Published October 4th, 2017 at 12:00 PM
As its name suggests, University Academy was created to prepare students for college.
By most measures, the charter school in Kansas City is a tremendous success. In 2016, University Academy received a 100 percent score on the state’s Annual Performance Report. All the graduating seniors received offers to attend a four-year college.
The results look even more remarkable when set against the school’s demographics. The ratio of students who receive free and reduced-price lunches exceeds the state average. Almost all are African-American.
While routinely recognized as one of the best public high schools in America, University Academy has drifted in some ways from its original mission.
The University Academy campus at 6801 Holmes Road has a capacity of 1,000 students. Most of the seats are taken by students who attend the K-5 “lower school,” which did not exist when University Academy opened in 2000.
In a census taken a year ago, kindergartners and first-graders outnumbered the students in the entire four-year “upper school.” In other words, there were more students learning to read and count by two than there were preparing for college.
University Academy admits around 130 kindergartners each year. The cohort dwindles over time. The school expects 44 seniors to graduate in the spring.
Students depart when their families move out of the Kansas City school district. Others choose schools that have stronger sports teams or emphasize the performing arts. Some can’t handle University Academy’s rigor.
Missouri first authorized charter schools in 1998, and since then, charters have steadily gained students within the Kansas City school district, even as the total public school enrollment within the district has declined.
(Wes Mikel | KCPT)
“We would love it if every student who is a ninth-grader finished as a 12th- grader,” Superintendent Tony Kline says. “That’d be awesome if they did. But we know that they’re not.”
Kline pegs the school’s annual attrition rate at 7 percent. He arrived at the figure by looking back at a class of 140 kindergartners that just entered the sixth grade: About 90 remain.
A 7 percent exit rate is in line with other Missouri charter schools. Attrition is only part of the story, however. There’s also the question of how schools choose to fill — or not fill — open seats.
The funnel shape of University Academy’s enrollment is partly by design. The school replaces only a portion of the students who leave. No one is admitted after the ninth grade.
Kline says the school doesn’t accept transfers after the ninth grade because of its “specific and stringent” graduation requirements. “If you’re not coming from a high school that started you off on that same path, it would be very difficult to graduate from here,” he says.
In addition to protecting students from failure, University Academy’s backfilling policy improves its outcomes.
Studies show that students who leave schools — charter or traditional — tend to be lower performing. By limiting their intake of transfers, schools may increase the average achievement of their enrolled students.
Even charter school advocates recognize the advantage.
Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that promotes school choice, addressed backfilling in a 2015 blog post. “Strugglers leave, high performers stay, and the ratio of proficient students rises, creating an illusion of excellence that is not fully deserved,” he wrote.
Charter Schools Defined
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate with more flexibility than traditional public schools. In Missouri, they are secular and may not discriminate.
If the applications exceed capacity, schools conduct a lottery. Schools may give preference to students who reside in a geographical area as long as the boundaries do not promote racial and socioeconomic isolation.
The rules are designed to protect taxpayer dollars and promote equal access. Still, educators at traditional public schools complain that charters have unfair advantages.
They note, for instance, that families apply for their children to attend charter schools, a step that favors students with involved parents, who have the time and wherewithal to submit the correct material on deadline. (University Academy’s application window for the 2017-18 school year closed Jan. 31.) Charter schools also give admission preference to siblings of existing students as well as children of staff.
Teachers unions and other critics complain that charter schools run from students who are difficult or expensive to educate.
In July, an NAACP task force published a report on charter schools. The recommendations included prohibitions on “counseling out, pushing out or expelling out students whom they perceive as academically or behaviorally struggling, or whose parents cannot maintain participation requirements or monetary fees.”
The Missouri state test, known as the Missouri Assessment Program, measures students’ subject matter expertise through four levels: “below basic,” “basic,” “proficient” and “advanced.” The chart below indicates the performance of students in the two top levels for schools throughout the Kansas City school district
A 2013 study did not find evidence supporting the claim that charter schools weed out struggling students. The study by researchers at Vanderbilt University and Indiana University looked at an unidentified school district with a large number of charter schools.
