Monday, June 10, 2013

Nightmare in Kansas City

Today is Monday, June 10, 2013.

Memories....  I have some memories of Kansas City, and they are not pleasant ones. A lot has changed in the 20+ years since I lived there, but a a bit of research confirmed that my decision to leave as soon as I could was right.

In the summer of 1992, I had just finished the coursework for my master's degree in education, with licensure to teach Japanese and English as a Second Language in K-12.  That year, there were not too many school districts looking for teachers of Japanese, but Kansas City was, and I heard very positive things about their "magnet school" system.  They had a job for me, teaching at a "liberal arts" junior high school and a foreign language magnet high school.  There was one teacher of the Yoruba language who taught at the same two schools, and since I didn't drive, he drove me between schools each day.  I took a bus to the junior high in the morning and another bus from the high school in the afternoon.  The high school wanted me to teach a course in "world cultures" to freshmen, as well, with the idea that I might even teach some kind of "linguistics" course later on.

When I applied for my teaching license in Missouri, I was told that I could teach provisionally for a year or two, but that I would have to take a course in remedial reading, as that was a state requirement for all teachers.  That should have been a red flag, right there.

In the early 1980s the Kansas City schools were a mess.  I quote from a Cato Policy Analysis written by Paul Ciotti.
As whites abandoned the schools, the school district's ability to raise taxes disappeared. The last year that the voters approved a tax increase for the schools was 1969, the same year that blacks first became a majority. Over the next two decades, the voters of the district declined to approve a tax increase for the school district 19 times in a row.(1)

After middle-class whites pulled their children out of the school district, leadership declined. It was hard to find people to run for the school board. Those who did run tended not to be particularly sophisticated, usually earned less than $30,000 a year, and had difficulty dealing with complex financial issues.(2)
With neither adequate leadership from the school board nor sufficient funding from taxpayers, the school system basically collapsed--test scores plummeted, assaults rose, the good teachers either burned out or accepted better offers elsewhere. By the time the plaintiffs (originally, schoolchildren and the school district itself) filed suit against the state of Missouri in 1977, wooden windows in the school buildings had rotted to the point where panes were literally falling out, ceiling tiles were coming down, and the halls reeked of urine. There were exposed electrical boxes, broken lights, crumbing asbestos falling from overhead pipes, nonworking drinking fountains, and rainwater running down the stairwells. Textbooks were decades out of date, with pages missing and the covers torn off. Emergency doors were chained shut. Boilers were so erratic that in some classrooms students wore coats and gloves all winter while in other classrooms in the same school it was so hot that the windows had to be kept open in the coldest weather.(5)
When plaintiffs' attorney Arthur Benson took mature men, presidents of corporations, into those schools in the 1980s, they came out with tears in their eyes.
In 1985, partial control of the Kansas City Public Schools was given to a federal district court judge on the grounds that it was "unconstitutionally segregated."  This was done as a result of a court case, Missouri v. Jenkins.  At the time over 70% of the student population was black.  The judge ordered the district to spend "nearly $2 billion over the next 12 years to build new schools, integrate classrooms, and bring student test scores up to national norms." The district went into a building and remodeling frenzy, building 15 new schools and remodeling 54 older schools.  The magnet schools were conceived in an effort to try to pull white students from the suburban areas back into the inner city schools.   The district bent over backwards to get the white kids to enroll, with an aggressive ad campaign and a huge transportation budget that allowed them to send a taxi for students who did not live on the bus routes!

The high school foreign language magnet that I taught at had a model United Nations room with simultaneous translation equipment.  (When I saw it, there was a whole bunch of equipment stored there, and they told me that it would be up and running soon.)  I was hired to teach Japanese, and it was brought home to me that the one white girl from Kansas City, Kansas, who was bussed to this school just for my class was to be treated like royalty.  If she complained, I heard about it.

