Change and Progress

The change of seasons always has me thinking about change. Isn’t it interesting how time seemed to move slowly when we were kids, and as we get a few miles behind us, nearly everything seems to be changing rapidly? I am old enough to remember using a pay phone, watching black and white television, and handing the clerk actual money to make a purchase, not just a plastic card. I admit I can recall when FM radio was the new thing, and remember spending hours in school learning to write in cursive! Can I get a witness? Much has changed, and I dare say much of the change is for the better.  Tony Robbins reminds us that “Change is INEVITABLE. Progress is OPTIONAL.”

Progress is not optional for the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, or for our students. Progress requires innovation, and that’s exactly what KCKPS is all about. How so, you might ask? Let me share just a few examples. It’s been 10 years since we began our 1-1 Laptops for Learning program in our high schools. KCKPS stakeholders recognized a decade ago that technology was and is a driver of innovation in our world. Today, beginning in kindergarten, our students utilize technology resources every day to apply what they are learning in real world situations. Learning to write no longer means practicing the formation of letters; rather, writing is about communicating, producing, researching, and more.

Progress means our curriculum and school experiences have been redesigned to ensure each student is prepared for college and careers in a global society. Prepared means our students graduate with their high school diploma, plus one or more endorsements (www.kckps.org/diplomaplus), validating that our students have the skills they need for future success.

Progress means our high schools are transforming into Academies, aligning the way our students learn with what is required in industries, and student’s future career aspirations. Our classrooms are “noisy” with conversations about the learning. Questioning and exploring is commonplace. Talking between and among peers is encouraged. Students work together to produce research, and work on projects that demonstrate shared learning of the concepts. Teachers design projects, informed by business needs, to give our students real-world and relevant experiences. Our students are not asked to find the “right” answer, but to generate multiple solutions to a problem, test their hypotheses, and write and speak about their learning. Field trips are now career exploration excursions. Lessons and assignments actively teach collaboration, teamwork, technical reading and writing, leadership, flexibility, innovation, solution orientation, and problem-solving skills.

Classroom environments are rapidly changing as well. “Flexible” seating permeates our learning environments. Comfortable seating, stand-up desks, desks with no legs, bouncy balls, and “wiggle” chairs (that look like mushrooms) are emerging at all levels. Tables are arranged for collaboration, students work together in teams, and they share their work through technology platforms (like Google Docs).

Today, schools in KCKPS are profoundly different than they were a generation ago. They are no longer simply about preparing students for more school. Rather, Diploma+ is about preparing our students both for post-secondary education, and for the high-demand careers and jobs that will be the foundation of our future prosperity. I am proud of our KCKPS team, and the many partners who support Diploma+.  Innovation is what we do. Producing leaders for today and tomorrow is what we are all about. It’s Up to Us!

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Dreamers, We Stand With You!

I don’t know any other way to say this: When I heard that the administration planned to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed almost a million young people who came to the United States without legal documentation to come out of the shadows and reach for the American Dream, my heart broke. That in 2017 we are still acting in ways that target specific ethnic groups is almost more than I can bear.

You have to understand: In my community, Kanas City, Kansas, we are a tapestry of cultures. Before white men and women entered the territory, there were a mixture of native American tribes: Delaware, Shawnee, Wyandot. And as the city grew, we established a patchwork of neighborhoods: Argentine, Armourdale, Armstrong, Fairfax, Quindaro, and Riverview. We have always been a mosaic of different races: Black, white, Hispanic, native American, north African, southeast Asian, eastern European.

In the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, diversity is who we are; it is our strength! It is through our diversity that we are raising truly incredible children. Children and youth who are contributing each day to the betterment of their families, our community and our nation. Let’s be frank: Whether they were born here or brought here, our kids and their families are looking for many of the same things that each of us is pursuing. A quality life, filled with more moments of joy than sadness; a life filled with more opportunities than obstacles; and a life filled with more hope than despair. We are all “dreamers!”

I feel deep sadness, and frankly disgust, at the decision by the Administration to end the DACA program. Has my country changed so much that we are no longer standing behind our nation’s creed of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all men (and women)? Are we really willing to discard 800,000 youth, who believed in our promise that America would do what is right by them? Our country invited these children to come out of the shadows, to register, stay in school, maintain a job and contribute to the economy. In exchange, we would issue work permits and afford these individuals the opportunity to openly pursue the American Dream. America used to be a country that stood on the principle that our words meant something. “Dream, young people,” said our nation. Well, that dream is about to become a nightmare for nearly a million young people.

