Fixing high school in Kansas City: Why “re-investment” isn’t enough (and partnerships are a great idea)

As a stand-alone strategy, “re-investment” – the idea that if more families would re-invest in the high schools we have, our schools would improve – doesn’t benefit all schools equally. This is one reason why the KCPS Board of Education’s recent approval of guidelines to evaluate new school partnerships is so important.

There are a few competing philosophies right now on how “to fix” high school in Kansas City. The one I hear most often is what I call the “re-invest” approach.

According to this perspective, Kansas City doesn’t need more high schools – we already have too many. If everyone would just re-invest in the schools we have, our schools would improve: with more students in classrooms and more engaged families supporting our schools, there will be more course offerings, more sports and extra-curricular programs – and, consequently, more academic success.

To be clear, re-investing in “schools we have” means re-investing in KCPS high schools. KCPS currently serves about 70% of our public high school market. KCPS high schools are bigger than charter high schools (three times the size, on average – click on graphic below) and offer a more traditional “big high school” experience. KCPS schools also have the deepest roots in our community – and the most at stake when new charter high school options open.

I’ve heard the re-invest argument from KCPS administrators as an explanation for why our schools continue to struggle – we need more parent and community involvement. I also hear it a lot from KCPS parents whose children go to signature schools (KCPS schools with special themes or programs that require an application to attend). And I get it: they’ve found something that works well for their children; they believe in diverse public schools and want to help KCPS grow. If other parents similarly re-invested, they reason, our schools would improve.

There is important logic to this argument. Because racism and white flight following desegregation led to the decline of our school district, it’s incumbent upon white middle income families to re-invest in the system to help fix it.

But relying too heavily on “re-investment” to improve school performance – as I think we’ve been doing – doesn’t benefit all schools equally. I’ll explain why.

Imagine you’re a parent looking for a high school for your child. You have choices. Which school from the below list would you choose? Which school do you think other families would choose?

Did you pick option #3?

It’s not a trick question, I’m just trying to make a point. Most people, when given choices and adequate information about those choices, will gravitate to those options they perceive as “best.” This is human nature.

Option #3 has the top scores in all three categories. It probably won’t surprise you that it’s Lincoln College Prep, a KCPS signature school that requires students to test in.

And herein lies my biggest worry with relying too heavily on re-investment:  as a stand-alone strategy, “re-investment” primarily benefits KCPS signature schools – with only limited spillover effects to other schools.

So Lincoln benefits from re-investment, yes. But what about the other four KCPS high schools that aren’t signature schools and don’t have entrance requirements? There are two schools on this list with attendance below 50% and in which *no* students scored above the national average on the ACT (which, in case you’re wondering, is 21). As I wrote last month, it’s these schools that are losing students – on average, 40% of enrollment between 9th and 12th grade.

What’s our plan for helping these schools?

It’s in this vacuum that new charter high schools are opening.


There are a few other reasons I’m wary of relying too heavily on re-investment in existing schools to improve school outcomes:

– It’s a slow process that doesn’t take into account the urgent need to fix failing schools.  If your child doesn’t attend a failing school it’s a lot easier to take the long view on school improvement. It’s hard to relate to that school’s problems – or to understand the urgency felt by a parent whose child does.

– It stifles innovation by externalizing responsibility for school performance. It puts the burden of school improvement on parents and the community – and on students – rather than on schools and the systems that operate them.

– And it doesn’t take into account the growing number of charter high school options becoming available – options that will inevitably cut into KCPS enrollment in all grade segments.

So what’s a better strategy?

High school is our last chance to make learning relevant for students, to prepare them for real life outside of school. This is why Kansas City’s high school problem deserves our time and attention, and requires our best and most innovative thinking.

Because if we want students and families – of all races and socio-economic backgrounds – to make “better” choices, we need to give them better options to choose from.

Right now, the quickest path to starting a new high school or introducing a new school model within KCPS boundaries is to start a public charter school. As I’ve written before, there are several new charter high school initiatives under way.

What would happen if KCPS instead incentivized new school leaders and community initiatives, through a transparent and competitive process, to work in partnership with KCPS to help improve our supply of public high schools? And then was able to direct those schools operators to where they were most needed?

