‘You hurt all of us’: Families fight Kansas City charter school’s ‘death penalty’

David Eulitt/The Kansas City Star

When Isaiah Veal’s family left the Park Hill school district, where he was at risk of being expelled, he said transferring to Genesis, a Kansas City charter school on the East Side, changed his life.

Genesis School took him in, he said, and with his teachers’ endorsements, he finished eighth grade and moved on to “attend the school that I always dreamed of going to. The school that my mother went to. Lincoln College Prep.”

Veal is now a junior at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, where he is working toward his associate’s degree at the same time as his high school diploma. He still visits Genesis, a K-8 school, regularly to tutor the younger students, he said.

Genesis has a history of enrolling some of Kansas City’s most vulnerable students, officials say. But at the same time, for the past 15 years, the school has failed to meet performance standards, according to a state commission.

And now, the charter school is at risk of closing.

The Missouri Charter Public School Commission in December notified Genesis it intends to revoke its charter on June 30, due to years of low test scores and a failure to retain students.

Veal and dozens of other students, parents, teachers and community members packed a standing-room-only conference room at Lucile H. Bluford Public Library on Monday evening. The public hearing was held after Genesis appealed the state commission’s recommendation to shutter the school. The meeting erupted in shouting matches several times, with passionate and exasperated pleas for the school to stay open.

“All the schools in this community, they’re either closed down or (converted into) senior citizen facilities. … Genesis sits right there. They take kids nobody else wants; I was one of them,” said Pat Clarke, president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, who attended Genesis. “If you shut those doors, those police officers out there, they’re going to get to know these kids. … These kids deserve better.”

“When you close, you hurt all of us.”

Genesis, at 3800 E. 44th St., operates in the Thornberry Unit of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kansas City and serves roughly 200 students.

The state commission will decide on the closing at its Feb. 15 meeting. Revoking a school’s charter in the middle of its contract is a rare move in Missouri. If the commission decides to revoke the charter, Genesis may appeal to the state board of education.

If the board agrees with the recommendation to nullify the charter, the commission will begin the process of closing Genesis, including notifying parents of options for transitioning students to a new school, such as one within Kansas City Public Schools or a different charter.

Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the state charter commission, said she is recommending revoking the charter after years of “broken promises” and “devastating” academic results. Genesis, she said, has regularly lagged behind the state average and Kansas City Public Schools.

Only 13% of Genesis students are reading and performing math at grade level, she said, compared to 21% of KCPS’ most vulnerable students.

The commission said that in the 2015-2016 school year, the charter school saw 27% of K-5 students scoring at proficient or advanced levels in English. Five years later, that fell to 2.6%. The students’ math scores dropped from 24% to 8%.

“We could not find a single time from 2007 to 2022 when Genesis performed better than KCPS in either English or math. Not a single year for 15 years,” Wahby said.

“This is a difficult decision. We remember that charter schools promise to accept accountability for autonomy. They promise families that they will deliver what they’ve said in their charter. And because they are charters, they promise to either perform or close.”

Wahby countered some parents’ argument that their students had no other school to turn to, saying that “Kansas City has a plethora of school options” and “20-plus years of a strong school choice environment.”

Genesis has served families on Kansas City’s East Side for 47 years, and is now one of the state’s oldest charter schools, said Executive Director Kevin Foster. Most of its students live within a few miles of the building, he said.

Foster argued that since 2020, the school’s state assessment scores have improved, despite the pandemic, and that its students are seeing academic growth throughout the year. Foster said that the charter’s test scores were lower than expected in both 2018 and 2019, which he attributed to a new state achievement test.

The school saw students grow academically in 2021, which he said reflects a strategy to improve achievement as well as “an unmatched commitment to meet students’ needs during COVID.” He argued the school is on the right track and needs the time to prove it can continue improving.

School officials said Genesis is performing in line or better than peer schools, including nearby KCPS buildings and Hogan Preparatory Academy — another charter school that recently came under fire by the commission.

“Genesis is performing better than the other schools where these children will end up if Genesis is not available to them,” said Chuck Hatfield, attorney for Genesis. “We’re talking about the death penalty for Genesis School. All of these children leave. All of these teachers are put out of work.”

Genesis teacher Madilynn Kettle argued that test scores do not reflect her students’ growth in the classroom.

“I teach fourth grade, and my goal is for all of my students to end the year on grade level and be successful in fifth grade. Unfortunately, that’s just not realistic,” she said. “I’ve had students enter my room not knowing the sounds letters make and struggling to read. Those same students left my classroom able to read and catching up to those on grade level.”

Wahby argued that Genesis leaders have not proven they have the urgency or plan in place to improve student achievement. She said that teachers are inadequately prepared to lead classrooms, and that the school has a high student mobility rate, with about one-third of families turning over each year.

Genesis has broken the promises it made in its contract, she said, not only with the commission, which sponsors the school, but with previous sponsors as well.

She said Genesis was placed on academic probation when its charter was renewed in 2015 by the University of Missouri - Kansas City, its first sponsor. The school also failed to meet performance standards when it was later sponsored by the University of Missouri in Columbia, which lost its authority to sponsor Genesis and two other charter schools.

In 2020, the state agreed to renew Genesis’ five-year charter, but put it on academic probation once again. The next year, the state school board voted to make the Missouri Charter Public School Commission the school’s sponsor.

“Two sponsors, two probations, multiple warnings of academic performance,” she said. “We are the third sponsor. The third time not meeting standards is enough.”

Wahby said the commission notified the school of its findings last March.

“They knew the stakes here high. They knew they had the money and they had to do something faster and better,” she said. “They knew that most students in their care were below grade level, some very below grade level.”

Last July, the commission approved a contract with the school, as well as an intervention plan laying out standards and performance goals for the next few years. Hatfield argued that because the intervention plan was accepted only seven months ago, the school has not yet had time to prove it is meeting standards and improving this school year.

He argued the charter commission is in breach of the contract because it did not provide Genesis with enough notice or calls for corrective action, as laid out in the agreement, in advance of announcing its intent to revoke the charter.

The contract says the commission will regularly monitor the school to determine if it is meeting performance standards. The commission will require corrective action if the school’s annual performance results in three of the last four years are below KCPS, and the school is “identified as persistently lowest achieving.”

Hatfield argued the commission has not proven Genesis is the lowest achieving school. He said of revoking the charter at this point: “I don’t think it’s legal.”

The contract states that Genesis will be afforded the opportunity to address any breaches of contracts or failures to perform. The commission may choose to revoke the charter if Genesis then breaches the contract, or fails to meet performance standards or follow mandated corrective actions.

Parents and community members argued that Genesis takes a “holistic approach” to helping students succeed, by prioritizing offering them counseling and other support, saying that students must feel safe before they can learn.

“There are promises Genesis School has kept for our community. You put emotional needs first,” Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson said. “You meet kids where they are regardless of their life circumstances. And your commitment to not throwing away our kids based on the strategies of a lot of other charter schools, the push-out strategies they use. You are committed to serving all kids.”