Kansas City school reform program not making the grade

Monday, April 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — A program at a Kansas City high school that was expected to become a model for urban school reform is facing criticism from parents.

The Raising the Bar program at Central High School was launched seven months ago with teachers, students and parents agreeing to improved academic progress, parental involvement and student conduct.

But the required covenants, signed at the start of the school year, have mostly not been kept.

Some school supporters say new principal Deborah McGill, who is overseeing the reform effort, has not met expectations.

McGill has taken on one of the toughest principal's jobs in the state, and she's doing so with a temporary administrator's certificate. State records show McGill as being one of only four head principals in Missouri high schools to start the year without a full principal certificate. McGill's certificate has been renewed for next year, according to the state.

McGill, a longtime teacher who has worked in the Kansas City district more than 25 years, has the backing of some parents, who say they want to work with her to revive the reform program.

Other parents, including Central school advisory committee chairman Joseph Jackson, don't think the principal and her administrative team are equipped to carry out the program.

"This is not a job you give to a first-year principal," Jackson said.

Don Bell, associate superintendent for the school district, said McGill outshone other applicants during the "strenuous" interviewing process.

Some question why the reform effort has broken down so quickly. Parent Ronald Chaney said parents were excited in the beginning, with more than 50 showing up for the first school advisory committee meeting last fall — more than double the usual turnout.

But then class schedules for students and textbooks started showing up late. Delays came in resetting lockers with new combinations so students could use them.

In some cases, teachers weren't being consistent in issuing weekly progress reports for students. The student dress code and the rule requiring ID badges ran into enforcement problems.

Student conduct wasn't improving. Jackson said he witnessed a series of fights at the school last month. When the fighting continued, police had to be called.

Parents complained to the school, but Jackson said all they got were "promises, promises, promises."

Another parent, Dorothy Chaney, said, "There is no away around it. Raising the Bar was not implemented."

Central High had an enrollment of 966 last year and reported 270 disciplinary incidents.

Danita Saffold, who supports the new principal, said she and other parents "need this school district to become serious about engaging with parents in this process."

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