In 2013, a plan to reshape Kansas City’s schools was essentially run out of town.

Four years later, a group with a similar policy agenda, some of same key funders, and whose leaders get advice from the engineers of the first plan, is making inroads.

What changed? The new group, SchoolSmartKC, is making a concerted effort to get local leaders bought in. Some of them say the group’s head, Awais Sufi, has genuinely listened to their feedback even as he pushes for systemic changes to the way Kansas City’s schools operate.

“Through those dialogues certainly there was a lot of discussion of challenges of the past, frustrations folks had about things that had happened,” Sufi said. “I tried to weave all of that into what I would hope to be a thoughtful approach that could build consensus.”

SchoolSmart has carved out its own niche by backing community schools, while also embracing much of what is known as the “portfolio” model for managing schools. The idea — including common enrollment and accountability systems for district and charter schools — has gained traction in a number of cities nationwide as a growing network of well-heeled groups like SchoolSmart are pushing for districts to adopt this approach.

Kansas City is a case study in how that vision is being advanced city by city — and why some national groups that continue to fund and support the approach have taken a backseat in favor of local actors.

What happened: A dramatic plan, then intense backlash

The 2013 plan was hatched by Ethan Gray, a nonprofit leader who founded an organization called CEE-Trust in Indianapolis. (CEE-Trust became Education Cities soon after.) He had been hired by Missouri’s education department to analyze how state control could turn around Kansas City’s schools. The report was funded by the Kauffman and Hall foundations, influential local philanthropies.

It was an odd arrangement — private donors backing a study that would then be released through a government agency — and it set off alarm bells with a local community group called More2, which filed a public records request for information about Gray’s contract.

“Emails detail a hidden plan for Kansas City Public Schools,” blared a headline in the Kansas City Star in December 2013, based on information from More2. The paper described “a rushed bidding process, now criticized, that ultimately landed Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust a $385,000 contract to develop a long-range overhaul for the district’s failing schools.”

The problem was state contracts have to go through government bidding processes, and the emails suggested that Missouri officials planned all along to use Gray’s group. (The state auditor later criticized the process, saying it “raise[d] questions regarding the independence and objectivity of the report’s findings.”)

No matter, the CEE-Trust plan was released in January 2014. It made the case that Kansas City schools were failing, and that city school districts as a concept were beyond saving. “Simply put, the traditional urban school system does not work. It is not stable. It does not serve the needs of its students. It does not, nor has it ever, produced the kind of results all children, families, and taxpayers deserve,” the report said.

To fix it, the report suggested adopting the portfolio approach for managing schools: schools should be free from most regulations; families should be able to choose among schools, which would in turn be judged by their outcomes; while the district would coordinate crucial functions like enrollment. It also drew substantially from a 2011 blueprint released by the Indianapolis-based Mind Trust, the nonprofit that created CEE-Trust and where Gray had worked.

Cities that have embraced this approach, including Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans, have seen their charter sectors expand. In some cases, district schools have been given charter-like autonomy, too.

The substance of the plan, the group that wrote it, and the process for how it came about all drew substantial negative attention in the city. A coalition, including the city teachers union and NAACP, formed to oppose it, and when the report was presented to the state board, Gray was met with protests. A columnist in the Star wrote in late 2014 that CEE-Trust’s “brand is toxic among some Kansas City education circles.”

Gray tried to counter the opposition by writing an open letter to Kansas City teachers.

“Over the past several months, those who benefit by keeping the current system in place have consistently misrepresented our beliefs and what our plan would mean for you,” he wrote.

Fast forward to August of 2014: Ultimately, the state would not take over Kansas City’s schools, which made enough progress on state tests to avoid losing accreditation. That made Gray’s plan essentially moot.

Gray says his group, now called Education Cities, is not going to going to be a leading voice like that again.

“It’s not a role we anticipate playing frequently in the future,” he said. “We don’t want to be out in front of this conversation — we want to be supporting local leaders who are pursuing this kind of work.”

Gray is now focused on a growing national network of over 30 loosely connected independent nonprofits — some in places like Denver, where the model is already established, and others in cities like Kansas City, where their task is to push for change.

An Education Cities member emerges in Kansas City

Like the CEE-Trust plan was, SchoolSmart KC is funded by the Hall and Kauffman foundations. SchoolSmart favors many of the policies favored by Education Cities, including tough accountability rules and a common enrollment system for district, as well as charter schools, which enroll about 40 percent of public school students in the district. Gray says his organization “helped do some of the original strategic planning” for SchoolSmart, which is now part of the Education Cities network.

But the Kansas City organization has taken a markedly different — and more successful — approach to garnering support. It’s also helped that it isn’t operating in the shadow of a potential state takeover of schools.

SchoolSmart’s head, Awais Sufi, a Topeka native, spent a year doing community outreach before the group launched in April.

“I’ve probably visited 75, 80 percent of the [Kansas City] schools; I have talked to the district leadership, the charter leadership, the associations, parents, families, community members, faith organizations, business leaders,” Sufi said.

That community engagement work helped define the group’s strategy for improving the city’s schools, Sufi said, and he hopes that outreach will help “garner sufficient support from the community so that it can be really driven and sustained over time.”

