2016-2017 Enrollment data for all public schools within KCPS boundaries

Preliminary 2016-2017 enrollment data for Missouri public schools are out! These data are still being finalized, but can give us a pretty good idea of what’s happening in our district in the meantime.

Click here or on the below graphic for an updated overview of public school enrollment trends within KCPS boundaries, including breakdowns by sector, grade segment, and public school type.

Here are a few highlights from the 2016-2017 school year:

  • Total public school enrollment increased by 3%, to 25,839 K-12 students.
  • KCPS enrollment declined by 2%, to 14,240 students. 55% of all public school students attend KCPS schools.
  • Charter sector enrollment increased by 8%, to 11,599 students. Charters now represent 45% of public school enrollment.
  • 50% of all kindergarten students attend charter schools.
  • Nearly 60% of all public school students attend a public school, either KCPS signature or charter, that requires an application to attend.

You can find the raw enrollment data, by both district and building, on DESE’s website.


The gift of data, part II: Getting comfortable with parent choice

Almost 60% of public school students in our district attend “schools of choice” – schools that require an application to gain admittance.

After posting “The gift of data” a few weeks ago, a reader suggested it would be valuable to break down school enrollment by public school type -KCPS Neighborhood, KCPS Signature, and Charter – to see what those numbers are doing.

I agree! Here are the enrollment numbers for the 2011/12 through 2015/16 school years, broken down accordingly. (Click here for a bigger, easier to read version of these numbers + graphs.)

The total enrollment trend line for this five-year period is flat. After taking a dip in 2012/13, charter school enrollment grew the most. KCPS neighborhood school enrollment, after a significant drop in 2013/14, began to rebound; and KCPS signature school enrollment declined overall.

But what’s most striking to me, when you break these numbers out by school type and do the math, is that more than half of all public school students in our school district attend either a public charter school or a KCPS signature school.

Yes, that’s right – almost 60% of students attend public schools that require an application to gain admittance. Or, put another way, more than half of public school students in our district attend “schools of choice”.

Of course KCPS signature schools are not charter schools – like neighborhood schools, they operate under the KCPS umbrella and are governed by the KCPS School Board.

But, like charters, they 1) require an application to attend – parents and/or students must be motivated to apply; and 2) enroll students from across the district (in contrast to neighborhood schools, where enrollment is assigned based on where you live).

These are, it’s worth noting, enrollment practices for which charter schools are frequently criticized. But, here’s the thing: signature schools practice them, too.

The fact is, the majority of us who have children in public schools in this district have actually chosen where our kids go to school. Acknowledging this fact goes a long way, I think, to helping us get more comfortable with parent choice.



The gift of…..public school enrollment data, KCPS boundaries

Happy Holidays from Set the Schools Free. As a 2016 wrap-up I’ve gathered and summarized the public school enrollment data for KCPS and charter schools that has informed my writing over the past year, making it more readily available in one post.  (Less talk, more numbers!) This data spans from 1999-2000, the first year charter schools operated in Kansas City, to the 2015-2016 school year.

Click here or on any graphic to access all 3 slides in .pdf format.

Note: “2016” is the 2015-2016 school year, not the current academic year. DESE will release 2016-2017 enrollment data in January 2017.

Happy New Year, and see you in 2017!




This is what our growing charter sector is saying

So, where were we?!!

Welcome back to Set the Schools Free.  In my last post, I argued that the steady growth of Kansas City’s public charter school sector is telling us something important – if we’re willing to listen. Now let’s explore what it’s saying.

But first, a quick recap because, well…it’s been a while!

Over the past decade our K-12 charter school enrollment has grown while KCPS enrollment has decreased significantly. Over 40% of public school students within KCPS district boundaries now attend charter schools – one of the highest percentages of charter market share in the country.

Charter school kindergarten enrollment – a leading indicator for the sector’s growth, and for our public school system overall – is on track to surpass KCPS kindergarten enrollment in the next few years.

The overall growth in charter enrollment has continued despite the sector’s historically weak academic record, and it’s changing our public education landscape pretty dramatically – for better and, yes, in some ways, for worse.

So, what is this growth really telling us?  Three big things, I think.

It’s telling us that parents want public school choice (or, at the very least, that they want alternatives to the status quo).

It’s telling us that there’s something about the charter school model of organizing and operating schools that appeals to families.

And, finally, growth in charter school enrollment is telling us that if we really want KCPS to survive, we need to encourage it to innovate and evolve beyond its current, centralized organizational model. We need a new approach for running our system of public schools.

