by Kara Petrovic // Fall 2010

Wanda Blanchett

Faced with bankruptcy, the Kansas City, Mo., School District made national news last March when its board voted to close 28 schools to eliminate a $50 million shortfall. Wanda Blanchett, Ph.D., shares why the district plans were not only feasible but “critically important.”

Why did the School of Education support the Kansas City, Mo., School District’s decision to close 28 schools?
It wasn’t so much that we supported the district’s decision to close 28 schools, but instead we supported the district’s Right Sizing Plan, which wasn’t necessarily about closing schools but really about how the district could better situate itself to meet the needs of students in a far more systematic format than it had in the past. We supported the district in recognizing that it had far more buildings and staff than it had students, and that the district had to adjust costs, so that the 16,500 students who remain will continue to get a high-quality education.

Do these closures hurt or help?
No one wants to see schools close because schools represent hope. Whenever you have such a large number of buildings in an urban setting already struggling to provide a positive climate, you hate to see those buildings needing to be closed. But at the same time we certainly can’t use buildings as a proxy for high-quality education. So for the buildings themselves, if something fabulous isn’t occurring there and students aren’t learning and developing, then there is no reason to worship buildings. The closures will certainly hurt the community, but I think we have to do a cost-benefit analysis. Do we keep these building open just to keep them open? Or do we want to make sure something great is occurring there that will prepare our young people for the challenges we know they will face in this global, diverse society?

Can you put the decision in a national context and why this was a historic decision/watershed moment for the district?
It’s historic because, at least in the Kansas City, Mo., public schools, we’ve needed some kind of drastic approach to dealing with the fact that students were leaving the district, but the district’s operations continued to be at a level significantly higher than what would be warranted given the number of students served. I think it’s historic because up until this decision was made or at least proposed to the board, no other school district in the United States, to my knowledge, had ever proposed to do something so drastic in the best interest of providing a better quality education. Since this has occurred, we’ve heard from a number of districts around the country that they are in similar kinds of plans. This is the result of years of inappropriate management at the district level and not being accountable to children, family and the larger community.

What are the most significant results (positive or negative) that the community will see after the district closes nearly half of its campuses?
Only time will tell whether the full impact will be positive or negative. But I think all of us in education, even if we aren’t in the field of education as a profession, need to be concerned about the future of our country, our citizens and the economy, and we have to keep our fingers crossed that the board’s plan is the beginning of a new course of action for the Kansas City, Mo., schools. We need to see the quality of education go up and see young people graduating with a diploma that actually means something.

If this happens, we’ll see them prepared for college and won’t have to spend an enormous amount of remedial resources to make sure that they are prepared to be successful college students when they get here. The district is putting children first and ensuring that they have a quality education. I’m hopeful, because I don’t think this city can afford more failure as far as public education is concerned.

How have education students, faculty and staff reacted to the district’s decision?
They are all hopeful in the plan, but we are all sad about the massive closure of schools. We are hopeful that this plan will give the district an opportunity to right itself, literally, and to better serve children. We all hope to see a positive impact in the quality of schooling afforded to some of Kansas City’s most needy children in terms of economic status.

In your view, what are some of the key factors/best practices in shaping a successful approach in urban school districts?
One of the most significant factors is having the right leaders. Having a superintendent who is willing to work collaboratively with all of the entities involved, including the community and its organizations and businesses is very important. Another component of a successful urban school district is having a community that understands what it takes to have a first-class urban school district. We didn’t get in the predicament that we’re in overnight, so it’s going to take steady progress to get us out of it.

I hope the community will give Superintendent Covington and his team enough time to demonstrate that they are on the right course. And I also hope that we will be able to work with Superintendent Covington and his team in bringing about the kind of public education system that we all know we need and more importantly that our children deserve. We are partners in this, but it’s important to remember that at the School of Education we don’t run school districts. We prepare individuals for them. We are making sure that those who come through our building are prepared for the unique strengths found in urban schools, as well as the challenges.

Many community members are deeply concerned about these issues and the short- and- long term impact but are not sure what the answers are in urban education or how to best help. What would you say or suggest to them?
In order for the community to help, it has to start doing its own PR. Once the larger community recognizes that positive changes are being made, I believe we’ll start to see more people who are willing to send their children to Kansas City, Mo., public schools. The community can really help by believing that the young people we’re investing in really are worth the investment and worth the time that it will take to turn this district around.

We have to believe that all children can learn and ensure and recognize that children growing up in the urban environment already have so many obstacles against them. Urban education has to be holistic. We have to stop complaining about what students come to school with or without and instead educate the whole child. So as a community, if we are really going to do something about the significant gap in student learning and achievement, then we have to be willing as a community to do some things we haven’t done before.

How can UMKC and its students have an impact on the local school district?
The most significant impact we can have is sending the districts highly prepared educators. We have a number of partnerships going on with area public schools, and this gives us another opportunity for impact. Our long-term hope is to be an educational research clearing house for some of the most significant challenges that face our area.

Where there once was a teacher shortage, we’re now seeing teachers being laid-off. How should students considering education as a career today best prepare themselves for a more competitive job market?
At the end of the day, I don’t want to see any young person or returning adult shy away from teaching because of what we’ve seen recently with the district downsizing or economic down turn. Teaching is such a rewarding career, and I hate to see people turn away for fear that there won’t be jobs. We’ll always need teachers who are prepared. I am hopeful that the quality of our curriculum, with our urban focus, that people will continue to come to us. Education is still a good, solid career for people who think they can make a difference.

Wanda Blanchett, Ph.D., was named dean and Ewing Marion Kauffman Endowed Chair in Teacher Education last August for the UMKC School of Education. She previously served as associate dean at the University of Colorado-Denver and has a national reputation in urban education and issues of social justice.

Brushes with fame
Class of 2030