Because my older daughter is pursuing a teaching career after college, I try to keep up with local public school news and national educational issues. I’m closely watching the CEE-Trust proposal presented to the KCMO public school district, and I’ve blogged about Hale Cook Elementary. I’m aware of the excellent reputation Academie Lafayette has–so good there is a waiting list for entry. I didn’t know much about the University Academy at 6801 Holmes. So, last week I toured the school and had a lengthy talk with Executive Director and Superintendent Tony Kline.
University Academy is a college preparatory charter public school, funded by KCMO tax dollars and sponsored by UMKC. This attractive brick building opened in 2004, and has 1050 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It is an impressive facility–modern, clean, with lots of light, updated equipment and a beautiful theater. Eighty percent of the students receive a free or reduced lunch program,and 96% of the students are African American. I suspect these stats are similar to several Kansas City MO public schools but with one big difference – UA kids have much higher overall MAP test scores. The UA Upper School also received a Bronze Medal for the second consecutive year from U.S. News and World Report.
What is the key to University Academy’s success?
The number one thing, Mr Kline told me, is this school does not engage in ‘social promotion’–they will not move a child to the next grade level until s/he has sufficiently mastered the current grade level. This school also emphasizes, from early grades on, that every child will attend college–and the teachers prepare the students accordingly. Junior and senior high students take ‘college seminar’: a daily class that teaches the kids how to research and apply to colleges, how to write entrance essays and pursue scholarships. These students receive intense tutoring for ACT tests and take field trips to various colleges and universities outside the KC area. Every acceptance letter is proudly displayed on classroom windows. In addition, all class sizes are small, averaging around 20 persons each, and teacher turnover is low. Behavior incidents are few (mostly “social media drama”, according to Mr Kline), and all students follow a dress code. There is an expectation here that every child can succeed academically, and the schoolwork it takes to make it happen will be done. Parental support is very important, as well as individual student motivation.
The kids here have some great extra-curricular activities too: UA boasts an accomplished athletic and performing arts program, and just launched a middle school/high school robotics team this year. I was impressed by the unique student-created ceramic art displayed around the school.
Like Academie Lafayette, there is a spring lottery for entrance to the school. Demand is greater than the supply of spots available. And students should start UA as a kindergarteners –it is challenging to transfer here from another school as there are very few open slots and attrition is low. UA also offers on site dental and medical clinics, sponsored by UMKC and Children’s Mercy Hospital. And through the generosity of the school’s supporters, every graduate is eligible for ongoing scholarships each semester they are enrolled in college. The graduating class of 2013 received a combined $1.35 million in scholarships among the 40 students.
What’s the next goal for Mr Kline? He would like to someday add a preschool, but that would mean adding another building. He would also like to see the school more racially diverse. Kline is well aware that many Brookside area families jump the state line to attend Kansas public schools, or pay expensive tuition bills for private school due to serious issues with the Kansas City Public School system.
His challenge–even with the academic achievement recognition, college prep curriculum and a state of the art building in a convenient location–is finding incentives for parents to consider his school before making the decision to move or attend private school.
Perhaps things have changed but when my wife and I toured the facility in 2009 (after UA enlarged its ‘boundaries’ to include the Brookside/Waldo neighborhoods) the school’s specific mission was to educate disadvantaged urban youth: preference was given to those children over all others. The then-director of UA made it clear that should we have decided to enroll our Brookside children, they would only gain admittance after all disadvantaged urban kids who wanted spots had received them.
While perfectly understandable (admirable, even), it does tend to skew the demographics heavily toward minority participation. UA will have to make a concerted effort at selling the public on their desire to alter their mission should they wish to trend those numbers downward.