If the school district gets its act together, how will we know? 

The Kansas City, Missouri, School District faces a lot of challenges. Some seem insurmountable. Educating the child of an uninvolved or indifferent parent is like trying to start a fire with a glass of water.

At the same time, no task seems too small for the district to screw up.

I recently asked the district for its ACT scores. The district's lawyer, Julie Johnson, directed me to the Missouri Department of Education Web page, where the information is available.

Kansas City's scores from 2003 to 2007, I saw, fell below the state average. No surprise there. However, it was interesting to learn that the number of Kansas City students taking the college entrance exam is growing. In 2007, 66.3 percent of the district's graduates took the ACT. In 2006, only 41.1 percent did. (All I remember from the day I went through the three-hour ordeal is a crushing headache, a symptom of an undiagnosed case of mono.)

Intrigued, I sent another e-mail to the district's press office, asking for possible explanations for the jump in participation.

Cynthia Wheeler-Linden, the district's chief communications officer, came up with this response: "[I]t has been one of our strategic goals to increase the number of students taking the ACT test. The more students are exposed to the possibilities, the more likely they are to explore their options for post-secondary education."

Two problems with this answer: (1) It's incomplete, and (2) it's lame.

Judy Morgan, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers, filled in the details that Wheeler-Linden had left vague. Morgan tells me that the district instituted an ACT prep section in junior-year social-studies classes. The district, Morgan says, also pays the students' fees to take the test.

It would have been nice to get this information on the first pass. But, hey, those are the breaks. A much more significant problem is the missed opportunity that Wheeler-Linden's answer represents at a time when the district's harvest of bad publicity seems especially bountiful. Here was a chance for the district to tell a good story about a teacher, a student, a school. And the district let the moment go by. Was one of the 2007 test takers the daughter of immigrants, now enrolled in college? Is there a guidance counselor who routinely rounds up and drives students to ACT testing sites? I don't know. Instead, I can tell you only that the district has "strategic goals," whatever that means.

Before the current school year began, news stories showed teachers and volunteers sprucing up Van Horn High School and other buildings that the Independence School District acquired after a vote to redraw the boundaries. The subtext: The buildings needed attention because Kansas City had neglected them.

While a neighboring district wet its paintbrushes, Kansas City schools seemed in disarray. The board nearly scrapped its reading program, prompting an interim superintendent to say, 11 days before classes began, "We're going to have to pull something out of our hat." Very reassuring.

A second interim superintendent is now in place. The board is searching for a new hero in the wake of Anthony Amato's separation from the district in January after just 18 months on the job.

The Amato debacle had already prompted more frank discussions about the district's inadequacies. In the spring, former board member Bill Eddy flatly said he held no hope that the board could solve the district's problems.

Eddy addressed a community task force that was appointed after Amato's departure. He spoke in bracing detail about the culture of cronyism, self-preservation and low expectations. The district, Eddy said, is entrenched in "brokenness and dysfunction." (I wasn't there; someone shared with me a four-page synopsis of Eddy's presentation.)

Joining Eddy on the side of hopelessness is Ingrid Burnett, a six-year board member who resigned last month.

Part of Burnett's frustration stems from the district's response to a state of Missouri review completed last spring. Regulators went into every classroom and questioned hundreds of teachers, administrators, students and parents. The subsequent report was damaging. The state observed a lack of rigor in classroom instruction, poor assessment methods, low achievement, a meddling board and even inadequate procedures for handling mercury spills.

The district is supposed to hold community meetings and present an action plan in December. Burnett tells me that the work was not being done when she left. "It's not just that we don't have a plan," she says. "We don't have the committees in place."

Burnett says she worries that, if the district comes up with an insufficient response, the state may move to take over all the schools. It happened in St. Louis. "My fear is that we're going to lose local control," she says. Burnett felt overwhelmed by her frustration.

I doubt that the state is eager to take on the responsibility of running another urban school district. But it's easy to recognize that the people now entrusted with the job are incapable.

I went to a board meeting last week. Bad habits were immediately on display.

During the meeting, an administrator handed out a document listing various contracts for supplemental educational services. Marilyn Simmons, the board president, made several comments expressing displeasure that local companies did not get enough of the work. Simmons kept after the point, putting into sorry relief Eddy's warnings about patronage and micromanaging.

I'll give Simmons credit for recognizing that the district does not communicate well. "We don't do a lot of promoting, and that's wrong," she said at a community meeting I attended a few weeks ago at Manual Technical Center. Simmons said the district needed to define itself or risk someone else doing it.

Perception doesn't teach a student to read. But if the board members want to stay in charge, they might want to make an effort to reduce the number of citizens who believe the schools are lost causes. Finding a replacement for Burnett as bright and thoughtful as Airick Leonard West, who was elected earlier this year, is a good place to start.

The superintendent pick also looms large. Simmons and board Vice President Arthur Benson seem confident that the process, though slow, will discover a real leader rather than rewarding some retread.

They better get it right. Or he or she may be the last superintendent a locally elected Kansas City school board hires.

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