What makes this so difficult to understand is that the action to end DACA targets our most vulnerable youth, while failing to acknowledge that our history is filled with examples of individuals who came to this country outside of an official immigration process. Remember all those who came, shackled in chains, on slave ships? And nobody talks about the 1929 Registry Act, which allowed “honest law-abiding alien[s] who may be in the country under some merely technical irregularity” to register as permanent residents and pay a $20 fee, if they could prove they had lived in the country since 1921 and were of “good moral character.” Of course, the vast majority of those who took advantage of that act came from Europe.

What I want my students and families to know is this: We value our diversity. It does not matter to us in KCKPS if you were born here or brought here. You matter to us. We will do everything in our power to ensure you are safe, and that you receive a quality education. We will advocate for you and with you. I pray Congress moves quickly to do what is right for these youth, and for our country. We are facing yet another defining moment in our history. This moment will either advance our standing as a nation of compassion and reason, or… well you get the point. “It’s Up to Us!”

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Tapestry of Cultures

We opened the doors to a new school year on August 11. As I visited schools to greet our students, I was once again reminded of the rich diversity that is our community. The faces of our students represent the faces and cultures of the world.

Sadly, the tragic events which unfolded in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend serve as a grim reminder that far too many people in our country are threatened by the very diversity that is the fabric of our community and our schools.

I was horrified as I watched and listened to the news reports that showed the disgusting displays of racism, of men chanting hateful slogans, illuminated by torches. Has it been that long? Have we forgotten about the terror that those symbols inspired? Have we lost our empathy for those who were the targets of that hatred? Have we not yet figured out that “they” are “us”?

I kept thinking back to remarks made just a few months ago by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu as confederate monuments in his city were being taken down. In his speech, Mayor Landrieu asked: Who among us can tell an African American child that she has promise, and a positive future in our country, when every day she has to walk past a monument that stands for slavery and white privilege? “Can you do it?” he asked. Well, can you?

Landrieu’s remarks were still on my mind when I heard a reporter interview a father, who shared that his 6-year-old son asked him if what was on the screen was a documentary from another generation. We should all be sickened by the fact that the answer to his question is “No!”

No, we can’t justify why any symbol, monument, or outward display of racism is considered acceptable in our country in 2017. This is the United States of America, a country founded on the principle that all men (and women) are created equal. No, we have not yet fully realized the promise of this founding principle, but we can’t allow ANYONE, or ANYTHING, to move us backward from the progress we have made.

As Americans, we hold dear the right to speak our truth. God save us if our new truth is bigotry and hatred based on race, culture, gender, religion, sexual orientation, immigration status…you get my point. We teach our students here in KCKPS that hard work and effort will get them to their dreams, to the American dream. We teach our students to salute a flag and recite a pledge that this is “one nation, under God, indivisible…” If these actions and our words mean anything, it is that it is time to stand united against bigotry and hate.

I saved a photo of a man holding a sign that states “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” I will stand with my students, my community, and my schools, which are the tapestry of the world. We stand for diversity, in all forms. We embrace divergent thinking. I encourage our teachers to engage in authentic learning on the issues related to tolerance, race, and culture. Education will be the only thing that ensures our nation lives up to the principles on which it was founded. “It’s Up to Us!”

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Diversity is Our Strength

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

The doors to a new school year have opened. In Kansas City, Kansas, we have such a rich history. A history that began in 1844 when the first public school was built right here in my community, serving white and native American students, 17 years before Kansas was a state. The territory grew, and neighborhoods flourished, and today we are one of the two most diverse counties in the nation. There are only two counties in the nation, Wyandotte County, Kansas and Broward County, Florida, where no population, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian or any other race or ethnicity has a majority, and where Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics all have more than 25% of the population.

Diversity has always been our strength. We are a tapestry of cultures, and today our students come from all over the world, speaking nearly 70 different languages, all in pursuit of an excellent education. Providing quality education for our children in this “international” community is a wonderful experience.

I am excited about our next chapter. We write our chapter in strong partnership with our families, students, and community. Ours is an improbable story; a story of connectedness; a story of promise and possibilities.

The improbability that an urban school district could graduate 53% of our students with their diploma, plus the endorsements of our Diploma+ program (www.kckps.org/diplomaplus.) The connectedness that can be seen in the number of staff who grew up in this community, and graduated from our schools. The promise and the possibilities that we spark in our kids, like the student who came from a refugee camp, and in five years became a Gates Millennium Scholar; and the student who connected with her science teacher and became a physician; and the student who makes it her responsibility to ensure her peers feel welcome and safe.