1. Kansas City parents want public school choice.

We live in a school choice system – parents living within KCPS school boundaries have a lot of different K-12 public school options to choose from.

How do we know parents want choice?

Because when they’re offered choices, they take them.

Enrollment data provides the most compelling evidence – it shows where parents send their kids to school. Four of every 10 children attending public schools within KCPS boundaries are now enrolled in public charter schools that operate outside the KCPS system.

If you include KCPS signature schools in the mix – and of course signature schools aren’t charter schools, but they are in fact schools of choice run by KCPS – this number increases to roughly six of every 10 students (3,860 students were enrolled in KCPS signature schools in 2015-2016).

Whether you understand these data as a straight endorsement of school choice, or as an indictment of KCPS neighborhood schools, the results are the same: Six of 10 public school students within our school district boundaries attend public schools that are not their regular neighborhood schools, or are otherwise determined by their zip code.

Parents want choice.

2. There’s something about the charter school model of organizing and operating schools that appeals to parents.

When the parents of more than 10,000 students opt out of our traditional school system and choose charter schools for their children, it’s telling us something important about what families need and want from public education in Kansas City.

Kansas City’s charter sector is made up of an incredibly varied group of schools.  As of the 2016-2017 school year there are 22 charter organizations in Kansas City operating 38 individual schools.

These schools differ greatly with respect to school model, leadership, philosophy, demographics and, yes, academic performance.

So what’s the unifying element of this varied group of schools, the one thing they all have in common?

Local ownership.

Under the charter school model it’s the school leaders – educators who are in the school interacting with teachers, students and parents every day – who are a schools’s key decisionmakers. They’re supported in this decision-making by their governing school boards.

This local ownership is what’s generally referred to as “school-level autonomy” and it means that key decisions affecting students – whether it’s staffing schools, choosing a curriculum, selecting a behavior management system or deciding the length of the school day – are made at the school level, rather than by district-level administrators operating in a central office far away.

You can see how this type of school-level decision-making, stripped of several layers of district bureaucracy, could foster a closer connection between a school and the students it serves and might be appealing to parents who’ve lost confidence in “the system.”

But there are several other benefits to this type of independent, or autonomous, public school model:

It helps protect the interests of individual schools – interests which, for schools operating under the umbrella of a large school system with many competing needs and priorities, can often be ignored or overlooked.

It reduces the distance between parents and schools, a distance that can feel insurmountable – especially for parents who lack the time and resources to navigate a vast school system bureaucracy to advocate for their child.

And it moves us away from the one-size-fits-all model of public education by creating the space for new groups with new ideas and new energy to start their own schools, bringing more families back into the system. It doesn’t assume that any one group has all the answers for how our public schools should be run.

3. If we really want KCPS to survive, we need to encourage it to innovate and evolve beyond its current, centralized organizational model. 

There’s something else that our growing charter sector is telling us, if we’re willing to listen:  it’s telling us that KCPS has more than a public relations problem. It has an organizational problem. And more specifically, it has a centralization problem.

KCPS is a school system caught between two worlds. It wants to be a competitive player in an increasingly crowded and dynamic K-12 school marketplace.

But it’s saddled with a central planning mentality where many of the most important decisions affecting schools are still made in the Central Office, far from the students and families KCPS serves.

To be fair, this central planning mindset makes sense when you consider that a big reason school systems exist is to promote efficiencies by capitalizing on economies of scale. In a system context, for example, it’s faster and cheaper to choose one curriculum and push it out to 100 elementary schools, than to have 100 schools select and implement 100 different curricula.

This centralized approach to running schools, however, assumes that a small group of administrators knows what’s best for an incredibly varied group of schools and students.

It disempowers school leadership and staff, and creates distance between individual schools and the families and communities they serve (in organizations that are highly centralized, customer service is often poor).

And it prioritizes efficiency and cost savings ahead of student learning and what’s best for individual school communities (which it turns out, in the end, is not so efficient or cost effective after all – losing students is very expensive).

This central planning mindset, and the resulting schools environment it creates, ultimately holds KCPS back as it tries to grow school enrollment.

If we want KCPS to survive, we need to help it innovate and evolve beyond its current, centralized organizational model. We need a new way of thinking about, and a new approach for running, our system of public schools.


Thanks to those of you who shared ideas and feedback that helped inform this post!




Our growing charter sector is telling us something. What’s it saying?

