Adult woman and young child reach out to each other to high five or wave
Jennifer Collier, interim superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools, greets a student at Gladstone Elementary on the first day of school, Aug. 22. Collier has made equity issues one of her central priorities. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

As school districts spoke out on racial justice following George Floyd’s murder two years ago, a collection of local equity advocates saw an opportunity to ask for concrete changes. 

The groups — which included Showing Up for Racial Justice Kansas City’s Education Core, JUST Systems, Elements of Education KC, Kansas City Black Mental Health Initiative, Latinx Education Collaborative, Brothers Liberating Our Communities, SURJ-KC Families and Racial Equity EdConnect — issued a list of 12 equity demands for districts

The demands include calls for districts to train teachers on anti-racism, examining their own racial identity and culturally responsive teaching; implement restorative practices; remove police and metal detectors; make libraries more diverse and hire at least 30% staff of color on all levels.

Since then, Showing Up for Racial Justice Kansas City (SURJ KC), a network “organizing white people for racial justice in accountability to People of Color,” has been tracking progress on the demands. Some districts have refused to communicate at all, while others pulled back in recent months and some struggled to implement change in areas such as staffing and policing. 

The results aren’t all negative, though. Advocates say they’ve watched schools make progress in areas such as diversifying reading materials and training teachers. Some, like Brookside Charter School, have embraced the full list. 

Cornell Ellis, CEO and cofounder of Brothers Liberating Our Communities (BLOC), said it’s essential for schools to keep improving because inequity has dire consequences such as high incarceration, gun violence and dropout rates. 

“When you get poor school environments, you get poor school outcomes, and poor school outcomes lead to poor community environments,” Ellis said. “And I don’t mean poor just like moneywise, I mean poor as in not providing outcomes for people.”

Data helps with racial equity accountability

The list of 12 demands came out of a collaboration between SURJ KC and Cecilia Belser-Patton, one of the group’s “relationships and accountability partners of color,” Michael Rebne, an organizer with SURJ KC Ed Core, told The Kansas City Beacon. Rebne teaches at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas. Belser-Patton could not be reached for comment. 

SURJ KC provides details on how schools are evaluated, using information submitted by schools or gathered through local networks.

SURJ KC then compiles the results in a color-coded rubric. Fully meeting the goal earns a gold ranking, while partial achievement can earn silver or bronze. Green indicates a district hasn’t reached those levels but is making progress, while red indicates it isn’t meeting the goals. 

Children sit in a Brookside Charter School classroom Aug. 22. The school has adopted a list of 12 racial equity demands put out by local advocates. (Chase Castor/The Beacon) 

Of the 24 schools tracked across the Kansas City metro, 14 are color-coded gray because they did not give any responses. Only five gave updated data in 2022. The list doesn’t include all of Kansas City’s charter schools. 

“If there has been (action), they’ve been reluctant or unwilling to kind of submit themselves to the accountability to share them with us so that we can support them in that work …  and continue to track their progress,” Rebne said. “That’s kind of where we see the value of this work, is making sure that the districts are really held accountable for that equity.”

But there are signs that some districts are making progress. 

Voters in the Park Hill School District recently elected Shereka Barnes and Daryl Terwilleger to the school board. Both emphasized diversity and belonging in their campaigns.

In Kansas City Public Schools, interim superintendent Jennifer Collier — who is applying for the permanent role and has been with the district for 22 years — emphasizes a commitment to racial equity including priorities that overlap with the 12 demands. 

In an interview with The Beacon earlier this month, she named the expansion of Advanced Placement courses to all schools and the addition of support staff to schools with greatest need as a sign of progress. 

During a school board meeting Aug. 24, Collier’s team presented culturally responsive teaching and practices, social-emotional learning — including use of restorative justice — and parent and family engagement as among the district’s top five priorities. 

KCPS also plans a curriculum audit and districtwide book study focused on culturally responsive teaching, Collier said. 

Emily Twyman-Brown, elementary principal at Brookside Charter School, said the school’s board officially adopted the list of 12 demands and is working on tailoring them to the school. 

12 Equity Demands

  1. Require staff to participate in 16 hours per year of anti-racist, anti-bias professional development led by professional consultants for the next five years.
  2. Ask (mostly white) staff members to examine their own racial identity and have conversations about racism in the classroom.  
  3. Include culturally responsive and congruent teaching as part of teacher training and evaluation.
  4. Reduce disparities in suspensions by replacing traditional “exclusionary” discipline with restorative practices.
  5. Remove police and metal detectors from schools, and examine data on law enforcement referrals and race.
  6. Include diverse, representative and inclusive texts in curriculum, libraries and classrooms. 
  7. Recruit, hire and retain staff of color, with the goal of 30% representation at all levels.
  8. Ensure inclusion in Advanced Placement, honors, gifted and special education programs is equitable. 
  9. Offer ethnic studies and history courses at the high school level.
  10. Encourage students and parents of color to be leaders. 
  11. Prioritize these action steps in budgets and leadership positions. 
  12. Share annual data related to the action steps, disaggregated by race. 