I could provide thousands of examples of the amazing accomplishment and spirit that define our students. They are truly incredible, and I dare say inspirational. As we begin this new school year, Kansas City, Kansas is committed to ensuring that each student will be taught by great teachers, led by caring administrators, and surrounded by supportive staff. Working alongside our families and community, from this wonderfully diverse community, it is sure to be a productive and memorable school year. It’s Up to Us!

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Equitable and Adequate School Funding

Chichen Itza, Mexico

I received this photograph from Alan, a colleague who, like many of us, has spent decades advocating for equitable and adequate funding for Kansas schools. Apparently, the Mayan people of Chichen Itza, Mexico found it entertaining to watch “athletes” transcend this tall stone wall while carrying a boulder, the size of a basketball. Once at the top of the wall, the goal was to propel the boulder through the stone ring affixed to the stone wall.

Alan suggested to me that our work to ensure Kansas kids have access to equitable and adequate funding (as required by our Constitution) is like traversing this wall. One has to be prepared, and have the stamina to reach the goal.

I want to thank the many advocates who demonstrate the stamina and unwavering commitment to education in our state. This last legislative session resulted in our representatives and senators coming together across political party lines to develop a new funding formula. While not without flaws, our legislators developed a formula that is structurally sound, and provides additional resources tied to the educational needs of our students.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed the bill on Thursday, June 15, which allowed the bill to advance to the Kansas Supreme Court for review.  The hearing at the Supreme Court is scheduled for Tuesday, July 18, 2017. There is anticipation, from some, that the Supreme Court will find areas of the law that need to be reworked, in order to ensure equity (all students having access to similar opportunity and resources).  There is also anticipation, by some, that the level of funding appropriated in the bill will fall short of adequacy. Still, I am grateful to the Supreme Court for allowing school districts across the state of Kansas to continue to operate while the bill is under their review.

I also want to extend appreciation to our legislators and education advocates, whose determination and stamina have returned the education of Kansas kids back to the top of the priority list. I am confident the Supreme Court will ensure the school finance law is constitutional, by maintaining oversight as any deficiencies in structure or funding are resolved. In the meantime, it’s up to us to prepare to welcome our students to a new school year, fully focused on their futures.

 

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Thank You!

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Dear Teachers, Administrators and Staff,

As we close out the 2017 school year, I want to thank you for the role you play each day in supporting the students of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. Your leadership and commitment to our students and the entire school district is exemplary and inspires excellence in us all.

The outcome of your hard work and support is a year of tremendous accomplishments of which we can all be proud. Here are a few of those standout achievements showcasing why KCKPS is quite simply the best:

  • Passage of a $235 million bond –This is a tremendous vote of confidence for the work you are doing everyday by our community. 
  • Sumner Academy is No. 1 in Kansas on the Washington Post’s List of Top High Schools in America
  • Frances Willard Named a Dav Pilkey Summer Reading Educator Contest Winner
  • 64 high school students selected as KC Scholars ($10,000 a year renewable for 5 years in college scholarships!)
  • 283 Students were celebrated in the Superintendent’s Honor Roll for academic excellence
  • 230+ students in 4th & 5th grade received a certificate of excellence for Young Leaders of Tomorrow participation
  • Numerous business and industry leaders are investing in Diploma+ by serving on the Steering Committee, and/or Academy Advisory Boards
  • Total scholarships earned by our graduates exceeds $80 million!
  • Eli Jones and Angelica Soto were named KCKPS 2017 Teachers of the Year
  • Jodi Lin was named KMEA’s Honored Administrator for 2017
  • Parents As Teachers served 385 infants and toddlers and their families, andLauren Ware was named National Parent Educator of the Year
  • USA Football, partnered with ESPN to provide training to our coaches and support our high school teams
  • William Brame was named Debate Coach of the Year by Debate KC
  • Schlagle Men’s and Women’s Basketball Team won league and regional competitions, and competed valiantly in State 5A tournaments
  • Harmon’s Robotics Team placed 7th in FIRST Robotics, and competed in the World competition

For all the reasons listed above and so much more, the school district is fortunate to have each of you as part of our team. I know the year has not been easy.  I also know that the lives of our young people have been forever changed for the positive because of the great work of the entire KCKPS team.

Please find time this summer to rest, relax, and take care of you and your families.  You have given it your all and for that I am truly grateful.  I look forward to seeing each and every one of you in August as we continue to “Inspire Excellence:  Every Grownup, Every Child, Every Day!”

Sincerely,
Dr. Cynthia Lane

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We Are All Immigrants

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Can you wrap your mind around the lack of middle ground that seems present in all facets of our society these days? I must admit, my ideas can be pretty fixed. But I was taught to look for the middle ground, that the truth is always somewhere in the middle. These lessons came to me as a child, as I tried to make sense of clashing cultures within my own family.

Grandfather Francis was a large, imposing man. At least that is what I was told. I have shared before that my Grandfather Francis worked as a fisherman by day; by night he competed in a boxing ring. Grandma Francis was a tailor, until her eyesight failed. What was most important to them was visible in their actions, particularly with how they raised my mother. These things weren’t riches or creature comforts, but rather, were the ideals that build strong character.  It was clear from thier actions what was expected. “Familia primero” (family first), “trabalho duro” (hard work), and “bolar” (serve) God and your fellow neighbor. As you may know, my grandparents were emigrants from Portugal. My mother was raised in a home with strong values, speaking English as her second language. This is a heritage for which I am grateful to be part of, and proud to share.

Mother married my dad and moved to Kansas as an eighteen-year-old bride. While she was born in the United States, Kansas was a long way from New Bedford, MA, and the comfort of her primarily Portuguese-speaking community. Nonetheless, she assimilated quickly to understand the values and culture of her new family. These values were not so different from my maternal grandparents. I learned early that while the languages, food and customs in my family might be different, what was common was the love of family, service of others, and reliance on God.

As I listen to the tone and watch the actions underway in our country today, I am both puzzled and saddened by what I see and hear. Why do we spend so much energy in opposition to one another, when we all seemingly want the same thing – a quality life for our children and families? I believe that differences in culture and traditions are the very attributes that makes this country unique and great (already). It is encouraging to see so many individuals and organizations across our nation stepping up and standing proud in support of diversity, proud to welcome immigrants to our country. I am so proud to represent an organization with a Board of Education that stands united in support of diversity and immigration. To make it clear to our students and families that KCKPS is, and will remain, a welcoming and safe place for all children to learn, our  board passed a the following resolution: http://kckps.org/images/board/resolution3-2-17.pdf.

It seems strange that in 2017 we have to declare, through a resolution, that we embrace and celebrate our rich diversity, that our education system is open and welcoming of all students, that information about the immigration status of a child or the child’s family has no place in our schools. But the realities of today have necessitated that we not only declare we are a welcoming school district, but that our actions align with our words. If alive today, I imagine my grandparents would be one of the vocal members of our nation who remind us that (with the exception of Native Americans) we are all immigrants. They might even remind us that Depende de Nos (It’s Up to Us) to ensure we continue to be the land of opportunity, and a nation of justice, freedom, and liberty for all.

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Take the Stairs

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Recently I was clicking through the local news channels, and happened upon the end of a report featuring an event where a large number of determined individuals walked or ran more than 800 steps to reach the top of one of the tallest structures in the city. I don’t recall the cause, or even the building that served as the setting for the event. But recently, I have been wondering what would motivate a person to want to walk or run up hundreds of stairs? Why do some individuals choose to take the stairs, while others look for the closest elevator or escalator, obviously a much quicker and easier way to the top? Can we really achieve what we want to achieve when we choose the escalator over taking the stairs?
The stairs have become a symbolic reminder to me of the effort it takes to reach our goals and dreams. The most meaningful goals we have in life require significant effort. Said another way, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” Educating our children well requires significant effort. If we really want to re-design schools to meet the demands of today’s world, we  must commit to a taking-the-stairs type effort. There is no easy way to realize meaningful and lasting change. Our collective effort, taking one step at a time toward our common goal, is the only way to succeed.

Educators and staff in my district are demonstrating the “take the stairs” effort. We have been on a journey to re-design teaching and learning to ensure our students are prepared for their futures in today’s rapidly changing world. We define “prepared” as graduating with a high school diploma “plus” endorsements aligned to their college and career aspirations, or what we have named Diploma+.

Fortunately, our community and business leaders are taking the stairs with us, and have embraced the promise of Diploma+. This fall, we received 79% approval of a $235 million bond referendum. The referendum was a strong endorsement of education in KCKPS. That bond is now providing the financial resources needed to renovate, remodel, redesign, and rebuild our schools.

Re-designing schools isn’t easy. I am proud of the effort of the KCKPS team. I am grateful for the support of our parents, community and business leaders. I am thankful to work alongside educators fully committed to the future of our students. It is vitally important that we continue to support each other to “take the stairs” in order to achieve results that matter for our students. “It’s Up to Us!”

