'You Have To Have A Heart': Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell

Aug 27, 2016

For Mark Bedell, school was a safe haven.

“It gave me an opportunity to be a kid because I had to be an adult a lot sooner than most kids should have to be an adult,” he told guest host Brian Ellison on Central Standard.

Last month, Bedell started as superintendent of the Kansas City Public Schools. While his job involves dealing with budgets and contracts, navigating his way through local and state politics and more, he also hopes to inspire people with his personal story.

Bedell grew up in Rochester, New York, the eldest of eight kids and the only one to make it past the ninth grade. His mother had him at age 16 and he never met his father.

“It was a very tough situation growing up,” he said.

He was in and out of different homes and lived with his grandmother. When he was in second grade, he walked out of school. He might have been acting up or not paying attention, he said, when a teacher told him that he was dumb and ugly and that he would never amount to anything.

“It had nothing to do with academic ability,” he said. “It had more to do with probably the trauma I experienced growing up and seeing abuse and neglect.”

He went back to school when a security guard caught him walking around and asked him why he wasn’t in school. Bedell believes the guard reported him to Child Protective Services. His aunt picked him up, and he and one of his brothers lived with her for about seven years.

He went back to living with him mom when he was 15. During that time, he got a job as a custodian at a medical center. When he brought home his first check of $63 and some change, his mom told him that she had to pay rent. He didn’t want to give her the money because he knew that it would fund her drug abuse.

Instead, he went to the corner store to buy some lunch meat, cheese and bread for them to eat. When he came back, she was throwing all of his stuff out of their place. Bedell slept in an abandoned car for a couple of nights, then moved around constantly, staying with friends and relatives.

He also had some good people come into his life, he said. He’s still in touch with his best friend’s parents, whom his kids call “Grandpa and Grandma White.” When he worked at Wegmans, a grocery store, a co-worker taught him to drive.

School also saved him, he said.

He always enjoyed going to school — he prided himself on perfect attendance. He also loved playing basketball and running track.

“It was those types of things that kept me in school,” he said.

But there was also another reason.

He was living with his grandmother again. She was tired from raising kids of her own and she couldn’t keep up with him, he said.

“Whether I wanted to go to school or not, I went, hoping that there was going to be somebody there who could tell me that I could do more and that there was hope,” he said. “And honestly, that’s the case with a lot of our kids right now; a lot of our kids don’t have to come to school if they don’t want to.”

One day, someone told him that he could do more.

When Bedell was a sophomore, his homeroom teacher pulled him aside and told him that he had a lot of pain, but that he also had a gift under all that pain. The teacher urged him to talk to someone or else he would never reach his full academic potential.

Bedell said he was kind of upset at first.

“’You don’t know me … you’re telling me I have a problem,’” he recalls thinking at the time. “But he knew. He knew. He knew.”

He ended up confiding in that teacher about his home life. The homeroom teacher and another teacher took Bedell under their wings.

“They made me believe that I can do more than I ever thought I could do. I made the honor roll and I didn’t look back from there,” he said.

They also inspired him to go into education, telling him that he’d be a great teacher. At the time, he wanted to play in the NBA.

He enrolled at Fisk University, where he majored in history and got a minor in education. While at Fisk, he joined a fraternity and became a liaison between the fraternity for mentoring and working with other agencies to support the Nashville public school system.

That was when he began to understand why he went through all that he had to go through, he said.

“When you can stand up in front of your teaching staff as a principal and let them know, ‘this is my story, this is why I’m passionate about the work that we have to do,’ you don’t have to have lived through a story like mine,” he said.

“But you have to have a heart. Your heart has to be nothing but a heart of gold for children.”

His background has helped him go into some tough schools, he said, and to really help turn them around by focusing on the mindset of the adults within those schools.

As he starts his first year in KC, he’s getting an understanding of what systems he needs to put in place, he said, along with an understanding of what he calls the “political arena.”

For Bedell, it always goes back to his second grade teacher telling him he was dumb and ugly — and not having anyone there to fight for him.

And while he could talk about his accomplishments, he says that folks don’t care about that.

“What they care about is: how can you inspire? How can you help us? How can you bring a practical approach to schooling that will work for our kids?”

He lives with his wife and three kids in Midtown. Their two older kids go to Lincoln Prep, and the youngest attends Border Star.

It was important for Bedell and his wife to send their kids there.

“It allows for parents to see that we’re committed to being here,” he said. “And it’s hard for me to stand in front of people and say, ‘trust your kids with KCPS’ if I’m not willing to trust my own kids with KCPS."

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.