The academic performance of Kansas City’s public charter schools doesn’t matter.

Did I get your attention?

Of course I don’t really believe that statement.  Academic performance matters tremendously. ALL public schools – charter and KCPS – should be held to high performance standards, academically and otherwise. And they should be held to the same high standards.

But I kicked off my post with this statement to make a point about the growth of Kansas City’s charter sector. Because it’s actually telling us something important, if we’re willing to listen.

Charter sector growth in Kansas City, as we’ve now discussed in multiple posts, has been pretty consistent over time. 42% of all public school students within our district boundaries – 10,774 of 25,360 students – are now enrolled in KC charter schools. Kindergarten enrollment in charter schools will likely exceed KCPS kindergarten enrollment in the next few years.

This growth has persisted despite the fact that, academically, our charter sector hasn’t performed much better than KCPS schools. In 2014-2015, only 10 of 20 KC charter schools outperformed KCPS aggregate MAP scores in both English Language Arts (32.4% proficient and above) and Math (22% proficient and above).

Yet our charter sector is still growing.

So while it’s tempting to discount KC charter schools based on academic performance alone, by doing so we’re invalidating the choices that thousands of families have made about what’s best for their children.

Rather than telling the families of +10,000 Kansas City students they’re wrong for choosing charter schools – which is effectively what we’re doing when we blame charters for our central school district’s struggles – we’d be better off making this growing constituency of parents part of the conversation on our school district’s future.

What can we learn from these parents? Why did they choose a charter school for their child? And what are they revealing about their preferences for public schooling in our district – their likes, their dislikes, their needs – through the choices they’re making?

Put another way, what might Kansas City families be telling us about the public school system they want, versus the public school system we have now?


In my next post I’ll offer some of my own thoughts about the growth of our charter school market, and what it’s telling us.

But really I’d like to hear what YOU think.

Email me at settheschoolsfree[at]gmail[dot]com. I can share your observations under your name or, if you prefer, anonymously. I look forward to hearing from you.

Up next:  Some insights from our growing charter school sector



Kindergarten Math Part III: Raising the bar for academic performance

Four new charter elementary schools will open within KCPS boundaries for the 2016-2017 school year:  Citizens of the World-Kansas City, Kansas City Neighborhood Academy, KIPP Endeavor, and Quality Hill Academy.

You could argue that four schools serving the same grades and opening in the same year isn’t the most efficient use of public resources. I’d agree with you.

Nonetheless, this cohort of new schools has the potential to be a game-changer in the evolution of our public schools sector – especially in our kindergarten marketplace.


The addition of up to 260 new kindergarten seats in one year (there are ~2500 total enrolled K students in our district, both KCPS and charter) changes the enrollment landscape pretty significantly, accelerating us toward the kindergarten tipping point – the point where charter school enrollment, for the first time, exceeds KCPS enrollment.

But the biggest reason these schools may be game-changing relates to their kindergarten classrooms, and how they’re organized to support student achievement.

Because kindergarten is a really, really important year for learning how to learn. To paraphrase one researcher, it’s the year when you learn how to be a student, and a classmate, and how to cooperate with others. It’s where the foundation is laid for a successful K-12 experience. (For summary research, see here, here and here).

And as a cohort, these new schools are raising the bar for kindergarten with the classroom investments they’re making:  three of the four schools opening this fall will have kindergarten classrooms staffed by two full-time teachers – a lead teacher and a support teacher – in classrooms of 24 or fewer children.

new k seats and schools v2

(Note:  We have public schools in our district now with similar kindergarten class sizes and staffing levels; it’s the simultaneous opening of these schools that is high-impact) 

This staffing level is significant because the research is pretty compelling that smaller class sizes in the earliest grades can increase student achievement – especially in kindergarten.

Academic gains from smaller classes come from the increased individual attention, reduced distractions, and stronger and more positive relationships that result from smaller classes.  These gains are largest for students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and boys.

In other words, the children who make up the majority of public school students within our district boundaries.

Which brings us back to KCPS, currently the largest operator of public schools in our school district.

The new KCPS Master Plan reduces class size to 22 for all Kindergarten through 2nd grade KCPS classrooms. This decision is really important and, based on discussions at a recent school board meeting, represents a significant reduction in class size for some schools – evidently there are some KCPS classrooms in the early grades with as many as 29 or 30 students.

But in the same year that KCPS is reducing kindergarten class size to 22 students, there are three new public charter schools opening with kindergarten classrooms of approximately the same size – and with double the staffing per class.

