It seems like every time there’s been a glimmer of hope for the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools, those hopes are dashed. In August, KCPS made a remarkable improvement in its report card from the state, meeting the numerical cutoff for provisional accreditation. But in September, Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro recommended that the district stay unaccredited until it shows it can sustain these improvements.
At James Elementary School, in Kansas City's historic Northeast neighborhood, there has been substantial improvement in student test scores and the school recently landed on Missouri’s list of most-improved low-income schools. The woman behind the transformation is Jo Nemeth, who is in her third year at James.
"We’ve been a school that had our share of struggles. A few years ago our district closed down half the schools in the school district. So when we all came together, we introduced ourselves and realized we came from seven different schools," she says. "We decided that we had an opportunity to come together, to work hard, and the hard work has paid off."
On the most recent state tests, James students went from 16 to 30 percent on grade level for reading, and from 29 to 53 percent in math. Although the scores might sound like nothing to write home about, it was a significant improvement for a school where most students are low-income and English language learners.
"We celebrated for one evening. I took everybody to dinner, but the next day it was back to hard work, rigor, collaboration," says Nemeth.
Dr. Jo (as she is called) has an office with plum-colored walls, a bright yellow couch and a little table just big enough for a desktop computer. I keep wondering – where’s her big principal’s desk?
Nemeth says she just doesn’t spend a lot of time there.
"I like to be where the students are," she says. "I like to be out helping."
In a kindergarten class, students are just learning how to use their new laptop computers—very child in the school has been assigned one. Dr. Jo says the technology helps teachers, like kindergarten teacher Mrs. Jenkins, individualize learning for each child.
"Digital tools really accompany learning," says Nemeth.
Beyond technology, Dr. Jo attributes the school’s success to a hard-working staff, an intense focus on literacy skills and introducing kids to the idea of college early on. She doesn’t mention discipline until I bring it up.
"You don’t have to worry about the code of conduct so much if you have rigorous teaching. If students are really engaged they don’t have a lot of other time to be exploring other things they shouldn’t be doing," she says. "And I think the secret to the success at James — from the time they come in, to the time they go home, they are busy, busy, busy."
In Mrs. Jaminez’s third grade class, kids read in pairs on a rug. Others revise personal narratives.
"What are you writing about today?" Nemeth asks them.
The little girl says she wrote a story about how she made pies and sold them at her church to earn enough money to buy a tablet. Dr. Jo is encouraging, but has some advice.
"I want you to look at this one more time because your paragraphs – you’re forgetting to indent," she says gently.
Parents, teachers . . . even kids are frustrated with the constant change in the Kansas City school district – new superintendents, new reading programs, school configurations, but Principal Jo Nemeth is encouraged about the changes at the school district.
"I’m a person that thrives on change," she says. "Obviously the proof is in the pudding: our test scores have gone up. We’ve gotten more points towards accreditation than we’ve gotten before, and I think that we’re onto a formula for success."