Principal Anthony Madry stands in a noisy hallway at Central Academy of Excellence, greeting students.
“Good morning, good morning, good morning,” Madry says, fist bumping students as they pass. “Hey are we good?”
The student nods. “Yeah.”
Madry points to a young woman. “That’s Emily. Emily’s one of the best kids I have in this school. She’s one of my favorites. Don’t blush, please don’t blush.
“You try to learn most of the kids’ names, the reason being that’s the most honorable thing you can do,” Madry says.
‘It was a prison’
Kansas City Public Schools Supt. Mark Bedell promised to bring new leadership to the provisionally accredited district. He did that by hiring six new principals, including Madry.
Madry used to teach with Bedell in Houston. Last spring, he heard a rumor that Bedell was interviewing in Nashville.
“I said, ‘Hey man, you getting ready to be the superintendent in Nashville?’” says Madry. “‘Nah, I’m actually interviewing with Kansas City. ... You comin’ on board with me?’ I said, ‘Man, if you were talking about Nashville, I was rollin’ with you, but Kansas City, I don’t know.’”
The way Bedell remembers the conversation, “What I shared with him was I would love to come and work with us in KCPS, but you need to understand I don't give out jobs.”
Madry says he interviewed with everyone but Bedell. Eventually he agreed to come to Kansas City. But privately, Madry had his doubts.
“I walked up to Central, and I felt like it was a prison. A penitentiary. Because it was just so volatile. Kids were being yelled at, parents were yelling at kids, and I didn’t like it.”
Madry went into his office and prayed.
‘Nobody else is going to say it’
Bedell had warned Madry the vacancies he had to fill were in some pretty tough schools. Of the six principals Bedell hired, Madry was the only one he’d worked with before.
“I pride myself on making the right picks for principalships,” Bedell says. “You don't want to be in a situation where you're having to terminate people.”
Bedell acknowledges that one of those picks, the principal at Southeast High School, ended up resigning.
At a town hall last month, East High School senior Kylee McCollum complained about the new principal at her school.
“I’ve been going to East since I was in seventh grade,” McCollum said. “We have a principal that just acts like he doesn’t care.”
McCollum explained she’s had to miss a lot of school because she has a child. She said some of her peers stopped coming altogether after their principal told them they weren’t going to graduate. She apologized to Bedell.
“I know nobody else – well, nobody else is going to say it.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Bedell wants this type of feedback.
“When you tell me, ‘Well, my principal has created this culture where kids feel like they can't do A, B, C or D,’ then I've already had the conversations,” Bedell says. “I got an email yesterday from the principal saying, ‘Thank you for your feedback, I will definitely look at how I make changes with relationship-building.'”
Overall, though, Bedell is satisfied with the new hires.
“That young man over at Banneker, the work is speaking for itself right now. The amount of people who are now volunteering and mentoring and he’s from that community. For him, it's personal.”
He’s talking about Harrison Neal.
“I grew up maybe 15, 20 blocks from this elementary school. I’m a Lincoln College Prep graduate. I want to show students in the inner city what they can become if they never settle,” Neal says.
Neal almost didn’t graduate. He had behavior issues and kept getting suspended. He ultimately ended up in front of then-Supt. Bernard Taylor for a discipline hearing but didn’t get expelled.
“I had a Kansas City Public Schools mentor who helped me turn my life around and stop having behavior challenges and get on track my senior year of high school. It means more to give back to a city and a neighborhood you grew up in,” Neal says.
He enrolled his own son at Banneker.
Bedell’s children also attend KCPS schools, “which is not common,” Neal says. “I believe in the school district. I believe in a building I work in, my son can receive a high quality education.”
‘This is a great place to be’
Back at Central Academy of Excellence, Principal Madry looks out on the cafeteria from the floor-to-ceiling windows that make up the back wall of his office.
What a difference a year makes.
“When it’s a passing period come by, you’ll see kids come by this window and they’re gonna knock on the window. It’s just – this is a great place to be. I love being here at Central,” Madry says.
Madry says he isn’t worried Bedell will leave the district before he has a chance to turn the school around.
“If this is a short tenure here in Kansas City, I’d be disappointed, but I’m going to roll with the punches and keep moving forward, just as I’m teaching these students.”
It would seem like Madry’s making a difference. During the 2015-16 school year, Central students racked up 1,400 disciplinary violations.
This year, there have been 300.
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.