In the eastern part of the state of Kansas, there is a wind of change that’s quietly blowing through the plains, and it has nothing to do with wind energy or farms.

Kansas City, Kansas, in Wyandotte County, is a very unique, urban, blue-collar community that’s undergoing a bit of transformation. It’s a friendly, family-oriented community where residents proudly boast about its cultural diversity and rich ethnic heritage. However, it’s also a community that’s had to deal with the negative reputation of high crime, poverty, and employment opportunities.

In an effort to attract more businesses and new job opportunities, the local government had to take some risks and be more innovative about the way they approached economic development opportunities. The aggressive approach has resulted in a resurgence of new private investment throughout the county like it hasn’t seen in decades. The city and county have experienced unprecedented growth. The county’s estimated population has increased by 26.8% since the decline of -4.6% in 2014. Since then, the median household income has increased from $36,637 to $47,285 in 2018. For the last 10 years, Wyandotte County has ranked among the top three counties with the highest wages paid in Kansas, along with Johnson and Leavenworth counties.

Like the city and county, Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools (KCKPS) is undergoing a change of its own as well. It’s a subtle change that has the potential of making a profound impact on how public education is viewed in the future. The school district’s demographics mirror the community it serves. It is also diverse; a little more than half of the student body is Hispanic, 27% African American, 11% white, and 7% Asian. In addition, there are more than 60 different languages spoken in the school district.

KCKPS hired a new superintendent in 2018. This was the first new superintendent hired from outside the district’s internal leadership structure in more than 20 years. Since taking the leadership role of the fifth-largest school district in Kansas, Dr. Charles Foust has launched a campaign of cultural change like the school district has never before experienced. The culture shift has resulted in a profound movement in student achievement in less than two years.

(Dr. Foust is currently the superintendent of New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, North Carolina.)

In December of 2019, the district was informed that New Stanley Elementary School was being recognized nationally as a Title I Distinguished School for closing the achievement gap between student groups for two consecutive years. The school was the first in the state to receive this exemplary award.

“I was very excited and very elated that we were chosen and are being acknowledged for all of the hard work and time that goes into being very meticulous with looking at each student and what are their needs and how we can help them be successful,” said Shoniell Roberson, principal.

New Stanley serves approximately 322 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Located in the southern part of Kansas City, Kansas, in the old historic township of Argentine, the old three-story red brick building, constructed in 1889, is engrained into the landscape of the community’s long history, which includes generations of students who have passed through the school’s doors. Argentine was a frontier town that became prosperous as a silver smelting center. The railroad industry recruited workers from Mexico to help lay railroad tracks during the town’s rapid growth. Today, 75% of the student population is Hispanic, and 54% are English language learners (ELL). The school is similar to many urban elementary schools, with 87% of its students eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Urban public schools often have a wide range of unique challenges that contribute to differential data outcomes for students in certain socioeconomic classes. There’s been much debate on the topic and the level of influence it has on educational attainment.
However, more recent studies suggest that it has less of an influence on educational outcomes than previous studies suggest.

Foust agrees. “It makes no difference what your socioeconomic status is,” he said during a principal’s meeting in a conversation about the district’s scores. “Wealth is not a determining factor for academic excellence.”

New Stanley is one of many examples of a transformational movement that’s underway throughout KCKPS under Dr. Foust’s leadership. It’s a courageous and unapologetic movement that’s reestablishing a culture of high expectations at all levels.

Entering into her third year as principal at New Stanley, Roberson appreciates Foust’s leadership style and transformational methodology because it’s something she experienced when making tough decisions during her first year as principal.

Due to federal funding provided from School Improvement Grants (SIG), the previous school leadership was able to use federal dollars to assign an additional teacher to each classroom. The SIG program was a major educational initiative to help school districts improve outcomes in their lowest-achieving schools, including high-need students and ELL. However, when the funding was discontinued, the school returned to a one-teacher classroom. As the expectations for achieving positive student outcomes continued, the pressure became even more challenging for some of the staff accustomed to the two-teacher model. The school eventually lost nearly half of its teaching staff during the transitional period.

“It is transitional work. You have to be in it for the long haul, be very focused, have confidence, and also be very flexible and open because we have to try various strategies,” she said. “We had to shift adults around who may not have liked it, but it was all for putting kids and their needs first.”

As a leader in transformational education, Foust rarely misses an opportunity for that perfect teachable moment. The New Stanley story is one of many examples he uses to remind instructional leadership about the importance of being an effective leader.

“We’re all different as leaders. What is your leadership style?” he asked the group of principals. “When we look at leaders and leadership, who is your leader?”

He often shares books and links to articles he suggests staff read. One reading assignment, in particular, was titled, Highly Confident People Avoid These 14 Behaviors by keynote speaker and author Scott Mautz. One of the 14 behaviors the book highlighted was that leading with confidence involves important nuances like avoiding the opposite (leading from a place of fear) and learning how to handle criticism.