This benchmark comparison creates the appearance that KCPS either isn’t able, or willing, to keep up.

More than anything, though, it feels like KCPS is operating in a bubble. If we want KCPS schools to be able to compete in an increasingly crowded schools landscape, KCPS administrators and board members need to be aware of what their charter sector counterparts are offering – and how they’re able to offer it.

This awareness would go a long way toward ensuring that KCPS is competitive where, ultimately, it matters most – in the classroom, where learning happens.


Kindergarten Math, Part II: The Kindergarten Tipping Point

What can kindergarten enrollment numbers tell us about the health of our public schools sector, and the future of public education in our school district?

A lot.

First, the facts. Below are the kindergarten enrollment numbers for all public schools within KCPS boundaries – both KCPS and charter – from the 1999-2000 school year (the first year charter schools operated in Kansas City) through the current 2015-16 academic year.

Kindergarten Enrollment:  KCPS and Charter Schools, 2000 – 2016K enrollment numbers v2

A few trends pop out immediately:

1) There are fewer kindergarten students enrolled in our public schools today – whether KCPS or charter – than in 2000. About 20 percent fewer. Whether this drop is due to families moving outside of KCPS boundaries in search of better schools or because they’re enrolling their children in private schools, the decline is a loss for public education in our school district.

(Note: charter schools are public schools. So when a student leaves KCPS for a charter school, he or she is still in our public schools sector – a win, overall, for public education in our district).

2) Kindergarten enrollment in KCPS schools has declined by almost half since 2000. In 2000, KCPS enrolled 90% of the overall kindergarten market (2,696 of 3,012 students). By 2015-2016, KCPS enrollment dropped to 57% of the kindergarten market (1,404 of 2,461 students).

3) Kindergarten enrollment in the charter sector has grown by 200 percent since 2000. In 1999-2000, charters enrolled 10% of our kindergarten market (316 of 3,012 students). By 2015-16, charter enrollment had grown to 43% of the market (1057 of 2,461 students).

In summary, kindergarten enrollment more or less mirrors what’s happening with our school district as a whole: fewer families are choosing public schools. Of those that do, an increasing number are attending charters.

So what does this mean for our school district going forward?

In my last post, I wrote about kindergarten being an important year: it’s the first touch most of us have with the education system, the beginning of the K-12 pipeline, and the least expensive time for a school to acquire a student.

All of this makes kindergarten a strategic year for school recruitment – and a valuable predictor of future enrollment trends for our district as a whole.K tipping point 2018

Here’s a picture of the kindergarten enrollment data I shared at the beginning of this post, this time projecting out future kindergarten enrollment based on historical data.

Without taking a close look at the data it’s easy to assume that KCPS will always be the dominant operator in our public schools sector; right now, in March 2016, it serves the majority of kindergarten students in our district.

But KCPS has been pretty steadily losing kindergarten enrollment over the years. If this trend continues it’s quite possible that by 2018 there will be more kindergarten students enrolled in charter schools than in KCPS schools. This isn’t some point off in the distant future – it’s just two years away.

(This 2018 forecast is a straight-line projection based on the past 17 years of kindergarten enrollment data, when charters began operating in our school district. If we make a projection based on only the last five years of enrollment data, starting with the 2011-2012 school year, the tipping point is pushed out to 2019, about three years away.)

So is kindergarten enrollment giving us a preview of what’s to come? Are we heading toward an all-charter school district – but by accident, rather than design?

Possibly, yes. But it’s not inevitable.

Because this analysis of kindergarten enrollment offers one important focal point – a very practical and specific lens – through which to evaluate the recently approved KCPS Master Plan.

Given the strategic value of kindergarten as a recruitment year – and with four new charter elementary schools opening next year within our district boundaries, creating 250+ new kindergarten seats – does the Master Plan do enough to make KCPS schools competitive in this earliest grade?

Up next…Kindergarten Math, Part III: Raising the Bar


Kindergarten Math, Part I:  Kindergarten Matters

Kindergarten. It’s an important year for a lot of reasons.

It’s the gateway to formal schooling, our first “touch” with the education system. It’s the first time that we, as parents, are asked to entrust a public institution with the care and education of our child. And it’s where our children, we hope, begin to develop a life-long love of learning.

From an individual school or school district perspective, kindergarten is the beginning of the K-12 student pipeline. It’s the most common point of entry into the system, with more new students entering the system at one time than during any subsequent grade.

