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‘Not a last resort’: How Superintendent Mark Bedell has turned around Kansas City Public Schools

  

In September 2011, the Missouri Board of Education stripped the Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) of its accreditation, citing instability in leadership and failure to improve academic performance. 

But according to the latest data, KCPS is making marked improvement with test scores and graduation rates — and is working toward becoming fully accredited. And that vast turnaround is largely due to the work Dr. Mark Bedell has championed. Bedell joined KCPS in 2016, making him the longest-serving superintendent the district has had in at least two decades. 

But Bedell is tired of legislators counting his district out. 

“Please stop looking at us from a deficit lens. It’s not right, it’s not fair, it’s not warranted,” Bedell told The Missouri Times in a long-ranging interview. “If you really want to start looking at us, go back and look at the way racial history has played out in Kansas City, and let’s start writing bills to undo what has plagued our communities.” 

Since KCPS lost its accreditation, it’s clear the district has made vast changes with Bedell at the helm. In 2019, KCPS outperformed nine Kansas City charter schools in math scores and seven charters in English Language Arts (ELA), according to 2019 Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) data. While 2019 saw a statewide decline in both and ELA results, KCPS students increased their math results by 3.2 Missouri Assessment Program Performance Indicators (MPI) and ELA by 1.5 MPI. 

The 2020 four-year graduation rate was 75 percent —the highest rate KCPS has seen since the Missouri School Improvement Program (MSIP) was launched. 

And KCPS started the year off with only three teacher vacancies. Search firms are looking for talent within the district — both for out-of-state and statewide positions — and two superintendents have come out of KCPS in Bedell’s first three years. 

“It’s important for people to know that our school district is an organization where people want to work here now. It’s not an organization of last resort,” he said.  

‘Tale of two cities’


Bedell came to KCPS after serving as an assistant superintendent with the Baltimore County Public Schools. Prior to that, Bedell was the School Improvement Officer for the Houston Independent School District. 

From Rochester, N.Y., Bedell has firsthand knowledge of the impact educators can have on children — for better or worse. When he was in the second grade, a teacher told him he was “dumb, ugly, and would never amount to anything.” Bedell essentially quit school until high school when he had a homeroom teacher who invested in him and encouraged him to become a teacher. 

When Bedell first came to Kansas City, he said it was immediately apparent just what was standing in the way of students’ success: racial barriers. 

“It really is the tale of two cities. That is something that just kind of hit me in the face. It exists in many communities across the country, [but] not to the extent it exists here,” he said. “I tell people it’s a different kind of experience when you look at it from a racial standpoint in Kansas City.” 

So how does the school district move forward? Bedell said it’s about updating policies and being honest about the racial history that’s played out in Kansas City and Missouri — from integration to redlining communities. 

Since Bedell has taken the helm, KCPS has adopted a new equity policy to ensure the system was more welcoming to other cultures and lifestyles. But it also tweaked its curriculum, established the Middle College for young adults who had dropped out of the KCPS system, and worked to open a center to serve English Language Learners (ELL) and immigrant families. Bedell has also led partnerships with the Consulate of Mexico to further aid students and their families. 

“In doing that, we recognize within our policies that there are historical racial discriminatory practices that have plagued school districts like ours, and as a school district, we will do everything in our power to dismantle and eliminate those practices,” Bedell said. “That’s why I feel like our school district has been able to make the kind of progress we’ve been making over the past several years.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic, too, has proven just how much of a resource KCPS is for students and families alike. Bedell said the school district has beefed up its support division with school workers, psychiatrists, and family therapists. KCPS also provided laptops or iPads for all of its students as well as hotspots for those without reliable internet access. 

The education reform debate 


As the General Assembly has made education reform a priority for this legislative session, Bedell is concerned about the playing field. Some legislation is written in a way to give charters more of an advantage, such as with teacher pay, than he’s afforded, he said. And voucher bills tend to benefit wealthier families who can already afford to send children to more expensive, private schools as opposed to helping lower-income students, he said. 

“When you look at St. Louis and Kansas City as the only two districts in the state of Missouri that charters are allowed to operate in … it really just makes it harder to educate. It makes it harder to make administrative decisions,” Bedell said. 

“I say this with all sincerity: I don’t oppose charters. I just don’t. I think parents have the right to choose what they think they need to choose,” he added. “What I do oppose are bills being written in a way that gives charters an advantage over traditional public school systems. When you don’t have a level playing field, it’s very difficult to compete in a competitive market, and that’s what we have here in the state of Missouri.”

The Missouri Senate is poised to take up an education reform package this week that would expand charters throughout the state. A proposed version of the bill expected to be debated would allow charter schools to operate in counties with a charter government, opening eligibility up to Clay, Jefferson, St. Charles, and St. Louis. (While Jackson County is a charter county, it already allows charter schools to operate.) 

The lower chamber recently narrowly passed a bill establishing an education savings account (ESA) program. This would allow individuals to receive a tax credit for donating to certain organizations that could provide scholarships to students for tuition, tutoring, school supplies, and more. 

“I’m not asking for you to take anything away from the charters; give me all the same flexibility. Give me the same flexibility that they get to have, and let me be able to compete with the same type of flexibility, and we’ll see what happens,” he said.