Kansas City District School Closings

I am the ex.  As a teacher at a Kansas City, Missouri charter school, I am in no way connected to the district except that we share the kids.  Students come to us from the district.  Students flee back to the district, and sometimes jump ship to graduate from a district high school their senior year.  (We require more credits.)

I know there are many wonderful teachers in the district, but we hear a lot of stories like, “We didn’t have a science teacher last year, so our science class became a study hall,” or “I transferred and I get As now instead of Fs!”   The district, for all its dysfunction, is not our enemy or our whipping boy.  It’s like our ex.  We used to love it– we love public education, and remain public school teachers– and we want it to care for “our” kids.  Although we’re too disillusioned to try to get together with the school district, it doesn’t mean we’re not still pulling for them.

The recent vote to close half the Kansas City Missouri district’s schools sounds good to charter school ears.  Do what works, not what unions or administrative bureaucracies want.  On the other hand, charter schools aren’t big on tradition and history.

The power of tradition and history to stabilize shaky communities is often overlooked.  I feel lucky to work at a charter school that maintained the name, building, mascot, and some personal connections from its parent institution, a private school.  We have some connection to the past.  We have murals of kids who look like our kids painted ten, twenty, thirty years ago.  That’s important to me.  I think it’s important to the students, too.  It’s hard to think that some schools with a strong, deep culture are closing forever.

The vote won’t be the last invocation of race in this debate.  Ossco Bolton, a parent with students in the district, said this of the mostly white-black spit in the school board’s vote:  “How many kids in the district look like those four white males you see there [who voted for closing the schools]?… You can’t speak for my children if you haven’t been through what they’ve been through.”

As a white teacher, this is another validation of my decision not to work for the district.  While we certainly discuss race in my class and have challenging, uncomfortable discussions, my students and their families don’t sneer at my talents or sincerity because I am white.  Surely it isn’t right to base leadership in public institutions on race.  And if you think white or Asian or Native American people can’t or won’t stand up for the needs of black students– well, do a little more research.  Go ask some of my students.  I don’t think they’ll agree.  I listen and observe and ask questions about their experiences so that I can speak for them.

I’d love it if we had more black leadership in education, but I also know success in the wide world requires building trust with people who are different.  I’m not in the closing-off, take-care-of-your-own mindset.  I’m in the expanding-horizons business.

They call their complaint “race.”  Instead, I’ll call it frustration with the grind of poverty, institutional and societal.  I understand that frustration.  Pointing fingers at people who disagree about solutions doesn’t solve anything.  It just alienates people who might want to help.  When you have a kid in my city, and especially in my school, that’s not “your” kid.  It’s “our” kid.  I have a stake in it.  This is what public education means.

I hope closing schools will get the district’s finances down to a manageable level.  They have spent too many years living in the past and bouncing from one temporary fix to another.  Their mission has changed.  Instead of serving all the students in one geographic area, they now serve students who aren’t interested in the offerings of charters schools, or can’t afford private school, or particularly want to invest in the district, or want some specialized experience they offer, like African-centered education or an arts focus.

It’s incredibly expensive and difficult to run a great school with the levels of poverty that the district deals with.  I don’t believe it’s impossible.  (Obviously.  I work with those same kids.)  I hope that the cost in lost teachers and traditions and spaces creates opportunities and breaks some destructive cycles.  It’s possible.  Education types are relentlessly optimistic.

Source for the quote from Mr. Bolton: