Beth Coleman’s son came home from his old school, a charter school in Kansas City, with a case of “after-school blues,” he said. The third grader has ADHD and it didn’t meet his academic needs.
But when he transferred this school year to Longfellow Elementary School, part of the Kansas City Public Schools, that changed.
“She’s going home happy,” said Coleman, who also has a preschool in Longfellow.
So it’s especially disheartening to his family that the school is slated to close at the end of the school year, along with Troost Elementary School.
The KCPS school board voted 4-2 to approve the closures at its January 25 meeting.
A few days before the vote, Coleman said KCPS had not yet communicated a clear plan for Longfellow students.
And before this fall, he had no idea the school was in danger of closing.
Coleman is not alone. While the district has tried to engage the public around its long-term planning, known as the 2030 Blueprint, some families and neighborhoods were shocked by an initial proposal to close 10 schools over several years. The events of the past few months have led district leaders to examine what has gone wrong with community engagement and what they can do better in the future.
“We learned that (in) our previous round, the engagement may not have been communicated in the same way,” said Hope Soriano-McCrary, chief marketing and communications officer at KCPS. “They said they didn’t even know the engagement was happening. They have not had the opportunity to participate”.
After the community pushback, the district reduced its plan to two school closures, while noting that there could be more on the horizon unless the district’s enrollment and funding change dramatically.
The new plan is built on community outreach to help students transition smoothly from school closures, to retain and attract students, and to gain feedback and support from anyone interested in the district’s success.
The success of Blueprint 2030 may depend on the district’s ability to close the communication gaps discovered in the process and maintain the high levels of engagement triggered by the plan to close schools and redirect savings to academic offerings.
‘Thinly Veiled’: The Struggles of the Initial Outreach Round
From an early stage, KCPS outlined Blueprint 2030 goals to improve academics and student experience by using resources more wisely.
“This was never really a plan for the facility,” interim superintendent Jennifer Collier said before the board vote.
But deemphasizing school closures may have backfired, said Spark Bookhart, a coordinator at the Parent Power Lab in Kansas City.
“If it hadn’t been thinly veiled as a community engagement process, rather than a school closure plan, then I think it would have had more involvement,” she said. “…Nothing alerts the community more than school closures.”
Rebecca Sundquist, a parent of a third grader and a first grader at Longfellow, said she discovered a 2030 Blueprint survey while researching as she considered transferring her children from a charter school. Sundquist is now the secretary of the Longfellow School Advisory Board and a member of the Longfellow Community Association.
She liked how the survey was structured. But she wonders if she has glossed over the impact of the closures by sparking excitement about how the savings could support teachers and students.
“As I was taking that survey, I wasn’t really thinking, ‘What does this mean for those individual schools? What is the plan for those schools?’ And that’s where the cart got ahead of the horse,” Sundquist said.
Sundquist added that she knows many parents haven’t seen the survey at all.
“I don’t know how communication was lost,” he said. “But it’s very difficult to get important information in front of busy parents.”
Josh Jackaway, a father of two boys — a pre-kinder at Hale Cook Elementary and a 3-year-old — said he attended the first Blueprint 2030 focus groups.
The original proposal was in line with feedback from focus groups, she said, but she also met with many people who didn’t know the process was underway.
“I wish there was a way to capture some of this feedback before Blueprint 2030 is released,” he said of the backlash to the original plan.
Gregg Lombardi, who heads the Lykins Neighborhood Association and Neighborhood Legal Support in Kansas City, suggested the district could reach out to neighborhood associations like his that already have strong “on the ground” ties.
Edgar Palacios, founder of Revolución Educativa, said the Blueprint 2030 conversations reminded him of the power of neighborhoods. He said some communities may face language, location or scheduling barriers when it comes to getting involved.
“We should be invested, we should show up, we should take the time to listen and learn, and I think that’s somewhat of a community responsibility,” she said. “I also think interacting with systems like the district can be difficult for many of the families it serves.”
‘Build from now’
Speakers at the most recent meeting almost universally praised the district leadership, especially Collier, for listening to concerns and engaging with the audience.
Collier “has demonstrated the courage and leadership it takes to stick with something knowing there is an opportunity to build from this moment and grow the ways the district engages with the community for the long term,” Palacios told The Beacon several days before the meeting.
Sundquist said Collier and several school board members had scheduled meetings with Longfellow’s parents.
“We’re making an effort and we’re getting a response,” Sundquist said. “So I would encourage parents who have not felt in the past that the district has been responsive to them to try again; give them another chance.
Moving forward with the 2030 Blueprint plan, the district is planning for “transition teams,” including administrators, school staff, parents, and potentially students to foster a positive experience for families whose schools are closing and to keep them in the district.
KCPS is also establishing a broad task force with committees on academics, safe schools, enrollment and marketing, the educational landscape, economic development, and bonding that the district plans to pursue in 2024.
The task force and committees will be co-led by an executive staff member, parent or guardian, and community member, with district staff, students, family, community members, neighborhood associations, alumni, and business partners as members.
“It’s really taking a more granular approach to engagement,” Soriano-McCrary said.
The need for community involvement
The approved 2030 Blueprint includes a call to action for parents and others.
“We know there are many assets here in the city and there are many people who are rooting and supporting KCPS and we need them, especially them, to join us at the table as well,” Soriano-McCrary said.
Specifically, KCPS is asking Kansas citizens to:
- Participate in the bond engagement process or serve on its committee.
- Join one of the task force committees.
- Mentor a student.
- Volunteer with KCPS loves to read.
- Volunteer at your student’s school.
- Sign up for a school tour.
Lombardi said the Lykins Neighborhood Association plans to become involved in subcommittees and has a proposal for a neighborhood-based marketing and engagement plan after families turn out to show their support for schools in the Northeast.
Lykins’ idea – based on the strategy the association uses to increase and diversify its attendance at meetings – is to pay parents who have good experiences to spread the word to friends, neighbors and family.
During a public comment at the school board meeting, Lombardi said the neighborhood association raised $6,000 for that purpose.
“We hope the district invests as much as possible in this local neighborhood marketing campaign. We strongly believe that every penny we invest will be a fund very well spent,” she said.
Palacios said another important strategy is to have interpretation available at every single meeting and to allow more time for interpretation during public comments that are not in English.
He noted the low engagement in Spanish-language surveys and videos and suggested the district could work with community partners to ensure those materials are not only available, but actually get to the people who need them.
Bookhart, with the Parent Power Lab, said schools should partner with groups like hers that are experts in family engagement rather than trying to do it all themselves.
“School systems should do the job of educating children and should totally abandon the job of involving parents because they don’t do it well,” he said.
Sundquist, Longfellow’s parent, said the responsibility for the engagement rests with both the parents and the school district.
“We’ve asked for that dialogue, and now we’re going to need parents to step up and have that dialogue in a way that’s open and representative of the larger parenting community,” she said.
“They’re hearing parents say, ‘We want to be at the table while you make these judgment calls,'” she said. “But we haven’t had a table to gather around yet.”
This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon.