Hours before, just as the school board was convening its contentious meeting, Smith had joined a group of parents and teachers at Kansas City's Ladd Elementary to discuss better ways to educate kids. "It was so exciting," says Smith, executive director of Sacramento Area Congregations Together. "I was amazed by the energy and excitement and the love expressed for those kids and the program."
She means the Home Visit Program, which brings teachers and even administrators right into students' homes. Before each school year begins, teachers go into their schools' communities and get to know students and their families. The program began three years ago in Sacramento and has since spread to Kansas City.
In 1995, as members of Sacramento Area Congregations Together took aim at the problems in the city's school district, they found that a few teachers were, on their own time, visiting their students' homes. This, the teachers said, helped them understand more about their students' lives and do a better job educating them.
Thus a mission was launched: Encourage a majority of teachers to pay home visits. Soon teachers from nine Sacramento schools were walking their neighborhoods and knocking on doors. For some, the results were immediate. "It has changed the way I teach," says one teacher in a report on the program. "How I help students may differ depending on what I now [know] about the family and home life. I give more individualized instruction." Now the Home Visit Program is active in 400 public schools in California.
Members of ACT's sister organization in Kansas City -- Church Community Organization -- saw Sacramento's successes and sought to bring them here. Last year, CCO piloted the program in three elementary schools: McCoy, Santa Fe and Ladd. "It's a key strategy in comprehensive school reform," says Jo Nemeth, principal of McCoy.
Teachers and parents from both cities left the Ladd meeting April 18 with a heightened sense of optimism. "For me, that was the best moment of last week," says Kansas City's Warren Adams-Leavitt, executive director of CCO.
Afterward, some of the participants met at the Adams Mark Hotel for dinner. There, Adams-Leavitt's cell phone rang: Demps had been fired. "It was a surprise, but not a shock," Adams-Leavitt says, adding that it did little to dampen the spirit of the evening. "For me it's a matter of continuing to keep the focus where the kids are and letting the chaos work its way through."
A few years back, Sacramento's schools were struggling through crises similar to Kansas City's. "In terms of chaos, the same things were going on, and the schools were failing," Smith says.
But things have started to turn around. After a long progression of superintendents who rarely survived more than two years, the Sacramento City Unified School District is gaining stability under its current leader, who is well into his fourth year. One contribution to his success, Smith says, was the Home Visit Program. "When he came, we made him visit twenty homes," she explains. "I think it made an incredible difference because he could really see where kids live and what kinds of resources or lack of resources they have."
The same would not happen with Kansas City's superintendent -- at least not immediately. The day after the meeting at Ladd, Demps was to be guest of honor at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation for an event aimed at expanding the program into more schools. He had invited all principals in the district to hear about the Home Visit Program. After hearing the news from 1211 McGee, some of these administrators called Adams-Leavitt asking whether the event would go on.
"It's still on," he told them.
Dozens of teachers and principals and a handful of high-ranking administrators from the central office attended. Also present were representatives from Hickman Mills and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts, as well as Marilou Joiner, special assistant to Missouri's commissioner of education, who is deeply involved with Kansas City's effort to accredit its schools. Key school board members were invited. "A couple said they were planning to attend," Adams-Leavitt says, "but I guess they got busy."
Principal Nemeth was among the several offering testimonials. "The home-visit program is by far and away the best program we've implemented in over seven years," she told the crowd.
Afterward, one of Nemeth's colleagues stayed around to ask questions about how to make the program work in her school. "She was real gung ho," Nemeth recalls.
Such optimism was in short supply that week as the school board's actions drew fierce reaction. "When things like [Demps' firing] happen, it's too bad it has to be the main story," says Nemeth, "because I can't think of anything more important than schools working with the community and parents to strengthen education."
Yet those involved with the Home Visit Program say such turmoil has little effect on their efforts. "We're far removed from what goes on at 1211 McGee," says one McCoy teacher.
And by tackling the problems of the district from the ground level, the program needs not fear being mired in the tangles of the board and superintendent. "We deliberately stayed out of that level," says Adams-Leavitt. "We deliberately focused on the building level."
But that hasn't stopped the CCO from seeking allies in high places. Just two days before the presentation at the Kauffman Foundation, Adams-Leavitt and Nemeth held court with Missouri Governor Bob Holden at his offices in Jefferson City.
Adams-Leavitt feels the visit made an impression on the governor. "To his mind, it ought to be part of school culture," he says.
Nemeth couldn't agree more -- which is why she'll tell anyone who'll listen how well the program has worked for her school. "I'd like to see every school in Missouri getting out and getting to know students and parents," she says.