Source: Paraphrased from Letter to KC-Area District Leadership in Response to Equity Statements

For example, the pre-K-8 school already doesn’t have police and metal detectors, so the board made a commitment not to add them. Some of the demands relate to courses that should be offered at the high school level, such as ethnic studies, so the school is working on adding content on civic education and identity geared toward younger students. 

The school has met SURJ KC’s gold standard on half of the demands and is marked as silver, bronze or green on all of the other demands relevant to its grade levels. 

Districts where SURJ KC Ed Core leadership team members live or work — like Shawnee Mission and Kansas City, Kansas — have particularly active chapters. 

Crystal Yakel-Kuntz, a teacher at J.C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kansas, and member of the SURJ KC education leadership team, said district leadership has been receptive to proposals for improving equity. 

A major “win” in recent years is the emphasis on expanding the use of restorative justice for discipline, which has shown some initial success

In Shawnee Mission, parents Quinn White and Jill Jolicoeur noted an emphasis on teacher training related to diversity, equity and inclusion during the past few years.

Rebne said schools often move more quickly on demands that feel “less personal,” such as purchasing more diverse materials for libraries. Several other sources also named that as an area where they saw more rapid progress. 

Reluctance to change discipline policies, police presence 

But other demands encounter more resistance. Several people told The Beacon policing and staffing had been a particular sticking point. 

Of the districts and schools included on the SURJ KC rubric, only Kansas City Public Schools and two charter schools are rated gold for “recruit, hire and retain BIPOC staff.” That means they hit the 30% representation standard with a plan to maintain it and a goal to improve by 5% each year.

Although Brookside Charter met the standard, Twyman-Brown said it’s important to continue increasing the number because some standards say teacher demographics should match those of students. The vast majority of Brookside’s students are children of color.  

Emily Twyman-Brown, elementary principal of Brookside Charter School, is pictured Aug. 22. The school’s board adopted a list of 12 racial equity demands and is adapting them to a pre-K-12 context. (Chase Castor/The Beacon) 

As districts work to hire more diverse staff, they face statewide and nationwide shortages of teachers of color

Ellis, who works to increase representation of Black male educators, said that schools are doing a “decent” job of recruiting teachers of color, but that there needs to be more encouragement for people of color to enter the teaching profession. 

“The United States has to get on the forefront of creating a culture that teachers are appreciated, respected and revered for the work that they do and the role that they play in the communities,” he said. 

Ellis said incorporating equity into the budget, shifting discipline policies and having police in buildings are also typically difficult conversations in schools. 

Police shouldn’t be in schools, Ellis said, but many districts are reluctant to change after  high-profile violent incidents.  

“I think it requires us to take a step back and think more about the causes of school violence as opposed to being reactionary towards it with more violence,” Ellis said, adding that in the Uvalde, Texas, shooting, police were present but didn’t act. 

An earlier Beacon analysis using federal data compiled by the Center for Public Integrity found that Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately referred to the police, including in many Kansas City-area school districts. 

Police presence has become a particular focus of the SURJ KC group in the Shawnee Mission School District, which had one of the highest numbers of police referrals in the area during the 2017-18 school year, according to the federal data, and referred Black students to the police at a rate more than 50% higher than the district average.

Earlier this year, the district reported on police presence, including disparities but also positive portrayals of officers’ roles in schools. 

“They just kind of breezed by the data that showed that kids of color were being arrested at far greater rates than white children,” said White, the Shawnee Mission parent who works with SURJ KC and formerly taught in Blue Valley. 

Although the SURJ KC demand calls for the total removal of police and metal detectors from schools, the local group has taken a more restrained approach. 

“We stopped short of saying we need to get rid of SROs (school resource officers) because we don’t think that our community’s there yet,” White said. “We thought we’d be dismissed … and to be honest, in our small group, we had some concern.”

Instead, the group is pushing the district to look more closely at the data, improve transparency, listen to a broader range of perspectives and think more critically about the role police play in schools.

Jolicoeur, the Shawnee Mission parent and member of the Shawnee Mission Equity Coalition, said she wants to hear more thoughts on policing from a large sample of students and teachers. 

“Maybe it makes them feel safe. I will leave space for that,” she said. “But if it doesn’t, I think it just begs the question of maybe we should explore alternative models.”

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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.