By opening the door to these types of community collaborations, the KCPS Board of Education’s recent unanimous approval of school partnership guidelines is an important first step in the direction of building a more coherent, equitable and innovative system of public schools for students and families in our district.


To read the approved KCPS Board Principles for Education Collaboration & the accompanying presentation from the January 24, 2018 board meeting, click here

To see a full list of public high schools within KCPS boundaries with attendance, graduation and ACT data, click here.



Does Kansas City have too many public high schools?

With student enrollment declining by more than 40% between 9th and 12th grades, public high school in Kansas City feels more like a leaky pipe than a saturated marketplace. Are we asking the right questions? 

One of the biggest questions in our ongoing high school conversation is:  don’t we already have too many?

During the 2016-2017 school year there were 14 public schools serving about 5,800 students. The biggest, East, served ~1000 students. The smallest, Allen Village, served less than 200.  Several schools had empty seats.

Right now in Kansas City there are at least three new high school initiatives underway.

Does Kansas City really need more high school options? Shouldn’t we just try to fill the seats we have?


Since we live in a choice system, I thought it would be interesting to look at the enrollment choices families and students are making as they move through our public school system.

Let’s start by looking at the Class of 2017.

The Class of 2017

It’s Fall 2004. About three thousand students show up for their first day of Kindergarten in both KCPS and charter schools.

As these students move through the system year-to-year, class enrollment begins to shrink: by the time they reach sixth grade, the Class of 2017 is down to 2,000 students.

Enrollment declines until ninth grade, when this cohort gains students (research shows that more students repeat 9th grade than any other, resulting in a “ninth-grade bump”).

This bump, however, is followed by an enrollment cliff – a 30% drop – where the Class of 2017 loses more than 500 students between 9th and 10th grade. This enrollment drop represents the largest single loss of students – both in absolute numbers and by percentage – in this cohort’s K-12 experience. And it happens during high school.

By senior year, Fall 2016, the Class of 2017 is just 1100 students, one-third of its original size. And this is months before graduation.

Overall, Class of 2017 enrollment shrinks by almost 40% between grades 9 and 12 – a loss of 710 students over four years.

And between Kindergarten and 12th grade, enrollment shrinks by 1,847 students – more than 60%.

What about other graduating classes?

This enrollment profile is illuminating, but represents the experience of just one cohort of students as they move through the system.

What does the data look like, on average, for the last five graduating classes, going back to 2013? And how do these enrollment stories differ between KCPS and charter schools?

Here’s a graph that summarizes year-to-year enrollment for the last five graduating classes within KCPS boundaries, from Kindergarten through 12th grade.

The story is remarkably consistent:  for the classes of 2013 through 2017 there’s a steady decrease in enrollment from fall of Kindergarten year through fall of 8th grade.

After a bump in 9th grade, enrollment declines again – by 47%, on average, between 9th and 12th grade.  (Click here to see year-to-year data for all five classes).

Here’s another look at the same data, broken out by school sector (KCPS and charter).

As these five cohorts move through the system, the charter sector, on average, gains students every year until grade 7. Starting in 8th grade, charter enrollment begins to decline.

KCPS, on average, loses enrollment every year except for grade 9.

High school is the only place on our K-12 continuum that both KCPS and charter schools lose student enrollment overall. Key take-away:  High school isn’t just a KCPS or a charter problem.

Why does this matter?

Context is important for any conversation. Over the past several years the number of students choosing public high school within KCPS boundaries has decreased.  Of those enrolled, nearly 5 of 10 students exit the system, on average, between the fall of their 9th and 12th grades. And the number of students who actually make it through to graduation is even lower.

Where are these students going? Enrollment numbers alone can’t tell us. Some are leaving the district altogether. Others are going to private schools. Far too many are dropping out entirely.

It’s against this backdrop that the overall high school debate in Kansas City is taking place.

Based on these data I’m not sure that “Do we have too many high schools?” is the right question to be asking. Looking closely at the numbers, high school in Kansas City feels more like a leaky pipe than a saturated marketplace.

A better question might be:  does Kansas City have enough quality public high school options, high schools that families want to send their kids to -and where kids want to be – that are doing great things for students of all socio-economic backgrounds?

The scope of this problem requires more than a one school solution.  How can we work together to fix it?


School autonomy 2.0: Can we do this a better way?