The researchers found that students who left charters were lower achieving than the students who stayed. But low achievers transferred out of traditional public schools at a similar rate.
Educators at traditional and charter schools agree that student mobility is a challenge. Mark Bedell, the Kansas City Public Schools superintendent, says students who have attended district schools for three years or more have “far superior” test scores than more transient students.
“Mobility is a huge issue, and a lot has to do with family situations,” says Doug Thaman, the executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
Still, the cycle of enrollment and withdrawal — known as churn — lands harder on traditional schools, because they’re open to all comers.
Bedell says the district enrolled a 17-year-old student this year who had amassed only four and a half credits at the charter school she attended. “The charter school told her, ‘We can’t do anything for you,’” he says. “And we have to accept this student.”
At a charter school, the entrance doors are more stubborn. Bedell doubts that many charters would enroll a student who has been expelled from Central High School and reassigned to the district’s alternative high school.
“Nine out of 10 times, I don’t think a charter school is going to accept that student,” he says. “They are going to want to know, ‘Why are you leaving?’”
The Ewing Marion Kauffman School opened in 2011 with 103 students in its first fifth-grade class. The charter school has added a grade level each year as the founding class, now juniors, advanced.
The school, located at 6401 Paseo Boulevard, gets results. The founding class substantially outperformed the state average on the eighth-grade proficiency test. Like University Academy, the school got a perfect score on the Annual Performance Report in 2016.
Initially, the Kauffman School did not backfill. As a result, the founding class of students, while high-achieving, has shrunk by nearly 60 percent, according to the most recent census.
Hannah Loftus, the chief executive of the Kauffman School, says the school’s enrollment practices “evolved.” The school began backfilling in 2014 and now enrolls students in grades 5-8 throughout the school year. Loftus says 85 students were backfilled in 2016-17, representing more than 10 percent of the school’s population.
“The Kauffman School values serving and retaining as many students as possible and has worked hard to strengthen and improve student retention rate each year we have been open,” she says.
But the Kauffman School only backfills to a point. The high school does not accept students who did not attend the middle school.
Educators at traditional public schools in Missouri identify backfilling policies as an advantage for high-performing charter schools. They also complain that charters with below-average test scores continue to operate and even expand.
The chart below shows attrition rates for all public elementary schools within the Kansas City Public Schools boundaries. Each data point reflects the change in enrollment for a particular class as it moved from kindergarten into fifth grade. The data could reflect changes in headcount unrelated to comings and goings, such as the opening or closing of a school.
Allan Markley, the superintendent of Raytown schools and the 2017-18 president of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, says it’s good for parents to have choice. “But should it be done in a way to where the playing field is not the same? I would say no. Not as a superintendent and not as a taxpayer,” he says.
In some instances, it’s impractical for a charter school to backfill students.
Académie Lafayette, a language immersion charter school in Kansas City, has high test scores and a wait list to match. Because classes are taught in French, the school does not admit students who are not fluent by the second grade. (Kansas City Public Schools’ Foreign Language Academy also expects language proficiency from students admitted after the first grade.)
Thaman, the Missouri Charter Public School Association executive, rejects the suggestion that charter schools are overly restrictive in accepting new arrivals. He says 50 of 61 charters in Missouri enroll students throughout the entire school year.
As for the rest, Thaman says the ability to make some enrollment decisions is one of the autonomies that give charter schools their purpose. Schools, he says, may want to manage the influx of new students in an effort to build a culture and maintain the quality of the instructional environment.
“The point of a charter school is to do something different to better serve the students that they have in their school,” he says.
University Academy opened with support from some of Kansas City’s most philanthropic families. The founders included Barnett and Shirley Helzberg. The president of the board was Thomas Bloch, a former chief executive of H&R Block, who also taught at the school.
The initial plan for University Academy was to create a charter high school. The founders chose instead to offer grades 7-9 and add higher grades as the original class of freshmen matured.
Attrition posed an early challenge. In 2005, The Kansas City Star reported that only six students in a freshman class of 73 had graduated from University Academy.