I got the distinct impression that the black kids resented the fact that classes like mine were offered mainly to entice white kids to come to the schools.  The courses were not really for them.  In its report, the Cleremont Institute says that the judge who took over the schools ignored the request of black parents and community members to institute a more modest magnet school plan.  Instead, the magnet schools offered exotic courses but did not focus on the basic skills that the students needed to learn. "The longer the case went on, the deeper grew the schism between black leaders and parents and the white judges, lawyers, and experts claiming to represent black interests."

When I was assigned to the world cultures class, I asked where the syllabus and textbooks were, and was told to ask the teacher who had taught the class the year before.  She said there was no syllabus, and she gave me a textbook with the cover and title page ripped off, so I didn't even know the title of the book.   I was to create my own course, and it seemed that nobody really cared what I did.  I started by teaching about Japan, a country I was familiar with, and had vague plans to move on to other Asian countries before maybe doing a unit on Europe, Africa, and South America. 

I learned that the remedial reading requirement was there for a reason – a majority of the kids couldn't really read!  My plans for assigning a reading each day were a joke, so I resorted to finding films to show.  Naturally I stayed late one day after school reviewing a film to be shown the next day.  (You never know what will be shown in a film.  If there is anything the least bit objectionable, some student will go home and tell their parents...)  Anyway, a day or two later, one of the assistant principals, a young black fellow, told me that he was aware that I had stayed after school.  I think it might have been between 4:30 and 5:30 when I went home, so I didn't exactly stay late.  It was still early in the year, too, so the sun was still fairly high in the sky.  I waited for a bus to come (about a 30-minute wait that day) and rode home as usual.  The vice principal warned me not to stay so late after school again. "This neighborhood is not a good place for a little lady like you," he said.  What he meant was that as a white person, I was in danger in an all-black neighborhood.  The black faculty and staff with whom I worked were very nice people, and I hadn't met any "bad" people, but I was assured that they were "out there."  I found this frightening. 

In both schools, I had trouble with fights suddenly breaking out in class.  The kids always seemed to have their own agenda, no matter what we were supposed to be studying.  I only worked in that school district from late August to mid-October, and I remember calling security in both the junior high and the high school several times.

A number of staff sympathized with me when I poured out my frustrations.  One guy came in to see me during a "prep" time and caught me crying.  Another big, tall guy told me, "I cried my first two years here."  I got the impression that if you were able to build a little world for yourself inside your classroom, that you would be all right.  Otherwise, forget it.

The last straw was the day that one of the kids in my world cultures class mooned me.  I finished out the day, then spent an hour or so taking everything from that classroom that I had brought there, putting it in a box, and taking the bus home.  I called the high school principal, who simply scolded me for not being able to establish discipline in the classroom.  I called the junior high principal, who was a little more sympathetic.  She encouraged me to take a day off and go see the district's labor relations specialist.  She took care of getting me a sub for the day.  Then I called my parents, and began to cry so hard that I couldn't breathe or speak.  My mother told me that she and my dad had realized that I wasn't happy in Kansas City, and that my dad had bought an "open" plane ticket, just in case.  He flew to Kansas City the following day and rented a U-Haul with the objective of taking me back "home."

The following day I talked to the labor relations specialist on the phone.  The lady encouraged me to tell her what was wrong, and pretty soon, I realized that she was practically finishing my sentences for me.  "Do you have family here in Kansas City?" she asked.   When I said no, she said, "Then my advice to you is to get out right now.  Your sanity is at stake.  Here's what to do, write a letter of resignation to the following four people..."

I did write that letter, and then I finished packing my things.  The apartment complex where I lived heard my story and graciously let me out of my rental contract.  Later, the man who owned the apartment building called me and invited me to come back to Kansas City, saying that he thought he could get me a job in the suburbs at a much better school.  I thanked him, but declined.

I found out later that two days after I left, there was no sub called for my classes, and the students in the high school, left alone in a classroom for 90 minutes, proceeded to rampage and completely trashed the classroom.  The Spanish teacher, whose classroom was next to mine, told me that she locked the door that connected my classroom with hers, but she could hear the kids next door.  She called security, but nobody responded.  She said that she had finished her degree with help from the Kansas City School District, and had agreed to teach there for at least five years.  She was just counting the days until she could leave that job and go somewhere else.