If we can separate the key premise of charter schools – autonomy for accountability – from the negative politics that surround them, could we get farther in improving all of our schools?

The Kansas City Star editorial board recently wrote, in response to KCPS falling short of full accreditation, that “charter schools aren’t the salvation” for public education in Kansas City.

Although KC charters perform better than The Star would suggest (see chart), real changes are needed to strengthen the accountability environment for Missouri charter schools. In the absence of these changes,  The Star is probably right:  charters on their own won’t be our salvation.

Then again, I’m wary of ever relying on a single solution to solve really hard problems.

But the paper’s vague calls for “heightened efforts from educators” and more community involvement in support of KCPS, while important and well-intentioned, aren’t likely to get us very far either.

It’s our responsibility as adults to create successful learning environments in schools.

And when that learning environment isn’t working – when student proficiency is continuously low, when we have schools that we’re unable to staff properly, or even recruit substitute teachers for – we have a responsibility to change that environment.


But to hold schools accountable in this way, you must first give them real power over staffing, curriculum, and budget. These are the biggest levers a school leader has to change the overall trajectory of a school.

When implemented with fidelity and rigor, we know this charter school model for organizing and operating schools works (see the research here).

Accountability is mentioned eight times in the KCPS 2018-2023 strategic plan. But it’s this word –autonomy – that’s altogether missing.

Is there a way to do “autonomy for accountability” better?

So I’ve been wondering recently:  Can we take this core idea of “autonomy for accountability” that charter schools represent, and do it better?

Because if you can separate the idea of charters from the negative politics that surround them, there’s so much about the model that makes sense – and that most of us, I think, would actually agree on:

  • That school leaders should be able to make staffing, curriculum and budget decisions in the best interest of their students and school communities.
  • That there should be fewer layers of bureaucracy – less distance – between parents and school staff.
  • That schools should be evaluated regularly and held accountable for their academic performance. Failing schools shouldn’t be allowed to fail students year after year.

Is there a way that we harness these powerful ideas on behalf of KCPS and its students, rather than at the district’s expense?

The short answer:  Yes!

I’ll explore this idea in more depth in my next post.


A note on APR scores:  APR scores are a bundled score of individual metrics that our state department of education uses to evaluate school performance on an annual basis.

DESE just released 2017 district-level scores for the state of Missouri last week. Scores are based on academic achievement, sub-group achievement, college and career readiness, attendance, and graduation rates.  Here’s a good article from the News Tribune in Columbia, MO from January 2017 that explains in more depth what the APR is:  “What is the Annual Performance Report?”

If you’re interested in the raw data that breaks down scores based on individual metrics, you can find these data for the last four years on the DESE website: click  here and then on “Missouri 2017 APR Summary by districts”.


Set the Schools Free on KCUR 89.3!

In October Set the Schools Free was featured on KCUR in a segment by education reporter Elle Moxley on changing perceptions and enrollment patterns for public schools within KCPS boundaries:  “More School Choice Might Be Keeping Middle Class Families in Kansas City”.

Here are some highlights:

  • A growing number of middle class families, encouraged by new public school options, are choosing to stay in KC rather than move to the suburbs when their children reach school age
  • There’s been an increase in overall K-12 enrollment over the last three years, driven by growth in charter school enrollment (and despite an overall decline in school-aged population, according to Census Data compiled by the City of Kansas City, MO).
  • While Hispanic enrollment and white enrollment are growing, African-American enrollment is decreasing.

Click here to read the full story.


Introducing the KC Public High School Enrollment Dashboard

There’s a lot happening right now in our public high school sector. Set the Schools Free is excited to announce the launch of its KC Public High School Enrollment Dashboard to help inform the conversation.  

Where are our public high schools located? How many students attend them, and from what zip codes? What does income disparity look like across our community – and how is it reflected in our public high schools?

Set the Schools Free has developed an interactive mapping tool to help answer these questions.

The Kansas City Public High School Enrollment Dashboard combines  1) 2016-2017 high school enrollment data for public high schools within KCPS boundaries, with 2) student zip code and 3) US Census median family income data to paint a more comprehensive picture of our public high school landscape.

Together, these data can help foster a better understanding of Kansas City’s public high schools and the student populations they’re serving.

