Citywide Education Progress Report


Key Takeaways

There are reasons for optimism about the potential for improvement in Kansas City schools. District enrollment is on the upswing after years of declines, and the superintendent has the support of his board, city leaders, and the community. Some of Kansas City’s charter schools, which comprise about half of the city’s public schools, are among the best in Missouri. However, much work remains—one in three city schools scored in the bottom 5% of the state in 2016-17 and it appears that neither sector has a strong and coherent improvement strategy. The relationship between the district and charters is competitive, making it challenging for leaders to collaborate on systemic solutions to the many common problems facing their schools and families. Systemwide improvement is only possible if leaders come together to focus on increasing families’ access to high-performing schools, attending to the city’s most struggling schools, and providing ongoing and authentic opportunities for family and community engagement.


System Reforms

Is the education strategy
rooted in the community?

Variety of groups Developing
Broad support Developing
City engages families Developing
System is responsive Developing

Is the education system
continuously improving?

Right teachers Developing  
Right leaders Developing  
Equitable funding Little in Place

Do students have access
a high-quality education?

Array of school models Good
Families have information Good
Transportation is working Developing
Enrollment is working Developing
Strategic school supply Developing

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. An arrow shows increase or decrease from the 2017 score.

Looking Deeper

Challenges Ahead

► Intervening in the city’s many struggling schools

One of the biggest challenges facing Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) is how to improve low-performing schools in both sectors. In 2016-17, one in three Kansas City schools performed in the bottom 5% of the state. While some low-performing charters have closed in recent years, overall, few low-performing schools in both sectors are improving, closing, or restarting. SchoolSmart KC, a new harbormaster organization, has started pushing for better state enforcement of consequences for low-performing schools in both sectors and initiated state-level conversations about improving the quality of charter sponsors. However, no action has yet occurred to resolve these issues. Despite the pressure of missing the performance growth needed last year to achieve full accreditation, KCPS has not yet developed a strategy for addressing its most struggling schools. A plan for targeting the district’s chronically low-performing and under-enrolled schools for intervention, including closure, is critical. Finally, all of this work must be done in collaboration with the community. Sharing data about enrollment patterns, performance, and operational costs and inviting the community to weigh in on approaches will help build a sense of shared accountability for school quality and provide families with time to adjust to the outcome.

► Developing a citywide strategy and vision for education in Kansas City

The city benefits from having many nonprofits, an active faith community, several local foundations, and civic leaders that are all invested in and working to improve education and the lives of youth and families. However, stakeholders agree that there is no shared strategy for improvement, vision for education, or common set of goals to work toward. Better communication and collaboration is required from those working on behalf of the city’s schools, including district and civic leaders, local authorizers and charter networks, nonprofits, the faith community, and local businesses. KCPS’ superintendent has expressed more openness than his predecessors to working with charter leaders, but finding common ground has been challenging. One possibility is working together to ensure Kansas City schools are represented in state-level conversations about accountability and funding. As education and civic leaders address system-wide issues, school leaders across (and within) the district and charter sectors should share good practices and solutions to common problems. A few charters have collaborated to share transportation costs out of necessity, a practice other charters could replicate to resolve expensive busing or other issues.

► Helping families learn about their options and choose best-fit schools

Enrollment in Kansas City has stabilized and is slowly growing after years of decline. But to retain existing families and attract new ones, education leaders must further simplify enrollment procedures and help families find good options. The city may not be ready to unify enrollment across charter and district schools, but education leaders can take steps to streamline processes within each sector. The district took a positive step forward in implementing online-only enrollment and aligning the timelines for applying to its Signature Schools (specialized schools with enrollment requirements) for the 2017-18 school year, but information about applying to these schools remains confusing. Four Kansas City charter schools accept the KC Central Application, a common form that enables families to apply to some or all of these schools using one application, and several charters offer online enrollment. These solutions simplify enrollment for some families, but the majority of Kansas City charters have their own processes and timelines that don’t align with one another and the district. Show Me KC Schools, a local nonprofit that maintains an online and printed school guide and organizes school tours and enrollment fairs, also began providing one-on-one navigation services to 50 families seeking schools for the 2018-19 year, with plans to increase capacity. Their work reaches many families, but other organizations, as well as leaders in both sectors, could do more to help families—especially the city’s most underresourced families—navigate the choice process. Simplifying the enrollment process could also improve equitable access to good options while education leaders work to improve quality citywide.


New Organization Invests $5 million, Creates Fellowships to Engage Families

SchoolSmart KC, an education-focused nonprofit, launched in spring 2017 with support from local foundations. The organization aims to increase access to quality schools by expanding capacity at high-performing schools and investing in good schools that have the potential to improve and to close the proficiency gap between the city’s schools and the state average by 2026.

In the year since their launch, SchoolSmart KC has invested significant resources in over half of the city’s schools across the district and charter sectors, as well as directly in KCPS. They have invested over $5 million into expanding and improving schools, created a fellowship to help seven schools develop and pilot plans for engaging families around academics, and started important conversations with critical stakeholders about issues ranging from providing wraparound services at schools for needy families to creating a common framework for holding all city schools accountable.

It is too early to identify the impact of SchoolSmart KC’s investments and work in the community, but conversations with community, education, and civic leaders suggest appreciation for the resources and coordination SchoolSmart KC brings. Stakeholders share hope that SchoolSmart KC can build bridges within the fractured education community and provide needed leadership on strategy for improving education citywide.

Nonprofit’s Myriad Approaches Help Parents Choose Schools

Show Me KC Schools, a nonprofit founded in 2009 by a local parent, helps families make sense of the schooling options available to them across traditional district schools, district magnets, public charter schools, and private schools. Show Me KC Schools hosts an online school guide that provides families with information about school academic performance, curriculum, after school programs, transportation options, and special education services. They also hosts school fairs and tours of schools and early childhood centers for parents, educators, and community members.

Recognizing the importance of their work, local funders provided grants to Show Me KC Schools in 2017 that enabled them to expand their staff and resources for families. With this added capacity, they developed a printed version of their school guide and distributed 6,000 copies throughout the city to reach more families, and began offering one-on-one support to families to help them choose a school. When a charter school slated for closure in 2018-19 delayed informing families about the plan until after some key enrollment deadlines had already passed, Show Me KC Schools helped many families understand the options available for the next year and supported them through the enrollment process.

Student and School Outcomes

Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the graduation rate across Kansas City remained essentially flat relative to the state. Between 2010-11 to 2015-16, citywide proficiency rates on state assessments did not improve relative to the state overall, and access to top-scoring schools in the city remains uneven.

► The city’s graduation rate remained flat relative to the state, and still lags behind the state’s rates.

In 2014-15, 26% of students enrolled in the city’s top-scoring schools. Black and Hispanic students enrolled in top-scoring schools at lower rates than they enrolled in medium- and low-scoring schools. White students enrolled in top-scoring schools at higher rates.

Data are for all charter and district schools within the municipal boundary. Performance data are from Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. See Methodology & Resources for more detail.


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.