According to the Cato Policy Report, the Kansas City schools hoped to attract between five and ten thousand white students from the suburbs to their magnet schools.  The largest number ever enrolled was 1,500, and most of the students who came only stayed for one year, then left.  By the 1996-97 school year, there were only 387 suburban students attending the Kansas City schools.

The superintendents didn't have it any easier than the students or the teachers.  Here's another quote from the Cato Policy Analysis.
The school board's obsession with racial politics greatly complicated its efforts to hire a superintendent who was qualified to handle a $300 million to $400 million budget and yet willing to work with the school board. "Race is the first and foremost consideration in almost anything to do with the district," said former school board president Sue Fulson. "Once you decide which way you are going on [race] then you make the decision on the merits of whatever is left. And it has been that way for years."(3)

Kansas City never did solve that problem. Candidates with national reputations voluntarily took themselves out of consideration for the Kansas City superintendent's position once they actually met the school board.(4) Furthermore, once a superintendent was hired, the antagonism only got worse. The board rode one superintendent so relentlessly that he developed suicidal tendencies, took multiple out-of-state trips, and faked a back injury (for which he was subsequently fired) to avoid going back to work.(5) When Judge Clark recused himself from the case, he noted in his final state-of-the-district order that the KCMSD had had 10 superintendents in the last nine years, most of them bought out or fired (at one point the district had five superintendents on the payroll simultaneously). With such turnover, he complained, it was hard to hold anyone accountable.(6)
The results of the Kansas City magnet-schools-for-desegregation plan was disaster.  The students never did improve their performance on standardized tests, and the gap between the scores of the black students and the white ones remained the same.  According to a report written by the Claremont Institute, in "1991, after firing yet another superintendent, the school board hired a white replacement who had recently been fired for running a California school district into bankruptcy. His primary qualification was that he was an avid supporter of magnet schools. After surrounding himself with "highly paid, mostly white assistants," he took a paid medical leave, and moved to Florida, where a local TV news crew caught him doing construction work on his new house."   The Cato Analysis says, "The KCMSD [Kansas City Missouri School District] was so top-heavy that a 1991 audit discovered that 54 percent of the district's budget never made it to the classroom; rather, it was used for food service, transportation, and, most of all, central administration."(7)   Between 1985 and 2003, there was over $2 billion in new spending in the Kansas City Missouri School District, and they had essentially nothing to show for it.  Judge Russell Clark, the original judge in the case, recused himself in 1997, conceding defeat.

The district has had 27 superintendents since 1969.  Apparently, there were a lot of issues because superintendents had to have all their decisions reviewed by the court-appointed monitoring committee; the attorney for the plaintiffs; and the state of Missouri, which was paying most of the bills.

The district lost accreditation in the year 2000,  but was able to make some improvements.  They gained "provisional accreditation" as of 2002.  In September, 2011, the state of Missouri stripped the Kansas City School District of its accreditation, effective on January 1, 2012.  The district was given two years to meet at least six out of fourteen standards set by the state.  If they fail, the state will take over the schools.  To quote a Huff Post article, "The soonest the state could take over the Kansas City district would be June 30, 2014. The state board then could appoint a special administrative board to govern the district, merge Kansas City with a nearby district or split the district into several new school systems."

It remains to be seen whether the state can do anything substantive with the sorry mess that is Kansas City Public schools. Kansas City is not a bad place, but I must say that I am so glad I obeyed my gut instinct to get out of there as fast as I could.  I left in October 1992, only two months after I started.  I am also grateful to my parents, who were supportive in the extreme when I needed them.

I went through a horrible period where I felt very guilty about leaving a teaching job in the middle of the school year, but I was fortunate to get a job starting in February, 1993, teaching English as a Second Language to elementary students in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the district had experienced a sudden increase in the student population due to a major influx of Hmong refugees from Laos, by way of the refugee camps in Thailand.  Soon after arriving in St. Paul, I was much too busy to spend time crying over spilled milk.  That turned out to be a good thing.  :-)

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