Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell chats with Lincoln Middle School students on the first day of school, Aug. 23. Bedell, who has led KCPS for about six years, celebrated the district becoming fully accredited Jan. 11.
Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell chats with Lincoln Middle School students on the first day of school, Aug. 23. Bedell, who has led KCPS for about six years, celebrated the district becoming fully accredited Jan. 11. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Kansas City Public Schools is fully accredited for the first time in a decade. 

On Tuesday, the Missouri State Board of Education voted unanimously to accredit the district after a presentation from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommending the change. 

Immediately after the 7-0 vote, district Superintendent Mark Bedell pledged to continue student growth in the district. 

“We’re gonna celebrate today because we deserve that,” he said. “But tomorrow we roll up our sleeves. We have a lot of work to do. And I’m competitive. I’m a former athlete, right, I want to beat everybody. I want us to be at or above state average across every indicator measurable.”

Board members and DESE officials praised Bedell’s leadership and the district’s recent track record of strong student growth in core academic subjects. 

But what does accreditation actually say about the district and what does it mean for the future? Here are five things you should know. 

How did KCPS get here? 

KCPS lost its accreditation at the beginning of 2012 after decades of plunging enrollment and public criticism, including a decades-long school desegregation case that poured money into the district without helping enrollment recover. 

The district had consistently failed its students, Missouri State Board of Education member Peter Herschend said during the Tuesday meeting. Herschend was on the board when the district was unaccredited. 

“It wasn’t bad performance; it was awful,” Herschend said. “We were cheating hundreds and hundreds of kids on a consistent basis year after year … So the progress we have made is insufficient progress compared to where it needs to be, but it is such amazing progress to me and I am delighted and I will vote for a full accreditation.”

Herschend said Bedell’s leadership has been essential, especially since his six years with KCPS make him the district’s longest-serving superintendent in decades. 

During a press conference Tuesday at J.A. Rogers Elementary School, Bedell also praised the work that happened before he arrived. KCPS gained provisional accreditation in 2014.  

“By the time I got here, things had settled down with the (KCPS) board,” he said. “They were more together. We had gained provisional accreditation. We were financially stable.”

Since getting provisional accreditation, the district has hit the standard to be fully accredited several times without regaining full accreditation. Missouri officials have asked the district to show consistency by meeting the standard for several consecutive years. 

Ahead of the recent vote, KCPS was among just seven districts in Missouri that were provisionally accredited out of more than 500 districts. Another Kansas City district, Hickman Mills, is also on that list. No districts are unaccredited. 

The Naylor R-II district in southeastern Missouri also became accredited Tuesday. 

How did DESE determine KCPS’ accreditation status? 

In broad terms, Missouri factors in student achievement on state tests, attendance, graduation rates and career development.

The state also considers whether districts are complying with education laws and whether their superintendents are properly qualified. 

Documents on the Missouri School Improvement Program section of the DESE website provide pages of questions about districts’ compliance and general performance standards

The improvement program also changes and is in its fifth version since it began in 1990. The latest version went into effect in 2013, and DESE is creating a sixth version. 

The pandemic further complicated matters. State testing was canceled in 2020. In 2021, testing happened but DESE didn’t calculate any overall performance scores last year. 

Instead, it developed a framework to assess KCPS based on district leadership, strategic planning, financial stability, teacher quality and some academic measures such as graduation rates and students earning dual credit. 

Where did KCPS improve? 

A strong suit for KCPS is student growth. The measure, a recent focus for DESE, tracks how much the districts’ students are advancing. 

For example, consider a third-grader who joins the district reading at a first grade level. By fourth grade, the student is reading at a third grade level. 

That would mean the district was very successful with that student, packing two years of learning into one. But because the student is still reading below grade level, the result won’t inflate the district’s other measures of academic achievement.

Data presented by DESE showed KCPS was meeting or exceeding expectations for student growth from 2017 through 2021, excluding 2020 when tests were canceled. 