That strategy is broadly aligned with Education Cities. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’re lockstep with [Education Cities], but through our community-driven process we’ve come to similar frameworks,” Sufi said.

Like a number of Education Cities’ members, SchoolSmart is investing in individual schools and pushing for certain policy changes that the group believes will improve student outcomes. It’s set a 10-year goal of increasing the number of Kansas City schools — many of which currently lag behind on state tests — performing at the Missouri average.

SchoolSmart has awarded $500,000 to a science and tech-focused charter school and another $2 million to help two existing charter schools expand. About $1.5 million each went to a high-performing district and a charter school to help them grow.

Consistent with the portfolio model, Sufi emphasizes accountability for schools and the importance of ensuring “families are well-positioned to navigate the complex systems,” and emphasizing performance over sector. SchoolSmart just announced a $750,000 grant to Show Me KC Schools, a nonprofit that helps families choose schools for their children.

In some ways, though, SchoolSmart seems to be treading its own path. Sufi says he is less focused on giving schools more freedom from district rules, and the group has also given over half a million dollars to fund wrap-around services meant to help poor students at several district and charter schools — not a key tenet of the portfolio model.

So far the approach seems to have paid off: the reception has been much more favorable than that of CEE-Trust.

“I’ve had a good relationship working with Awais,” said Mark Bedell, the superintendent of the Kansas City public schools. Bedell and Kansas City Mayor Sly James were present at the group’s launch event in April

Jennifer Wolfsie, a Kansas City school board member, who as a parent activist was critical of CEE-Trust, said SchoolSmart has acted on outside input.

“I had talked with Awais about that we need that sort of support and I know Dr. Bedell really pushed him on that,” she said, referring to the community schools grants. “What I feel that is an example of is Awais and [SchoolSmart KC] actually listening to the community they’re trying to serve and then responding accordingly — and that’s a positive.”

The school district also appreciates SchoolSmart’s focus on the performance of charter schools, not just their growth.

“SchoolSmart KC … has made it a point to the legislators and the state board of education that charter accountability is a very important component of what they’re talking about,” said Natalie Allen, Kansas City Public Schools’ chief spokesperson. “They’re working to strategically expand schools, [but] they’re doing it only if that school is a high-performing school.”

And unlike CEE-Trust, SchoolSmart has garnered positive local press, mostly focusing on its ambitious goals, and the schools and initiatives the group is funding.

Questions about common enrollment, role of philanthropy

That doesn’t mean that everyone sees eye to eye in Kansas City.

Bedell, the district superintendent, says that SchoolSmart may be too focused on creating new schools and expanding successful ones at the expense of helping existing, low-performing schools.

“I think the only concern that I have is their initial focus has been primarily on schools that are emerging, schools that are high performing,” he said. “You want to really move an urban school system like ours, you have a larger share of your schools that are low performing, we need to put resources in those schools.”

But, Bedell said, “Fortunately, [Sufi] listened to that and [SchoolSmart] provided support for me and some of my schools that have been struggling.”

SchoolSmart KC has also promoted the idea of a common enrollment system for district and charter schools.

“Participation in common, unified enrollment systems must also be required so that all families have equal access to schools,” Sufi said in recent testimony to the Missouri state legislature. “Such a system will also promote equity where our least advantaged families have equal access to quality options.”

Bedell is skeptical of this idea.

“Nope, not interested in it,” he said flatly, saying that he believed some charter schools were selectively enrolling and pushing out certain students, which made it difficult to build a positive relationship between the two sectors.

“One of the things that we’re looking to do is go and visit some of the other cities — Denver, Indianapolis, Camden — where the [district–charter] partnerships are working well,” said Bedell. Incidentally, those are three cities often promoted by advocates of the portfolio model.

Meanwhile, some remain wary of who is funding SchoolSmart. In addition to local philanthropies, SchoolSmart identifies the Walton Foundation as one of its core investors. Sufi said Hall, Kaufman, and Walton had together made a 10-year funding commitment of over $50 million.

“Philanthropy can have its own agenda too — that’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think everybody just needs to be aware,” said Wolfsie, the Kansas City school board member. “Funders, they have a say what [SchoolSmart KC’s] strategic direction probably will be — otherwise they may not fund.”

Both the Walton and Kauffman foundations have been strong supporters of charter schools; Kauffman even founded its own (high-performing) charter school in Kansas City.

Megan Tompkins-Stange, a professor who studies education philanthropy at the University of Michigan, said that national donors like the Walton Foundation, are more likely to be successful when partnering with local groups. “That’s a really effective strategy, if they’re enrolling more of these local community foundations that have a lot of credibility in the community, so it doesn’t necessarily feel like this is being imposed from a national foundation,” she said.

Sufi, for his part, said his group is truly independent — not beholden to its funders, Education Cities, or the history of CEE-Trust’s efforts.

“The only way I was willing to come into this work was to have a meeting of the minds with the philanthropy around town that was interested in supporting this work,” he said. “You will see through our grantmaking, through our efforts, in every direction we are supporting the system writ large.”

This is part two of a three-part series. Part one looks at the push to expand the portfolio model in cities across the country; the third part examines what research says about this emerging strategy.

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