When Kansas City Public Schools hired Mark Bedell to be the district’s next superintendent, one of the board members sent him a book to read, “Complex Justice,” about the Missouri v. Jenkins desegregation case.
In the 1980s, the courts ordered KCPS to pay teachers more and build state-of-the-art schools – at the time, what people thought it would take to bring white, suburban families back to the district.
“The students the school system didn’t have in mind who are now in their 30s and 40s with kids of their own,” Bedell told a packed house at an American Public Square event Tuesday night. “They don’t know how to advocate for their children because no one was there to advocate for them.”
During a conversation called “Live and Learn: Neighborhoods, Education and Transformation,” Bedell talked – as he often does – about his drug-addicted mother and absent father. He was the only one of his seven siblings to make it past ninth grade. Many of his students face the same long odds because of the zip codes where they live.
Mayor Sly James says it sickens him how many children live in the most violent 34 square miles in Kansas City.
“This city was intentionally segregated by J.C. Nichols, and it’s had long-term effects,” James said.
James’ parents moved their family from Wyandotte County to Kansas City, Missouri, so their kids could attend Catholic schools. (James actually once held a press conference outside the home at 44th and Montgall where he grew up to address gun violence.)
In the neighborhood, James says he was taught to distrust white people, especially police. But then he’d go to Bishop Hogan High School, where he was the only black male.
“It taught me so much about dealing with people who weren’t like me,” James said.
James says everyone will have to learn that lesson eventually – especially since the U.S. Census Bureau is projecting that by 2020, half of all the children younger than 18 living in the country will be non-white.
“We can either fear it, or we can accept it and welcome it,” he said.
The first question from the audience went to Kristin Droege with Citizens of the World, a new K-1 charter school in Kansas City: do charters pick off the best students?
Droege called the question “painful” because while she acknowledged that many charters do have admissions criteria, it’s her opinion that as public schools, they should serve all students.
The mayor was more blunt.
“It’s insulting to the public schools to say the charter schools are siphoning off the smartest kids,” James said. “That tells me you haven’t spent any time in the public schools. We need to stop this constant belittling of kids in public schools.”
Shawnee Mission Schools Supt. Jim Hinson also had to refute a stereotype: that his district doesn’t have to deal with poverty or trauma.
Not true, he said.
“Those of us that haven’t experienced what some of our kids have experienced, we don’t listen,” said Hinson. “And if we don’t listen, we have no idea how to respond.”
KCUR’s Brian Ellison moderated the panel discussion.
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.