left the board in the unenviable position of identifying an interim superintendent just before the KCK school year was to begin – and under the extraordinarily trying circumstances of a pandemic.  It acted quickly to name Miguel as interim superintendent. A months-long search for a permanent superintendent concluded in late April when the board unanimously voted to hire Anna Stubblefield, deputy superintendent for Lawrence Public Schools. 

Miguel will remain as interim superintendent until Stubblefield’s first day on July 1. A 30-year veteran educator, Miguel arrived at the district in 2012 and most recently served as instructional improvement officer. Having also served as director of the English as a second language program, the native Argentinian has been leading a district where more than half of its nearly 21,000 students are Hispanic, and almost half are classified as “English language learners.” 

The district still faces plenty of challenges.

Among them: Recruiting and keeping certified employees (teachers and administrators) who won’t be tempted to use the district as a launch pad for better paying jobs in neighboring communities. In recent years, the district’s annual turnover has hovered in the mid-200s. During Foust’s first year, 2018-2019, turnover jumped nearly 17% with 293 departures. The next year it dipped to 272, but was still larger than in years prior to his arrival. Last year, the figure surged to 346, a 27-percent increase. Martin, the instructional coach, says Foust, who did not respond to a request for an interview, made a challenging situation worse.

“I had several teachers leave because of him,” Martin says. “During Foust, we switched from supporting students to blaming teachers for what didn’t go well.”

Miguel, however, cautions against generalizing about the reasons behind the departures.

Teachers and administrators leave for various reasons, she says, including some who have left the profession entirely because of the pandemic. “I’m hoping people feel supported enough that they will not leave, because we need every single one of our employees,” Miguel adds. “We cannot do any of this without them.”

In addition to this challenge, the district has suffered an extraordinarily large number of student deaths. Since January 2020, nearly two dozen students have died, 11 from gun violence. Last summer, the district launched Enough is Enough, a campaign designed to raise awareness about gun violence among young adults and the need for everyone in the community – not only educators and law enforcement officials, but parents, neighborhood organizations, health providers and others – to recognize the problem and adopt strategies to address it.

Miguel says the district cannot solve a problem as complex as youth gun violence alone. But it does have a role to play in addressing the students’ and teachers’ social and emotional needs – especially during the pandemic. She believes that the district is working with a strong foundation, having already invested in placing a social worker and a counselor in every building.

“This is work that had been started before,” she says, “but we had to change how they approach the work.”

The pandemic has made it nearly impossible for the district’s educators to learn about students’ lives through incidental contact at school. So for most of the past year, they’ve had to be deliberate about scheduling home visits, even if those visits must occur on a porch, with masks, and six feet apart. “It sends a strong message to the parents,” Miguel says. “ ‘We care and we will come to your home.’ ”   

Miguel won praise from people such as Martin and Hill. Martin says Miguel has improved morale, the pandemic notwithstanding. He cites as an example improvements in collecting data about student performance not simply tied to state test scores.

The progress could bolster the district’s next top administrator.

Just as important is the board’s leadership. When the board conducted its search in 2018, Martin says, its infighting and dysfunction made headlines, possibly scaring off qualified candidates. “I think a lot of that has stopped. I’m significantly more hopeful about the direction of the district than I was two years ago.”

That cautious optimism springs from Hill’s belief that the board has learned its lesson from its last search. “I think that Randy and the rest of the board have heard how disappointed we were in the previous selection,” she says.

Former Superintendent Cindy Lane shares some of Martin’s optimism, but she believes there’s  still work to be done.

“I do think Randy is a strong leader and he’s the right person to help the board become a strong governing body,” Lane says.

She adds that the next superintendent must be focused on the community. Student achievement is obviously important, but that cannot come without leaders who are committed to engaging with and understanding the community they serve. It’s that commitment from many past leaders that has given the district political and administrative stability. Lane knows Stubblefield and is “confident that she will bring the same kind of energy and commitment to the school district” as she brought to Lawrence.

When Stubblefield takes the helm on July 1, she will become the district’s 16th superintendent. 

“We’ve had 15 superintendents in 105 years,” she notes. “How does it happen that there were only 15? It was because the board always functioned as a strong governance board that set a vision and held people accountable. At the same time, they were always supportive and always out in the community and being ambassadors.

“That’s what made KCK public schools such a successful place.”

 

Discussion Guide
  1. In what ways has the Kansas City, Kansas school district benefited from sticking with virtual school during the pandemic? What costs, consequences and risks could it face?
  2. Is this a story about leadership or the skillfull use of authority?

  3. Why is holding to purpose an element of exercising leadership, and where does it connect or conflict with the idea of acting experimentally?

 

The spring Journal cover is a syringe shooting confetti

A version of this article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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