When Foust took over as Superintendent in 2018, only 11.4 percent of the students in the district were proficient in mathematics and 14.3 percent proficient in English Language Arts (ELA). Out of 23,948 students during that calendar year, this equates to 2,730 students proficient in Math and only 3,424 proficient in ELA. When he looks at the outcome data throughout KCKPS, it frustrates him to the core. He refers to it as educational malpractice and constantly reminds his instructional leadership that the expectations start with each of them at the school level. It then expands to the teachers. School leadership must understand this concept and vision on how he wants students to grow.

Foust asked staff straightforward questions about the low-test scores, the achievement gap, and accountability systems at the school level when he first arrived in Kansas City. His direct approach doesn’t sit well with some, at times, who don’t understand his passion for what he calls turnaround work. He takes it personally when students are failing because he’s seen the situation firsthand. Some school staff quit during his first year. Rumors began to circulate that he was mean, arrogant, and hard to work for. Some members in the community even began to question the superintendent’s leadership style. However, for him, it’s not about him. It’s about the students and their future.

In response to a reporter’s question about what’s at stake if the district doesn’t reach its goal, Foust said, “What’s at stake is our students having a quality education. If we don’t teach our students, we have done a detriment to them life-long, and that is more of an impact than anything rendered from the state.”

He is a data-driven leader who is open to conversation with anyone about the district’s outcome data during the 2017-2018 school year. It’s tough conversation that makes some uncomfortable because it raises questions about accountability. No matter how difficult the dialogue may be for some, it’s a conversation that one of the county’s partner agencies charged with recruiting economic development projects embraces. That’s because he understands the overall impact of how a high-functioning school system can contribute to the vitality of a community.

“The importance of high school students being ready for the workplace cannot be overstated,” said Greg Kindle, president of the Wyandotte County Economic Development Council (WYEDC). “In today’s economy, students can earn a certificate while still in high school and move directly into high wage jobs or continue to higher education opportunities.”

According to WYDEC, 59 percent of the companies his organization recently surveyed indicated they are in need of employees to fill positions with wages in excess of $21 an hour. Some of the top positions are in healthcare, nursing, machinists, trucking, warehouse work, industrial maintenance, and sales. However, despite the economic growth, the challenge is finding talent with the skills required to fill many of these positions.

“It is critical that high school students embrace the value of STEM courses and understand the value of soft skills in an ever-changing economy that requires adaptability, follow-through, innovation, and communication,” said Kindle.

This is another reason for the superintendent’s “No excuses” approach to his vision for improved educational outcomes for KCKPS. The district has engaged in a new partnership with OSHA to provide students with an opportunity to receive an OSHA 10 Certification training. A two-day training was provided to 18 students from Washington, Wyandotte, Harmon, and Schlagle high schools at no cost as part of the new partnership with the National Institute for Construction Excellence (NICE).

Foust enjoys working in the educational field and has a true passion for teaching—both children and adults. Kansas City, Kansas, provided an opportunity for him to do the kind of turnaround work he managed in Houston, Texas. (“Some question why KCK chose outsider for Superintendent, Charles Foust isn’t worried.” KC Star November 19, 2018). In his first year as principal of Fondren Middle School in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the school received several state distinctions and became one of the top-performing Apollo middle schools. He led the school through the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Programme process, receiving authorization and becoming a fully accredited program within three years.

“Something that I’ve been known to do is grow schools and school districts. The goal would be to get all these students to a high level 2, 3, and 4, so we still have more work to do. Elementary is increasing at the highest rate, some movement at the middle school but not as fast as I would like, and high not much at all,” said Foust.

KCKPS has 18 elementary schools that are designated as low-performing and are on the state’s monitoring list. They are identified with either one or multiple designations for improvement; Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI), Targeted for School Improvement (TSI), or Additional Targeted School for Improvement (ATSI).

Quindaro Elementary School is on the state’s low-performance watch list and is identified as a TSI and CSI school. Located in the eastern part of the city, Quindaro has challenges similar to many of the low-performing schools on the state’s watch list. The interim assessment provided by the Kansas Assessment Program helps principals like Stacey Chatmon identify areas where professional development can help improve teaching and learning.

“When I spoke to Dr. Foust, he said, ‘So, talk to me, tell me why your school is low performing.’ And I shared with him the issues I was having with turnover. This is one of the toughest schools to teach in. If you can make it here, I believe you can make it anywhere,” she said. “I tell people that my job is to grow you and build your capacity so no matter where you are, you can be a great teacher no matter where you go. But if you don’t believe in the kids and if you’re scared of my parents, you won’t survive here.”

Quindaro is located in one of the most economically deprived sections of the county, but the socioeconomic challenges of her parents or students weren’t going to be a barrier to providing the best school environment for her students to succeed academically. Chatmon understands the challenges many of these students face in their daily lives because she was one of those kids too.