How it Works

The dashboard is a (desktop) discovery tool. For example, maybe you want to better understand the enrollment profile of a specific school or set of schools.

Or you’re curious about the charter/KCPS breakout at the high school level, and from which zip codes the different sectors draw their student populations.

Perhaps you want to know which schools are serving students in a particular zipcode, how many students attend public school in that zipcode – and what the median family income in that zipcode is.

The dashboard allows you to filter on enrollment data by school sector, school(s) and zip code(s) to better understand these relationships.

  • By School Sector. Click on the pie chart to see the size of each sector, a list of schools in each sector, the number of students served, student zipcodes, and the median incomes of those zip codes.
  • By School(s). Click on an individual school to see how many students attend that school, the zip codes in which they live, and the median family income for that zipcode.
  • By Zip Code(s). Click on a zip code to see median family income, how many students attend public schools in that zip code, and which schools they attend.

You can track the information you’re filtering on in the top left-hand corner of the dashboard. Want to start over? Click on the “clear all” button and it will bring you back to the landing page, and a high level view of our high school landscape.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE:  Because this enrollment data set is organized at the building level, enrollment numbers for three KCPS high schools – Lincoln, Southeast High, and Paseo – currently include middle school enrollment figures in addition to grades 9-12. For example, HS enrollment for Lincoln College Prep is 675 students. With grades 6-8 included this number jumps to 1022.

As a result, the dashboard inflates enrollment for these KCPS high schools, and for public high schools overall, by about 10 percent (521 students).

Because these enrollment numbers are tied to actual student zip codes, it’s important to leave the data intact if we want to understand the relationship between schools and the students they serve.  I hope to receive updated data from DESE soon.

Click here for precise 2016-17 HS enrollment figures by school.


For the best user experience, please view the dashboard on a desktop browser.

Please share this tool with others you think may find it of interest!


Understanding Kansas City’s high school enrollment landscape

What does Kansas City’s high school landscape look like? How many public high schools are there? How many students do they serve? And what’s the KCPS/charter breakdown?

Welcome back to Set the Schools Free. There’s been a lot of activity in our public high school sector recently:

  • Southwest Early College Campus, a KCPS signature school, closed its doors in May 2016
  • Southeast High School re-opened in August 2016 for students from the AC Prep signature program and surrounding neighborhoods
  • Crossroads High School, the third school in the Crossroads Charter Network, welcomed its first class of 9th graders in August 2017
  • The Kauffman School, a grades 5-12 college prep charter school, grew to serve grades 9 and 10, and will serve grades 9-12 by August 2018
  • Academie Lafayette, a K-8 French language immersion charter school, is pursuing plans to open an International Baccalaureate (IB) high school
  • Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy, a grades 6-12 charter school, plans to open in Fall 2019 with its first sixth grade class
  • The Uniting at Southwest initiative is pursuing a project-based public high school, in partnership with KCPS, at Southwest High School

With so much going on I’ve wanted to write something on high school for a while now – but was unsure where to begin.

So I decided to start with the facts. I wanted to know:  What does our high school landscape look like? How many public high schools are there? How many students do they serve? And what’s the KCPS/charter breakdown in the high school market?

I’ve put together a brief landscape analysis to help answer these questions. (Access this analysis by clicking on the graphic or link above). In summary:

  • School/student count. There are 14 public high schools (6 district, 8 charter) serving 5760 students within KCPS boundaries.
  • School size. KCPS high schools are significantly bigger than charter high schools. The median size of a KCPS high school is 667 students – three times the size of the median charter high school (220 students). The biggest high school is East High School, a KCPS school, which last year served 986 students. The smallest was Allen Village (162 students). (Note, the Kauffman School served only 9 & 10th graders in 2016/17, so wasn’t included in this comparison).
  • Market Share. Charter market share in the high school sector is smaller than in the overall K-12 market. 33% of all HS students (1903 students) attend charters; the remaining 66% (3857 students) attend KCPS high schools.
  • Sector Growth. Overall, our public high school enrollment is growing slightly, driven by existing charter school growth. As noted earlier, there are several new charter high school initiatives currently in the works.


This first-level analysis of high school enrollment data answered some of my big questions. I also wanted to know:  Where are schools located? Who’s attending public high school in our district? What zip codes do most students live in? And what does income disparity look like across our community – and in our schools?

