Citywide Education Progress Report

Key Takeaways: System Reforms

Kansas City is making progress, but much work remains. The city benefits from a strong civic sector committed to educational improvement, but nearly one-third of the city’s schools are performing well below the state average. Both the district and charter sectors face challenges with hiring and retaining talented educators. Family engagement varies across schools within both sectors. Some aspects of enrollment have been simplified, but unaligned timelines and processes present challenges for families. Collaborating to identify a common strategy and vision for improving education citywide should be a top priority for leaders in order to resolve the city’s pressing systemic challenges.


Is the education strategy rooted in the community?


Is the whole community engaged? Education is a citywide endeavor. When families, community organizations, and city leaders have the opportunity to provide feedback and share in the vision, the strategy is more likely to be sustainable and meet the needs of all students. In this goal, we look at how well the city is doing with engaging key stakeholders.


► Is there a strong and deep coalition of support for the education strategy?

After years of mistrust stemming in part from low-performing schools, a failed desegregation policy, and controversial reform efforts, the public’s confidence in the education system is starting to return. Civic leaders in Kansas City are generally aligned around education initiatives, although most are either school-level support programs or focused on the school district, rather than cross-cutting citywide reforms. The mayor’s office is involved in education efforts, but Kansas City still has only a few citywide initiatives. The nonprofit Communities in Schools, which began providing academic and social supports in 11 Kansas City Schools in the 2017-18 school year, hosted a well-attended forum in spring 2018 that focused on the out-of-school challenges facing Kansas City students. Two additional community conversations followed that focused on identifying possible solutions to the challenges raised, resulting in an idea to create wraparound “Circles of Care” at city schools to better support students and families.


► Are a variety of groups engaged in education?

Several local organizations support education work in Kansas City, including education nonprofits, local foundations, and the faith community. However, community, education, and civic leaders say the city lacks an agenda or strategy for coordinating education initiatives and programs so they work in tandem rather than in parallel (or at odds). Conversations about how to collaboratively and strategically move education forward in the city are just beginning. Several leaders of schools where Communities in Schools (CIS) began working in 2017-18 were positive about how their CIS site coordinator helped to improve school climate and the daily academic and social experience for the students in their caseload. With some exceptions (like Show Me KC Schools and other nascent efforts), few education-focused organizations work directly with families, and none currently focus specifically on organizing historically disadvantaged families to advocate for improved education across the city.


► Does the city engage families in educational decisions that impact them?

The degree to which families are involved in hot-button questions, like school closings or openings, is uneven across Kansas City and often depends on the issue at hand. This is especially true within the charter sector, where engagement and communication strategies and how they are prioritized vary widely by school. For example, a charter school knew it would be closing for the 2018-19 school year but did not inform families about the impending closure until after important deadlines for enrolling in other schools had passed. This left families scrambling to find spots elsewhere for their students.


► Does the education system respond to community feedback?

When a new superintendent took office in July 2016, he and his staff knocked on doors, held town halls, then used what they learned to inform a new strategic plan. Community and education leaders reported that the superintendent has made engagement a priority and continues providing opportunities for community input. However, there are no grassroots community engagement organizations focused specifically on education that can provide a coherent and powerful voice for families. Charter families in particular have no clear avenue for elevating concerns: information about local meetings and grievance procedures is not posted on the Missouri Public Charter School Association website.

Is the education system continuously improving?


Do schools have the resources they need? School improvement happens at the school level, but making sure resources are available requires sound, citywide policy. Having the right talent in a city is critical for schools to be able to provide students with a quality education. Schools should also have control over their budgets so they have the resources to address the needs of their student population.


► Do schools have the kinds of teachers they need?

In 2017 KCPS’ human resources office created the “All Hands On Deck” staffing plan to involve additional KCPS employees in their sourcing efforts, including bringing the superintendent and current principals on recruiting visits to colleges of education. However, it remains to be seen whether these efforts translate into significant changes in KCPS’ ability to find, hire, and retain high-quality teachers. A few pipelines in the city exist for sourcing and placing teachers in both the traditional and charter sectors, but these programs are fairly limited in scope and are not part of a coherent, comprehensive talent strategy for the city. In the charter sector, each school or network has their own approach to finding and developing teachers, which can be very resource-intensive, especially for the many smaller, homegrown charters in Kansas City who lack the staff or external connections to tap for help with recruitment and professional development.


► Do schools have the kinds of leaders they need?

KCPS has made some progress on reducing principal turnover and developing internal pipelines for leaders, and some charter schools have been successful at recruiting strong leaders, but the quality of school leadership is uneven across the city. Kansas City PLUS (Pathways to Leadership in Urban Schools) launched for the 2017-18 school year and is part of TNTP’s national network of school leader residency programs. In the program’s inaugural year, 11 aspiring leaders were placed in leadership positions in KCPS and charter schools (as well as one private school) to gain practical experience as they work toward their two-year principal certifications. Though it is a new program and the first cohort of residents are not yet certified, Kansas City PLUS has promise as a pipeline for school leader talent for the city’s schools.

Little in Place

► Does funding equitably follow students?

KCPS is not currently pursuing a student-based allocation formula (based on an analysis of fiscal year 2017-18).

Do students have access to a high-quality education?