School officials decided that the most effective way to retain students was to capture them at a younger age. “Our hypothesis was that the earlier the kids started with us, the better chance there was that they would be prepared to rise to and succeed in the next grade,” Bloch wrote in his 2008 book, “Stand for the Best,” which described his transition from executive to educator.
University Academy opened the elementary school in 2005. The hypothesis was largely proved. Kline, the current superintendent, says the exit rate for the high school was less than 10 percent last year. At least a third of the students became ineligible to attend when their families moved out of the district, he says.
In the past, University Academy has not admitted new students past the eighth grade. But in 2016, the school enrolled 30 new students into the ninth grade.
Kline says he asked the University Academy board to increase the size of the freshman class in an effort to enhance the instruction. More students will allow the school to offer more electives, like accounting and coding. Kline says some graduates have felt a disadvantage when they reached college and took classes with students who had more options in high school.
“Why we do everything here is a backwards design from college graduation,” Kline says. “I’m not concerned about getting students who are not college-ready across an artificial finish line here. I’m only concerned about making sure that everybody who graduates from here is college-ready and will likely be successful in college.”
In addition to beefing up course offerings, University Academy has worked to improve the experience for students who play sports and participate in other extracurricular activities. The school recently tore up the grass field in its football stadium and replaced it with a synthetic surface.
The new turf has strategic value. The school’s attrition rate rises between the eighth and ninth grade. Kline thinks it’s related to the perception that University Academy is not serious about varsity sports. “We put a lot of kids in college sports,” Kline says, “but we’ve never won a state championship as a team in anything.”
In online surveys, graduates give high marks to the the school’s academics. Clubs and activities get a grade of C.
“I get where those kids are coming from,” Kline says. “They want a traditional American high school experience. So we’ve been trying to step up our game in that area.”
Most charter schools begin enrolling students in kindergarten or fifth grade. DeLaSalle Education Center accepts the challenge of serving students at risk of not finishing high school.
The alternative high school at 3737 Troost Ave. is organized like a social service organization. In addition to math and science teachers, DeLaSalle employs mental health and substance abuse counselors.
“There is not a kid in this building that doesn’t have skill deficits or conduct issues,” the school’s executive director, Mark Williamson, says.
It can be a tough crowd. “We don’t have a lot of violence,” Williamson says, “but your head is on a swivel every day.”
Most of the students who find their way to DeLaSalle attended traditional public schools. Some come from charters. Williamson says he communicates with Kline and Ed Mendez, the principal of Alta Vista Charter High School, about students who may benefit from a transfer.
The chart below shows attrition rates for all public high schools within the Kansas City Public Schools boundaries. Each data point reflects the change in enrollment for a particular class as it progressed from freshmen to seniors. The data could reflect changes in headcount unrelated to comings and goings, such as the opening or closing of a school.
Kline says he may steer one or two students to DeLaSalle in a typical year. “[Last] year we didn’t send any,” he says.
University Academy does not require students to maintain a grade-point average. But a student who becomes “credit deficient” might be counseled about his or her options.
Kline is familiar with the criticism that charter schools weed out stragglers in an effort to protect their test scores. He says University Academy makes an effort to support struggling students. Teachers at the high school are required to tutor after school at least one day a week, he says.
But ultimately it’s up to students, Kline says. “They gotta do the work.”
The idea that schools derive some of their success by skimming the best students is not limited to charters, of course.
Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, one of the “signature” schools operated by Kansas City Public Schools, admits only students who have scored at or above the 60th percentile on standardized reading and math tests. Once enrolled, students are expected to maintain a 2.5 GPA and a record of good citizenship.
“The difference between us and Lincoln is you don’t have to take an exam to get in here,” Kline says. “You can start with us in kindergarten and go all the way through. And we don’t kick kids out on the back end if their GPA isn’t at a certain level, which is what some of the magnet schools do.”
Kline says University Academy and Lincoln Prep are schools of choice for students who want to get ready for college. But in its marketing materials,
University Academy draws a contrast with the Kansas City district as a whole.
A graphic on the front page of the University Academy website touts its 100 percent score on the Annual Performance Report. One line below, the district’s 70 percent score is presented.
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This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.