Coming soon:  The Kansas City Public High School Enrollment Dashboard

I’m excited to share that Set the Schools Free will soon be launching an interactive mapping tool to help answer these questions.

The Kansas City Public High School Enrollment Dashboard brings together 2016-2017 high school enrollment data for public high schools within KCPS boundaries with student zip code and US Census median family income data to paint a more comprehensive picture of our public high school landscape.

The main function of the dashboard is discovery. For example, maybe you want to better understand the enrollment profile of a specific school. Or you’re curious about the charter/district breakout in high school, and from which zipcodes the different sectors draw their student populations. Perhaps you want to know which schools are serving students in a particular zipcode – or how many students attend public school in that zipcode.

With the dashboard you’ll be able to filter on enrollment data by school sector, school(s) and zip code(s) to better understand these relationships.

Together, these data can help foster a better understanding of Kansas City’s high school landscape, and the students and communities they serve.

So stay tuned – the enrollment dashboard is coming soon!

A couple of notes:  

1) Neither the landscape analysis nor enrollment dashboard currently address school performance. School quality is obviously a huge part of the high school conversation in Kansas City. If you’d like to know more about school performance and quality seats in our district, the IFF Kansas City Quality Schools mapping tool is a great resource. You can find it here.

2) If you’re a parent and are actively looking for high school options for your child, Show Me KC Schools is a great resource for helping locate and compare the range of school options (public and private) within KCPS school boundaries. In addition to providing up-to-date information on individual schools, they also conduct school tours and other events to connect parents and school communities. Check them out!


Set the Schools Free on FutureEd: Finding the middle path in Indy

What’s the biggest take-away from IPS Innovation Schools? That urban ed reform doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. There’s a middle path between district and charter. 

Following my last post on Indianapolis, I was invited to write about the changes underway in IPS in a more national context.

My latest writing, “Between District and Charter: Finding the Middle Path in Indianapolis”, is featured on FutureEd, an independent, solutions-oriented think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

This post offers more context about the changing public education landscape in Indianapolis and the motivations driving IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee to create in-district autonomous schools.

It also focuses more on two important pillars of IPS Innovation Network Schools that have particular relevance here in Kansas City:  1) a re-investment in neighborhood schools, and 2) a greater focus on accountability.

Bottom line? That school districts matter. And that charter schools, and the model of school-based autonomy they offer, aren’t always a threat – they can also be an opportunity.


To learn more about FutureEd and its work to promote excellence, equity and efficiency in K-12 and higher education on behalf of the nation’s most disadvantaged students, click here


“Blurring the lines” between district and charter schools in Indianapolis

Indianapolis Public Schools are “blurring the lines” between traditional public schools and charter schools, re-shaping how public education is organized and governed in Indy. 

Last week I had the opportunity to attend an education conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Organized by the Progressive Policy Institute in partnership with The Mind Trust and Education Cities, the conference was about changes underway in the Indianapolis Public School System (IPS) that are “blurring the lines” between traditional public schools and charter schools and are re-shaping how public education is organized and governed in Indy.

It’s a compelling story. IPS is embracing the idea of school autonomy in a traditional district context, using it as a lever for turning around failing schools, starting new schools, and for taking successful IPS schools to the next level. It’s capitalizing on its competitive advantage as a school district, and as the largest operator of schools and school buildings in Indianapolis, to bring this idea of school autonomy – coupled with rigorous accountability – to scale across the IPS system.

By doing this IPS has put itself back in the center of education reform in Indianapolis. Instead of trying to work around IPS, education organizations in Indianapolis – including some very well-established and successful Indy charter schools – are now actively pursuing partnerships with the district.

Participating schools and school leaders get access to IPS buildings and valuable support services – like special education and transportation – at no cost. This frees up time and dollars to focus on the school’s mission, rather than on operations.

In exchange, IPS gets to set the conditions of these partnerships. Because IPS owns the school facilities, it can direct operators to parts of the district that actually need new school options.

Schools that partner with IPS must participate in the district’s unified enrollment system.