Do school choice and supply meet family needs? This goal addresses how well the city is doing with providing families access to quality schools. We look at what the city is doing to ensure quality schools are in every neighborhood, and how well the choice process is working for families who want to use it.


► Does the school supply represent an array of models?

In general, education and community leaders reported that improving academic quality across schools is a far more pressing issue than increasing curricular variety. Families are able to choose from a variety of school models in both sectors, including schools offering Montessori, bilingual, project-based, STEM-focused and other approaches. Among the six district and charter schools that have opened since 2014-15, two schools (both of them charter) offer a non-traditional instructional model. The first district-sponsored charter school opened in 2016 and has embraced a community-centered approach. In 2018, one of Kansas City’s two alternative schools, DeLaSalle Education Center, was in financial distress and facing closure. Recognizing the importance of alternative models for serving at-risk students, local philanthropies are providing funding for operating and redesigning the school to focus on building important workforce skills through career pathways.


► Do families have the information they need and know how to use it?

A Kansas City nonprofit, Show Me KC Schools, has developed a user-friendly online school guide for all city schools. Families can search for schools based on a variety of criteria and can compare up to four schools on academic performance, curriculum, and availability of special programming or special education services. With support from local funders, Show Me KC Schools recently hired additional staff that allowed them to further build out their online tools, distribute 6,000 printed copies of their previously online-only guide, host tours of schools and early childhood centers for parents, educators, and community members, and begin providing one-on-one school choice navigation services to families. While data show that families are accessing Show Me KC Schools’ materials (their website user count grew by 50% to over 35,000 users in 2017), questions remain about whether the most under-resourced families know about the information or how to use it. The district’s website also does not link to Show Me KC Schools’ website.


► Is transportation working for families?

KCPS recently responded to community feedback by reducing school walk zones; students living half a mile or more from the district school they attend (including KCPS magnets, called Signature Schools) are eligible for free busing. However, district-provided information about transportation is hard to understand, and transportation to charter schools remains spotty, creating a significant barrier to accessing choice for many families. One charter leader reported that state funding to charters for busing has gone down, further limiting the ability of many charters to offer transportation. In response, some charters have collaborated to share buses and saved significant money by doing so, but this is a partial solution to a systemic access problem.


► Is the enrollment process working for families?

The district implemented online-only enrollment for the 2017-18 school year, which community leaders say helped streamline the process. KCPS set up computer stations in their central office with staff on hand to help families enroll. However, the mid-January deadline for applying to KCPS Signature School magnets is very early and well in advance of charter school deadlines. As for the charter sector, most charters have their own enrollment processes and deadlines, which means families have to keep track of many systems, requirements, and key dates if they apply to multiple schools. Several charters do offer online enrollment and four charter schools participate in the KC Central Application, which allows families to apply to multiple schools by completing one online application.


Is the city strategically managing its school portfolio?

KCPS commissioned external studies in the last few years to identify areas where high-quality schools are most needed. However, charters face challenges accessing facilities and often open where space is available, rather than where they are most needed, and a lack of coordination between the district and charter schools means that charter schools don’t necessarily know where high-quality seats are most needed. This results in a high concentration of schools opening in some neighborhoods, while neighborhoods that need high-quality options have no new schools. SchoolSmart KC launched in 2017 and has so far invested over $5 million to expand five high-performing charter and district schools, adding over 2,000 new seats across these schools by 2020. While these are not new schools, the additional capacity allows more students access to strong schools in both sectors. SchoolSmart KC is also pressing for state-level action on the creation of a common accountability framework for Kansas City charter and district schools and for enforcement of consequences for low performance in both sectors. Some low-quality charters are shut down, with one closing for the 2018-19 year due to chronic underperformance, but many education and community leaders say too many such schools remain open in the absence of clear strategies or incentives for turnaround or closure.

Data & Scoring

Where did we get this information?

► Interviews with district, charter, and community leaders

► Policy documents from district, charter, and state websites

► School data from each city

► A 400-parent survey administered in March, 2017 in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Memphis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Washington, D.C.

How did we score the
system reforms and goals?

Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. See the Methodology & Resources page for details.

Score Levels


About Kansas City

After many years of decline, enrollment across Kansas City is starting to increase and Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) received provisional accreditation in 2016. KCPS narrowly missed achieving full accreditation in 2017. KCPS’ current superintendent took office in July 2016 with the support of education leaders across the city. Some of the city’s charter schools rank among the highest in the state. The city has many nonprofits and foundations focused on improving school quality and families’ access to good schools, but these organizations don’t have a common vision or shared set of goals to work toward together.

School Choice in the City

No matter what school they are zoned to, families can enroll in charter schools or district Signature Schools—specialized schools with enrollment requirements.

Governance Model

The Kansas City Board of Education oversees KCPS district schools. The Missouri State Board of Education is the sole authorizer of charter schools, but accountability and oversight for Kansas City charter schools resides with five local sponsors.

2017 District and Charter Student Body

Enrollment: 24,740 students
Race and ethnicity: 57% black, 28% Hispanic, 9% white, 6% other
Low-income: 89% free and reduced-price lunch

2017 School Composition 

Note: Enrollment data for KCPS and charter schools. Demographics data for KCPS schools only.
Source: Kansas City Public Schools, 2017.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. Questions? Email crpe@uw.edu.