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Smart Cities: Kansas City

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Kansas City may be the least appreciated Great Education Improvement Story out there--at least on the Kansas side of the Missouri River. As noted in 2011, "restructuring their high schools into small learning communities in 1999 improved graduation rates from 48% to 81% by 2005. Getting students into the right math courses and focusing on the quality of instruction boosted math proficiency rates from 7% in 2003 to 53% by 2008. The percentage of students reading proficiently nearly doubled over the same time frame. College enrollment rates doubled, from a quarter to nearly half of the graduating class during the same period."

To continue the trends and share the work with other metro districts, PREP-KC was formed in 2005. The Kansas City, Kansas superintendent that kicked off the reforms, Ray Daniels, is a founding board member. Working with input from leaders in business, higher ed, and K-12, PREP-KC founder Susan Wally is bringing college and career preparation to scale in bi-state urban KC by working with 6 school districts serving over 60,000 children and young people. Each district partner was selected because demographics showed very high percentages of low-income students, students of color, and English language learners.

After an analysis of the most significant gaps in students' preparation and knowledge, PREP-KC developed and implemented 3 key strategies for significantly improving student outcomes:

  • Math Benchmarking . The PREP-KC team works with math faculties to increase the rigor of math instruction and prepare more students to complete advanced math courses during their high school years. In the Center School District, scores on the state's high school math exam have gone from 13.6% students scoring Proficient or Above (2009) to 47.8% (2012). PREP-KC launched a Khan Academy pilot and also works with its partner-schools to measure the numbers of students completing college-prep math courses and develops and implements early-college math courses for a growing number of students.
  • Workforce Experiences . PREP-KC's on-staff Workforce Liaisons design and support career exploration events throughout the school year in partner high schools. To do so they engage professionals from over 200 businesses (450 professionals) to volunteer for customized career events, including Career Jumping (school-based "speed dating" events for students and professionals) and customized work site and campus visits. During the 2012-13 school year PREP-KC created nearly 4,000 individual student experiences for urban high school students. Teachers and principals are asking for more because of the powerful positive impact on students' understanding, aspirations and motivation.
  • Accelerated Career Academies. PREP-KC supports 6 Academies across a number of its urban high schools, each with higher education and business partners. The career themes of the Academies are aligned with the KC region's high-need, high-paid workforce opportunities, and include; Healthcare, Bioscience, Engineering, Business/Finance, and Supply Chain/Logistics. Students, mostly first-generation college-goers, are expanding their school day and summers to include training at business sites and on college campuses, and will leave high school with workforce credentials, early-college credits, and a plan for their career pathway. These cohorts of students are also contributing to a college-going culture in their high schools, and employers are interested in these students as they seek a diverse and well-prepared workforce.

To track the impact of these college and career preparation efforts, PREP-KC populates a web-based data dashboard to analyze trend lines over multiple years of implementation. These trend lines can help school leaders, as well as funders, see the impact of their leadership and philanthropic investments. One key measure of progress is the number of urban students who graduate from high school with early college course credits. In Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools (KCKPS), data from their 4 large high schools shows that in 2009, 12.6% of the senior class graduated with college credit; in 2012, 39.8% graduated with college credit.

Districts. KCKPS benefits from a long serving board and homegrown leadership. Superintendent Cynthia Lane has been in the district for 25 years. Lane helped create early college opportunities for all students. In a recent blog she highlighted a woodworking shop that was converted to a "Word Shop" at Washington High School where she "found the room filled with teenagers engaged in writing. Yes, I did say writing! Teenagers choosing to be at school, on a beautiful spring evening, to write poetry!"

Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) , in Missouri has struggled. In 2011, the 16,700 student district was stripped of its accreditation. The same month, Dr. R. Stephen Green, President and CEO of the Kauffman Scholars program, was appointed interim superintendent. Eight months later he was made permanent. They claim to have "met 19.5 percent of the standards needed for accreditation."

The Buzz platform , and a powerful vision for student-center learning, was piloted in KCPS before Covington and Esselman took their show to the Motor City.

Cool Schools. A visit to Wyandotte High School a dozen years ago convinced me that it was possible to convert a big bad high school into a good college prep school. Small learning communities, a solid core curriculum, a relationship-based advisory, and lots of peer instructional feedback made a big difference. PREP-KC was, in part, formed to share these practices with the metro area.

KCPS also features two dual language schools and two public Montessori schools in the area.

Impact & Innovation. Seven months ago Munro Richardson left the Kauffman Foundation to co-foundmyEDmatch, a startup committed to Making Better Education Matches between teachers and networks/districts. Since launching a beta site in February, they've attracted 10,000 teachers.

There are 223 Teach for America corps members in KC. Two thirds of the alumni are working in education and three are leading schools. In addition to TFA the Kauffman Foundation supports entrepreneurship, innovation, and STEM education.

Google Fiber. KC is a pilot city for Google Fiber, an ambitious effort to demonstrate the benefits of high speed Internet. Within the 180 "fiberhoods" selected by the Mayors on both sides of the river, Google provides 1 gigabyte Internet for $70 per month--it's free if you pay the $300 connection fee. For $120 per month you get 200 channels of HDTV with DVR (who knew Google was into TV?). They have just started wiring schools and public buildings. To sweeten the deal, Google is piloting Chromebooks for $10 a month for fiber customers. Austin, TX and Provo, UT are next on the list for Google Fiber.

Imagine the learning opportunities with connections 100 times faster than is common today. A new generation of apps will develop with gigabyte technology. Google claims they want to move the web forward, make it more affordable, and more ubiquitous. Folks like PREP-KC are exploring how Google Fiber can be leveraged to improve classroom instruction.

Conclusion. KCKS demonstrates that a thoughtful and comprehensive improvement strategy applied over time can yield impressive results. Every city needs a best practices capacity like PREP-KC. Imagine the 24/7 learning potential when every community benefits from gigabyte connections.

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