And if they take over a failing neighborhood school, they have to commit to serving all of the students in the neighborhood, not just Kindergarten and first grade (this slow-start model is very common in school start-ups, for good reason – it works. But in a neighborhood context, it can be pretty disquieting. We visited a school and saw how this more inclusive start-up model worked in practice).

I know – this all sounds like crazy talk. But it’s not.

All of what’s happening in Indy is actually based on two simple ideas:  1) that it’s the educators in schools, working closest with students, who are best-positioned to make decisions in students’ best interests. That is, school leaders should actually be able to lead. And, 2) that “the district” can actually be set up to facilitate this mission-driven work, rather than hinder it.

Consensus around these two core ideas – fueled by a belief that the system, as currently set up, was not working – ultimately led to the passage of state legislation in 2014 that “blurred the lines” and created IPS Innovation Network Schools, now in their first year of operation in Indianapolis.

I’ll be writing more about these innovation schools – what they are, how they work, and who’s involved – in my next few posts.

In the meantime, though, I think what’s most heartening about what’s happening in Indy – and what I was most excited to come home and share – is that there’s a city, very similar to Kansas City in many ways, that’s trying to forge a sustainable middle path between an all charter and all-traditional district – a path, I’m convinced, that’s ultimately much better for students and families. And it’s Indianapolis Public Schools that’s leading the charge.


Choose your own adventure (the public education version)

With charter sector enrollment nearing 50%, public education within KCPS boundaries is approaching a crossroads. Which path forward is best for students?

Last month, I shared updated enrollment data for the 2016-2017 school year. Charters now enroll 45% of all public school students within our district.  50% of all kindergarten students attend charter schools. 60% of public school students within KCPS boundaries attend schools requiring an application (either charter or KCPS signature).

So what’s next for public education in Kansas City? Where are we headed?

I’m not sure. But a recent post from Neerav Kingsland, author of the blog Relinquishment, helped clarify my thinking on the choices available to Kansas City as our charter sector continues to grow.

In his post “Charters growing in your city? You have 5 options”, Kingsland offers a useful framework for understanding the options available to districts, like ours, with high charter market share.

These cities, he suggests, “will have to evolve their educational systems to govern a mixed portfolio of school types”. Drawing on examples of other urban districts, he outlines five potential paths forward:

  1. Implode (Detroit)
  2. Compete (Washington, DC)
  3. Coordinate and Collaborate (Denver)
  4. Blur the lines (Indianapolis & Camden)
  5. Govern (New Orleans)

Some of these options, he points out, “will be much better for children than others”.  You can read his full post here.

So, where does Kansas City currently fall among these options?

Or maybe the better question is:  Going forward, which path do we want to be on? Which path is best for Kansas City’s students and families?


I’ve gathered a few links to background articles about each city, for those who may be interested in learning more. This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive; if you’d like to recommend other articles, please leave them in the comments section.


Washington DC:




New Orleans:




If you love something, set it free

Charter schools serve almost half of all public school students within KCPS boundaries. Rather than focusing on them as a problem, what would happen if we instead thought of them as an opportunity?

I’ve written a lot in the past year about Kansas City’s growing public charter sector.

I’ve tried to use data, wherever possible, to illuminate our changing public schools landscape. Because I think once we come to terms with charter schools and choice, it opens us up to having much more productive and meaningful conversations about public education in our school district, and what a really good system of schools could look like.

45% of public school students within KCPS boundaries are now in charter schools. So we’re past the point of questioning whether charter schools should exist. They do.

And worrying that charters (and the parents who choose them) are ruining public education doesn’t solve any problems: it doesn’t improve KCPS academic performance, or increase KCPS enrollment. It doesn’t improve the academic performance of charter schools, or make them more integrated. And it doesn’t get us any closer to a system of public schools that serves all students, and serves all students well.

We need to be more solutions-focused.

As we think about public education in Kansas City going forward, I wonder if the charter school model, and the flexibility it provides, might actually be one of the most significant tools we have to keep “public schools public” – and to get families of all colors, backgrounds and incomes invested, together, in our public education system.

Or, put another way, there’s a well-known quote that says, in part:  “If you love something, set it free.” If we hold on too tightly to an idea of what we think public education has to be, or should look like, do we risk losing it altogether?


P.S. Happy birthday to Set the Schools Free! It was around this time last year that I put up my first blog post.  Thank you for reading.