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Hobson’s Choice

I imagine that people who have never visited Kansas might have a narrow view of who we are. When you say “Kansas,” some people probably envision cowboys, cattle, and fields of crops as far as the eye can see. If we are honest, in some parts of Kansas, that image is pretty accurate. But there is much more to being a “Kansan” then those images convey.

I am a Kansan, one who grew up in a small town whose economy was dependent on small businesses and farming. For the better part of two decades, I have called Kansas City, Kansas home. What I have come to realize over those years is that small-town Kansas and urban Kansas City have more similarities than differences.  Both are communities built on rich traditions, with a deep sense of place and belonging, and with a shared value of collective responsibility for the quality of life of all citizens. What is different is that KCK is an international community, with an incredible diversity of cultures, where we welcome increasing numbers of families from around the world who desire to raise their families, find meaningful employment, and pursue the American dream.

What I value most about KCK is that we view our diversity as a gift. We embrace a diversity that goes beyond background and heritage, and includes thinking and ideas. In our schools, we lift up and value that diversity, as students come together in our classrooms to learn and grow. We lift up the world languages (nearly 70) spoken in the homes of our students. We lift up the collective value that with hard work, everyone can rise to their potential, rise above obstacles, and rise to reach their dreams.

Our approach to achieving the American dream is simple really. Just like any community, we have our challenges, ones that we work tirelessly to overcome each and every day. But we have learned that our competing values are not a Hobson’s Choice, best described by Henry Ford’s statement about the Model-T: “Any customer can have a car in any color as long as it is black.”  In my community, you can truly have, or be, any “color” you want. It’s not a take it or leave it proposition. It’s about realizing that the quality of life we want requires an inclusive frame of mind, and believing that we are at our best when we can recognize and celebrate our diversity. I pray that, across this beautiful country of ours, we find ways to lift up and celebrate those same values of diversity and inclusiveness. “It’s Up to Us.”

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Journey of a Superintendent: Gloria Dean (Alexander) Willis

willisJust before the New Year, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools lost a giant, a woman who influenced the lives of literally tens of thousands of students and their families in this community. It’s hard to know where to begin to tell the story of such a remarkable life. I am filled with such a deep sense of loss and sadness, and yet I know that the lessons learned from this accomplished woman, whom I have the privilege of calling my mentor, will last well beyond her time here on earth.

Gloria Alexander Willis always wanted to be a teacher. She graduated from Tillotson College in Texas, and moved up to Kansas City, Kansas. She began teaching in 1953, the year before Brown v Board of Education. She began teaching at Attucks, and also taught at Douglass, Hawthorne, Bryant, Stanley and Emerson. Her vast talent was recognized, and the district tapped her to serve as a “helping teacher,” then as a reading specialist, and soon assigned her to serve as principal, first at Grant, and then at her beloved Quindaro Elementary School.

Her tenacity, strong work ethic, perseverance and determination were central to her ability to overcome the limitations placed on her early in her career. During those early years, she was told she could only teach black children. She was told when she got married that she had to resign. When she became pregnant, again she was told she had to resign.

District history doesn’t tell us exactly what caused the changes to those policies. However, it’s interesting that before the ink dried on Gloria Alexander’s first resignation, district leadership changed their policy and decided that married female teachers were positive models for our youth. Six months after her beloved daughter Sonya was Board, Mrs. Willis was back in front of students, doing what she loved.

Gloria Willis worked for the district for 41 years, and the year after she retired, she joined the Board of Education, where she served for another 21 years, including 14 as Board President. She began her career in a society where she was only allowed to teach children who looked like her, and ended her journey leading the most diverse school district in Kansas, and one of the most diverse in our nation. She often remarked how proud she was to lead a district where children from the world’s cultures, and all walks of life, come together to be educated.

During her tenure as president, the district implemented the First Things First Reform, and earned national awards and recognition as one of the best urban school districts in the nation. During her time on the Board, she never lost sight of the importance of the parent voice in decision making. We could always count on Mrs. Willis to ask with every proposal or recommendation: “What do the parents think?”, or “Have the parents been informed?”

Mrs. Willis influenced generations. At her memorial service, former students talked about her influence, and how she fought to give them the opportunity to succeed. It was fitting that just this past year, she was recognized by City Union Mission as one of several “Women Who Changed the Heart of the City.” I include myself among the thousands of individuals profoundly impacted by Gloria Willis.

Mrs. Willis, you will be deeply missed, but your legacy will be felt in this community for generations to come.

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