A 2019 report showed that the district exceeded state expectations in English and math growth for demographics who have historically struggled, including students who are Black, Hispanic, receive free and reduced-price lunch, have disabilities or are learning English.

That success affects a lot of students because 54% of KCPS students are Black; 28% Hispanic; and about 28% are considered English language learners, according to the district. In addition, all students receive free or reduced-price lunch. 

The district also touted its improvements in Advanced Placement course enrollment and test scores and its career development offerings. 

And both the district and DESE agree KCPS has improved graduation rates — from 68.7% in 2016 to 77.8% in 2021, according to a KCPS news release — is in good shape financially, has a solid strategic plan and is a leader in its region.

But they also agree the district’s raw achievement levels still need to improve. 

New Missouri education board member Kerry Casey asked how many students were still failing and wanted more clarity on how far the district was from meeting state standards.

“I can appreciate growth, definitely we want to grow,” Casey said. “What I heard throughout the presentation, though, was all about improvement. And I didn’t hear anything about achievement.”  

What will KCPS’ accreditation mean for children, families and teachers?

KCPS students and families may not see many changes as a direct result of full accreditation. 

State law allows students in an unaccredited school district to transfer to a neighboring district, with tuition paid by their home district. But since provisional accreditation is considered a form of accreditation, that hasn’t been applicable at KCPS since 2014. 

Being provisionally accredited did not have a large impact on the day-to-day operations of classrooms, and DESE doesn’t know of any students being denied college admission or scholarship eligibility because their district isn’t fully accredited.

The new status won’t change the district’s efforts to continue improving, but it may shift perceptions of KCPS and its students.

Over decades of difficulties and negative press, “people really formed this opinion of the school district through a purely deficit lens,” Bedell said. 

Jason Roberts, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers and School-Related Personnel, said accreditation was also an exciting accomplishment for teachers. 

“They’re the ones in the classroom. They’re the ones that have wiped away the tears, that have looked at the data, that have taught the students, worked with parents. This is a big deal for our teachers … But I also believe we cannot let down our guard. We have to continue doing what we’re doing.”

What will accreditation mean for the district’s future?

Bedell hopes full accreditation will help the district get support as it sets ambitious goals for its long-term plan.

Bedell said the hope is for Blueprint 2030, the district’s long-term planning initiative, “to really redesign and change what teaching and learning looks like, what the calendar looks like, what the school day looks like.”

“I believe accreditation now gives us a little bit more leverage to be able to execute these things,” he said. “And I also think that it gives us a level of trust with this community that we do have the ability to move the district forward.”

Even before KCPS’ accreditation status changed, spokesperson Elle Moxley said during a school visit in October that the district was beginning to broaden its focus beyond academics. 

“Now we also need to bring in that extracurricular piece and the activities piece and the enrichment piece — the student experience,” she said. 

Regaining accreditation could also help KCPS recruit families who would otherwise choose charter schools or move to suburban districts. 

KCPS has poured resources into marketing and been open about its need to increase and maintain an enrollment edge over charter schools. 

Kansas City charter school K-12 enrollment surpassed KCPS enrollment by a narrow margin this school year, the first time that has happened. KCPS still enrolls more students if pre-kindergarten is included in the count.

Officials want to attract students by taking full advantage of the district’s size, which could allow it to offer activities that work best with more students. That may require it to close aging and under-enrolled schools, which could also free up funds for other projects. 

The district has made a push for parents, staff, students and other community members to give input on their priorities and what money-saving changes they might be willing to accept in exchange. 

Bedell was clear that continued change and improvement are necessary for the district’s future.

“We can’t stay accredited on the path that we’re on right now,” he said. “We’re antiquated, we’re outdated, we’re too rigid. And if COVID didn’t teach us anything, here’s what it did teach us: That we’re not agile enough to really, truly prepare these kids for the future that they deserve. That means we have to dismantle this system, we have to redesign it.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.