Reflecting on her childhood, Chatmon said, “I didn’t come from parents who were educated. My mother was a sickly child who grew up asthmatic and spent the majority of her time in the hospital and had an eighth-grade education. My father was enlisted, and I didn’t have a close relationship with him. I grew up around the alcohol, the drugs, and my Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES are high. My trauma was high as a child, but I managed to get through it.”

When you walk into her office, you see inspirational messages and notes. She also has a shelf lined with water globes that capture every place she’s traveled in her lifetime. The globes also serve as a conversation piece for students sent to her office for disciplinarian issues. She considers herself an influential leader and uses those skills to teach through all of the issues students bring to class every day.

“I come in here every day giving my all, giving it everything that I got, and walking with my shoulders up trying to be a role model. I’ve had kids who lost parents. I have two little girls who lost their parents to breast cancer because they didn’t have insurance. They come in here every day, hug and kiss me every day, and tell me that they love me. And I tell them that back. But you have to be personable, you have to be real, you have to be genuine, you have to be transparent,” said Chatmon.

Foust announced a districtwide “Are You On Track” campaign during the district’s Opening of School Convocation to kickoff the 2019-2020 school year. The theme established clear expectations and a focused approach to achieving higher test scores throughout the district. The schools are responding to his message, and some of the same results are starting to materialize data outcomes at KCKPS.

Based on the 2018-2019 state assessment results, a total of 14 schools attained at least 5% growth in ELA and Math and a total of 5 schools with at least 10% growth in both subject areas. Out of 43 schools in the district, 39 showed positive growth in ELA, and 40 showed positive gains in math. Due to this increase in student performance, the school district is on target to remove nearly half of its schools from the state’s list of low-performing schools in 2021.

Quindaro is one of the schools progressing towards improved classification and will drop off the list if progress is maintained or increased for one more school year.

“My superintendent told me, ‘This is your campus. You be the leader. I need you to lead because our students are struggling. I need you to lead because our kids can’t read. I need you to lead because that’s what I pay you to do more than anything,’” Chatmon said.
“In our professional development, we are having principals do the work. They bring their data, and we review it. They are now creating plans that they go back and implement in their buildings,” said Foust.

He met with members of the Kansas State Department of Education and the Kansas Learning Network in January to review district data from the Kansas Integrated Accountability System. He shared interim assessment results that showed unprecedented gains in student achievement outcomes in math and reading, along with significant gains in proficiency rates in English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics from spring 2018 to spring 2019. Data from the December interim assessment showed even more movement in both subject areas.

The scores show more than 10 percentage points higher than the 2017-2018 school year. The summative assessment also shows that math scores more than doubled from 2016 to 2020.

“Our teachers are soaking up all of this rich professional development we’re providing, and we’re proud that what we are giving them is translating into student growth,” said Foust. “We taught our principals how to teach our teachers so that our teachers can teach our kids. Teachers now are just on fire.”

The awards and accolades are becoming a common occurrence in KCKPS. Foust celebrated the results with the passing of batons to several principals during one of the professional development workshops as part of his “Are You On Track’ campaign. Seven schools were recognized for having the largest percentage of growth among the lowest-performing schools identified as CSI, TSI, and ATSI.

Roberson and her staff attended The National ESEA Conference in Atlanta Georgia, to receive the Title I Distinguished School Award. KCKPS was one of two school districts to be selected to receive a $15,000 grant from the Foundation. The foundation supports initiatives that focus on health, wellness, and communities in need of resources. Quindaro was chosen to receive $7,000 of the funding to assist with the school’s continual drive towards excellence. The remaining $8,000 targets district seniors who have plans for post-secondary education.

Foust is moving aggressively to turn around a school district that’s been underperforming for far too long, and the school district is moving students towards proficiency at a rate that’s unheard of in our country. The students, teachers, and parents are hungry to achieve.

“Our district is one to watch around the state. We are outpacing almost all the district’s in the state of Kansas in growth. We are growing students by leaps and bounds. We want to show everyone that our students have the capacity to learn and that we’re proud of them, the work that they’re doing, and the parents that trust us with their students,” Foust said. “We’re going to give them the best education we can.”

Chatmon was really excited about being nominated for Principal of the Year, but she says she knows it’s not good enough to be at 20 percent.

“That’s why my focus board says follow one course until success. It’s not enough to be at 20 percent. Excellence is required. If you can’t get on board with that, move on. This is not the place for you. I don’t have to agree with everything my Superintendent or Deputy Superintendent says, but I do believe that what they are doing is holding us accountable for the things that should have been done a long time ago,” said Chatmon.

The foundation created through Dr. Foust’s vision as superintendent of schools for KCKPS provided staff with the important framework to navigate a health pandemic and one of the most challenging times in the education profession. Under his leadership, he brought a renewed commitment to providing every student with a superior education in a safe and rigorous learning environment.

Edwin Birch is executive director of communications and marketing for Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

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