As the April 6 Kansas City, Missouri, School Board election approaches, we're profiling each of the candidates.
Cafe Seed, a vegan restaurant on Cherry Street, isn't a fancy lunch spot. Polished in their business attire, Cokethea Hill and Kenneth Hughlon stand out. It's apparent these two are interested in making a professional impression.
On this Wednesday morning, Hughlon is juggling his briefcase, ear still pressed to his cell phone, when he rushes into the restaurant to chat about his latest endeavor. Both Hughlon and Hill are young, but they're already political veterans.
Hill has been an organizer for President Obama, a community liaison for the local New Tools initiative and now works in U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver's Green Impact Zone. Hughlon's resume is national: he served on the national board of the NAACP when he was 17 and currently collects a paycheck for being the Manager of Board Relations.
The two are part of a team of school board candidates who say their unity of vision will transform the Kansas City district from the grassroots up.
Hill has seen the inside of the classroom and the board room. She's a graduate of Lincoln Preparatory Academy and University of Central Missouri. Her first job out of college was at the Northwest Regional Youth Center, a facility for teens with criminal offenses. "Most often, their skills were very remedial," Hill says of the kids she worked with. "They would come in as sophomores not reading. Their writing and math skills were very, very low. After four years there, I thought maybe I'd go work for the Kansas City School District, be a counselor, an intervener between the school system and the juvenile [justice] system."
While she was in the district, Hill says, she noticed inequities between schools. She watched teachers buy supplies for their students. When the district downgraded the requirements for graduation in 2006, Hill says her conscience got to her. The district, she says, was setting up its unprepared students to fail. She told her principal, "I don't think I can work here anymore."
The presidential campaign of Barack Obama brought her back to the district. An internship as an organizing fellow reconnected Hill to the grassroots. If door-to-door activism could elect the first black president, surely some of those same tactics could fix the failing school district. "I said to myself, it's time for me to stop being on the sidelines," Hill says. "I wanted to help all kids, create policy that affects all kids instantly. How do I do that?"
The answer came when two board members resigned in the middle of their terms in late 2008. Hill applied for a seat. With a reputation for personality clashes and political infighting, the board had spit out plenty of seasoned community leaders. When Hill was selected for the at-large position, she says friends more often consoled than congratulated her. "I was nervous," she says. "People kept telling me, 'I'm going to pray for you.'"
Kenneth Hughlon wanted that seat, too. But, just 23 years old at the time, he was too young to apply. Like Hill, he classifies himself as a proud product of the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. When he graduated from Paseo Academy in 2003, he already had the distinction of being the youngest person elected to the national board of the NAACP. After an undergraduate degree from Dillard University and masters from Park University, Hughlon took a paying gig managing affairs for the NAACP board.
In the short time he was away, Hughlon says, the district has declined. When he was at Paseo, he says, it was jam packed with students. Hughlon took advantage of programs like Partners in Excellence to earn college credit during his high school years. Fellow students, with different career goals, went to Manual Career and Technical Center to learn a trade. Just a few years later, Hughlon says, previously crowded schools are hemorrhaging students. The 25-year-old says he running for the board to figure out a way to bulk up the district's offerings to bring those students back.
Flying all over the country on NAACP business, Hughlon doesn't spend all his time in Kansas City. But, when he's away, his team picks up the campaigning slack.
The team of four candidates is being managed by Spark Bookhart. Bookhart worked on Barack Obama's presidential campaign and last year spearheaded an effort that beat back discussion of an appointed, instead of elected, school board. He also runs Cafe Seed. In addition to Hill and Hughlon, his team includes current board president Marilyn Simmons and Linwood Tauheed, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, both of whom will be profiled in upcoming weeks.
Hill explains that the team isn't running a traditional campaign. They don't have a platform laying out their specific goals. Instead, she says, they're taking their cues from residents.
Every Saturday, Hill says, the team hosts "Engagement Circles," where residents get a primer on the history of the district and an opportunity to put in their two cents. "Over the course of 13 weeks, this 'Success Circle' is engaging in dialogue," Hill says. "What do they want to see? What is the school board's role in economic development? What is the school board's role in housing? All kinds of different questions spark the debate. And then we come back at the end of each week and post their responses. We go back and forth and share knowledge to come up with a plan. Our plan, once it's revealed, will be the community's plan. The only platform we have is the one we take from community."
The team does have at least two stated priorities already. First, they want every student in the Kansas City, Missouri, School District to graduate within the top 10 percent of all graduates in the country -- a goal that came from local parents. Second, they don't want to "right-size" the district; they want to "super-size" the district. Instead of closing schools, as proposed by superintendent John Covington, they want to focus on bringing students -- and the state dollars that follow them -- back to the district.
Hill has made her take on the right-sizing plan clear in board meetings. She's frustrated by what she sees as a lack of community involvement in the development of Covington's plan. If her team wins in the April 6th election, she says, they'll make sure Covington is more responsive to the public. Hughlon and Hill say they'll be more accountable than the current board, as well.
"I'm telling you, if community thinks nine smart intellectual people can solve the challenge of urban education, they're sadly mistaken," Hill says. "It's going to take widespread community engagement."
This week's candidate forums:
Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity
Sub-district 4 candidate forum
Thursday, March 11
St. Stephen Baptist Church, 1414 Truman Road