People sit in rows at tables
Parents, administrators and a board member attend a meeting of Kansas City Public Schools' District Advisory Committee on Sept. 21 at the Board of Education building. The DAC helps parents share concerns and ideas with the district. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

On a recent evening, parents of Kansas City Public Schools students gathered in the Board of Education building, where they shared concerns about confusing dress codes, unreliable transportation and dangerous streets. 

They were representing schools throughout the district at a meeting of the KCPS District Advisory Committee (DAC), a parents’ group that the district wants to invigorate.

In recent years, the advisory council has struggled to encourage parent participation. Some schools don’t even have a parent group that sends a representative to the committee. 

That’s supposed to change this year as KCPS follows through on plans to launch a parent leadership organization at each school, even if some are no bigger than two participants. 

“I think the work of the DAC previously, when it was at its strongest with membership and leadership, they had a strong voice and direction for the school district,” said Angie Lile, chair of the DAC executive board. Lile is a parent of two seniors at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy. 

“We’d like to see the DAC be a strong advocate for the school district as well as for the parents, and to have that level of involvement that we used to have,” she said.

Searching for more participation in KCPS parent groups

According to a Sept. 1 list from the district, 19 schools have a parent leader organization. Sixteen still need one. 

Most existing groups are school advisory committees, four are PTAs and three go by different names. 

Lile said there’s room for variation, but she’d like a more coordinated structure so parents know how to start a group and are able to raise funds. 

“We’ll hear from Lincoln Prep parents, we’ll hear from Paseo (Academy of Fine and Performing Arts) parents a lot,” Lile said. “Some of the other schools we’re not hearing from, and I know there’s gotta be something that they need help with.”

Recruitment for school-level groups accelerated after district leaders realized KCPS policies require a parent organization at each school. 

Using federal COVID relief funds, the district hired a family liaison for each school. Among other duties, liaisons are responsible for recruiting at least two members of a parent organization this year, including one who can serve as the DAC delegate.

Courtney Adams, KCPS family and community engagement coordinator, said the district is working to ensure parent groups “look like (the) school community” in terms of ethnicity, language, culture, socioeconomic status and a connection with special education. 

Adams said research has shown positive results “when schools and families and communities truly partner and effectively partner in an intentional way tied to learning outcomes and development outcomes.” Those returns include higher attendance and graduation rates, more students entering college or making a confident career choice, fewer discipline issues and higher teacher satisfaction. 

“Things just work better,” Adams said.

Dion Lewis, DAC vice chair and a Lincoln parent, is an example of how parents with different areas of expertise can influence the district.  

He has experience working with athletics and has shared ideas about topics such as managing equipment inventory or improving coaching. He also has a military background and works in Kansas City’s housing department. 

“I’m always for getting as many people involved with as many backgrounds as possible,” Lewis said. “Because everybody has either a skill set, connections or networking that they bring to the table, and if we can get more and more parents involved in that way its only better for the kids and the educational experience.” 

The DAC is also trying to improve attendance at its own meetings. 

“In the few in-person meetings that we had last year, we had maybe two parents (outside of the executive board) that showed up in person,” Lile said. 

Angie Lile, right, confers with a District Advisory Committee delegate during a break in the DAC meeting Sept. 21 at the Board of Education building in Kansas City. Lile is the chair of the DAC’s executive team. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

“Our board was kind of feeling alienated from the rest of the DAC delegates, in the sense that we can’t see them, we can’t talk with them. They can see us on the screen but we don’t know if they need anything.”

At the September meeting, more than 60 people attended in person including DAC executive team members, seven DAC delegates and 12 parents who were not part of DAC. Another 27 joined online, including an executive team member, two delegates and six other parents.

Lile said she’s worried past meetings contained “fluff” that doesn’t interest everyone. She wants to include relevant topics like what to do when you don’t know where to turn.

“When I’m at the board meetings and I hear parents complaining, half the time it’s because they don’t know who to complain to, they have no idea what to do when they’re faced with their situation,” she said. “For those few people that have taken the time and energy to come down and actually speak to the board, there’s probably at least 20 more people.” 

How the DAC works 

The DAC is made up of delegates from each school, chosen by parent organizations. 

It includes an executive team and committees, many of which correlate with school board committees. 

Delegates attend meetings every two months during the school year and can vote on proposals. 

The meetings are open to the public — including parents who aren’t their schools’ delegates — and accessible in-person and online. 

During a DAC meeting, district staff present on topics that are important to parents. DAC delegates bring that information back to other parents at their schools. 

During the September meeting, interim Superintendent Jennifer Collier spoke about the district’s top five priorities — including family and community engagement. Staffers presented information about athletics and signature school admissions. School board member Jennifer Wolfsie spoke about the superintendent search. 

For the last 40 minutes of the meeting, DAC members took the lead and parents raised questions about problems they’re seeing in their schools. 

Transportation and safety issues — such as the need for speed bumps near schools, dangers in lines for picking up students and what to do if a bus doesn’t arrive — rose to the forefront, prompting DAC to form a committee on the topic. 

“What we want to do is to really get that line of communication open between all of you who are representing the schools,” Lile said during the meeting. 

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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.