(Around 2500 students enrolled in kindergarten at public schools – KCPS and charter – within our school district boundaries in 2015-2016).

Kindergarten is probably also the cheapest entry point, with fewer administrative costs associated with acquiring a student during this first year of school than in subsequent grades.

So kindergarten is a pretty strategic year, actually. If you can attract families during this first year and give them a really good kindergarten experience, you increase the likelihood that they’ll become invested in your school, and stay with you for subsequent years.

In the process you hope that they’ll tell all your friends about what a great school you are, giving you some really great, free marketing.

The opposite is also true. If a family has a bad kindergarten experience at your school, and other quality options exist (perceived or real), they are probably more likely to leave after this first year than any other. Why? Because they have choices. They aren’t yet invested in your school and have no reason to stay.

(Families who leave will probably also give you free marketing –just not the kind you’re looking for).

So kindergarten matters. And for this reason kindergarten enrollment numbers can actually be an important and really interesting barometer of overall system health.

What does public school enrollment for kindergarten look like across our school district, both KCPS and charter, and what does it reveal about school preference? And what do these numbers tell us about what our district’s public school sector may look like in the future?

Up next…Kindergarten Math, Part II:  The Kindergarten Tipping Point



Kansas City 2016: Our public education landscape is changing

Families living within KCPS boundaries have a growing number of public school options to choose from. Most of these new choices are coming from public charter schools – schools that receive public funding, yet operate independently of the Kansas City Public Schools district.

Some people don’t like charter schools. They argue that charters drain critical resources – both dollars and families – away from our struggling school district, leaving the district to educate an increasingly impoverished and challenging student population.

Others point to charter schools with worse performance records than KCPS as evidence that charters don’t work.

These concerns are real.

But, however you may feel about charters, they’re gaining an increasing foothold within our school district boundaries:  in 2006, public charter schools enrolled 6,428 K-12 students within our district. By the 2015-2016 school year, that number had grown to 10,774 – a 67 percent increase over a decade.

K-12 Enrollment Revised

During this same period, KCPS enrollment decreased by 43 percent:  in 2006, KCPS enrolled 25,766 K-12 students. By 2015-2016 that number had dropped to 14,586 students.

Put another way:  our central school district is shrinking and is gradually being replaced by a growing sector of autonomous, independent public schools.

And our charter sector continues to grow:  in August 2016 four highly-anticipated new charter elementary schools will open their doors, creating more options for Kansas City families; a new charter high school is already slated for opening in 2018.

As a community, we need to adapt our thinking to this new education landscape, and start changing the conversation we’re having to reflect this new reality.

And if we’re serious about saving KCPS, it’s worth asking – what is it about charter schools that parents are responding to? Why are so many families, when given a choice between KCPS and another option, choosing the “other” option to educate their children?


Welcome to Set the Schools Free, a Kansas City public education blog

This blog is an outgrowth of a January 2016 op-ed I wrote for the Kansas City Star:  “Kansas City District Should Decentralize and Set the Schools Free”.

In that op-ed I made the argument that Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) can’t truly compete with our growing public charter school sector as long as key decisions affecting KCPS schools continue to be made by the Central Office, far from the students and families the schools serve.

School autonomy is, consequently, a central idea of Set the Schools Free.  I believe decisions affecting students – staffing, curriculum, resource allocation – are best made at the school level.

I like the public charter school model because it offers this school-level autonomy and empowers parents, school leaders and teachers. But I’m not convinced that a 100% charter school district is in the best interest of Kansas City’s families and students.

I’m concerned, however, that that this fragmented, all-charter district is exactly the direction we’re headed if KCPS continues on its current path.

K-12 Enrollment Revised

Fewer families are enrolling in KCPS schools. And with the opening of four new charter elementary schools next year, the expansion of several existing charter schools and a new charter high school opening in 2018, KCPS will soon serve less than half of all public school students.

Like it or not, our public education landscape is changing.

I believe there’s a middle path between an all-KCPS and all-charter district – one that captures the strengths of a centrally-coordinated school system while taking advantage of the flexibility and autonomy of the charter school model. A system better equipped to serve all families well.

But finding this middle path requires looking beyond the politics and constraints of our current school system to develop a vision for what public education in Kansas City can be.

It also requires thoughtful analysis and discussion based on facts (data).

I hope to offer both through Set the Schools Free.  I’ll be doing all of the posting initially, but over time I hope others will join me to share their ideas, perspectives and analysis.

What’s your vision for public education in Kansas City?