Second-grader Deshawn Miller works on math problems in the computer lab. JILL TOYOSHIBA The Kansas City Star
Second-grader Deshawn Miller works on math problems in the computer lab. JILL TOYOSHIBA The Kansas City Star

Local

Gordon Parks charter school rises after near-death experience

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

June 29, 2014 06:33 PM

UPDATED June 29, 2014 11:10 PM

A zoo trip wrapped up Gordon Parks Elementary School’s first year of rebirth.

Kindergartners, flushed with summer heat, filed back into their classroom last week in the Kansas City charter public school that the state wanted shut down just a year ago.

There was an air of normalcy to the classroom as the children named their favorite animals.

One way to think of the past year was to say that Gordon Parks survived.

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But so much is different now, one state official said. A new school has sprouted almost from scratch.

A much stronger school, said Bob Taylor, the Missouri coordinator of the federal School Improvement Grants program that has been working with the school on a recovery plan.

To say that the school at 3715 Wyoming St. had been struggling “would be an understatement,” Taylor said.

The school, whose mission all along has been to serve some of Kansas City’s neediest children, began receiving the federal grant in 2012-2013 because its academic performance ranked in the bottom 5 percent among schools statewide.

He knew the school had deep problems.

“Somebody had to step in,” Taylor said.

The school successfully saved itself last July by winning a lawsuit to compel the state to renew its charter, but there was no guarantee that it could get students back.

And certainly no guarantee a new leadership team and staff could bend its performance upward.

“It’s like a new school,” Taylor said. “With everything we’ve seen so far, the compass is pointing north. It’s like night and day.”

But it’s just a start. The school is a third of the size it was, having restarted with classrooms from kindergarten through second grade rather than the full K-5 elementary.

“It was a chance to reboot and start over,” said Vici Hughes, director of the University of Central Missouri’s Midwest Center for Charter Schools and Urban Education, which sponsors Gordon Parks.

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It was no simple feat, considering that new executive director Steve Fleming didn’t know until the court ruling last July 29 — just three weeks before the planned first day of school — that there would even be a school year.

On the 21/2-hour drive from the courthouse in Jefferson City that day, Fleming turned over a sheet of paper and began to list everything to be done.

They needed to contact families who had been in limbo to see whether they could get them to return. They still needed some teachers. They needed an office accountant, supplies, fundraising, custodial services, desks, food vendors.

“We didn’t have a bus contract,” he said.

Today, instructional coach Ali Bunten has a big board awash in brightly colored and coded cards, each one marking the progress of one of the roughly 80 children who enrolled this past school year.

She tracked their growth in attendance, discipline and academic performance.

The cards, which last fall swarmed under the headings of “below basic” or in need of “intervention,” have mostly gathered now under “advanced” or “at or above benchmark.”

The school that had struggled to meet state standards for attendance had 92 percent of its children in class at least 90 percent of the time this year, Bunten said.

On national STAR literacy and reading assessments, Gordon Parks reported that the percentage of kindergartners meeting expected benchmarks rose from 63 percent at the start of the year to 86 percent at the end. First-graders rose from 41 percent to 87 percent. Second-graders jumped from 34 percent to 75 percent.

On STAR math and number identification assessments, the school reported, kindergartners at or above the benchmark went from 25 percent to 100 percent, first-graders rose from 70 percent to 87 percent, and second-graders rose from 25 percent to 95 percent.

The school’s new team began the year asking, “What do you want to become?” Bunten said. “What do you want to be known for?”

The school’s essential mission hasn’t changed. It began 15 years ago as a school created to serve disadvantaged children, with a partnership with the child and family service organization Operation Breakthrough.

Today, 98 percent of its children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Many of its families struggle to maintain homes and apartments and to feed their children.

The school needed to establish a strong culture around attendance, discipline and performance, Bunten said. It needed to be better at understanding each child’s needs and being able to “triage” and meet those daily urgent concerns head-on.

That is the kind of planning Central Missouri was hoping to see when the university and the school began working on a recovery plan, Hughes said.

A tough job had gotten tougher between 2011 and 2013, when the school went through administrative changes that divided much of its staff, Hughes said.

The state education department measures charter school performance, but unlike with school districts, the accreditation and accountability process for charters rests with the state universities that sponsor them.

The state attempted to exert more authority by turning down Gordon Parks’ charter renewal, but the court ruled the state had overstepped.

The battle with the state erupted within months after Fleming, a former administrator in the Liberty School District, had taken Gordon Parks’ director post.

If the school could emerge on the other side, Fleming was recruiting an administrative team to his side. Several, like Bunten, had experience with Fleming at Liberty.

He had a longstanding pact with new Gordon Parks Principal Joe Palmer, who had been a principal at schools in Liberty and the Blue Valley School District.

Along the way during their 40 years as educators in mostly suburban settings, Fleming and Palmer had shared their common interest in someday leading children in a school like Gordon Parks.

“I told him, ‘If you ever line something up, give me a call,’” Palmer said.

The true tests will lie ahead. The school will be growing, adding a higher grade level a year at a time. Next year, when it adds third grade, it will begin taking the state performance tests again.

There won’t be such a scramble this summer. Some of the new teachers, such as third-grade teacher Quion Wattree, are already in the building, getting to know the children who will be entering their classes in August.

“We’ve set the culture,” Fleming said. “We’ve done the foundational things. I’m really looking forward to next year.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.