Many students in the Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMOSD) will be unable to read this article.
A greater percentage can read the article but will not be able to comprehend what they have read.
Herein lies the biggest problem the KCMOSD faces as it sits on the verge of being stripped of its accreditation by the State Board of Education. A majority of the district’s 35,000 students are not meeting basic academic standards. This fact not only jeopardizes the future of thousands of children but also costs the district money and its reputation. In a metropolitan area with more than 20 school districts, the KCMOSD is the largest, operating 73 schools. It also has the highest profile and is the most scrutinized.
Benjamin E. Demps Jr. is the district’s savior for the moment, and optimism is high that he can deliver some answers to the problematic school system. “This is a major job, and the difficulty is the expectations of the people who think the district’s problems will be solved quickly,” says Demps, who was born in New York City. “I really feel that I should not be expected to resolve in eight months what has taken 15 years. I’m not that punishing on myself.”
A self-professed boat-lover, Demps established himself as a highly respected manager in the Sooner state — Oklahoma. The longtime state and federal government employee has a reputation for healing troubled bureaucracies. The KCMOSD hired Demps to dramatically shake things up, and his plans for reform have caused more drama than a Shakespearean play.
Demps has done what past superintendents have struggled to do during their tenure. He has stood up to pressures from within the district and from outside special-interest groups. Demps says he is open to being lobbied and will listen to suggestions but will not be easily swayed, as past superintendents have been. The neophyte superintendent’s tough talk sounds good, but his ability to stick to his independent stance as he addresses district problems is an ongoing process.
The 66-year-old Demps arrived from Oklahoma City and took control of the district on Aug. 2, 1999. His early assessment of the district was that it was an uncoordinated mess. “When I arrived in August, I saw disruption throughout the district,” he says.
The district is failing. KCMOSD students suffer under low test scores, poor academic achievement, low teacher morale, high dropout rates, lack of standards, and low expectations. The 2,400 district teachers have taken a lot of the blame for the students’ poor performance, and they question whether the superintendent truly values them. Also, the teachers’ union is at odds with Demps over proposed changes to its contract. Meanwhile, the community wants instant reform, but its members are wary of change.
Demps chose to come out of retirement to redirect the beleaguered district and has inherited a grand mess of problems. He retired from the Federal Aviation Administration and served as director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. Demps also founded an aviation consulting firm, Demps Enterprises. Demps has no experience running a troubled urban school district.
“Demps is under tremendous pressure,” says Ajamu Webster, a key member of the political organization The Black United Front and a district parent. “The way you handle the district is not the way you would shut down an airport or downsize a social service agency. This is not the same thing. The school district is in the business to educate children.”
Demps, also a former Air Force staff sergeant, says he is prepared for battle. He is armed with a supposedly well-designed plan and what he considers a team of experts. His biggest asset thus far has been his reputation for being a good manager. But what some say is a dull personality could become a liability. Demps is in a position where he must motivate others. For that task, a deadpan personality can be an obstacle.
Everything about Demps is ho-hum, except for his love for America. “I believe in public education because it is good for democracy,” says Demps.
In a school district in which a majority of the students subscribe to slain rapper Notorious B.I.G’s theory on life, either you slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot, it is tough to understand how Demps and his “pledge allegiance to the flag” mentality will relate to the hip-hop generation of students whose educational future he is trying to improve.
The superintendent does not deal with the day-to-day chore of interacting with the student population. And Demps has avoided setting foot inside any of the schools on a frequent basis, which could mean that he realizes his old-fashioned views and conservative personality may not go over well with the students. So has he taken a why-bother stance?
Some district officials have wondered why Demps has not made more of a presence at the school-site level. When asked, Demps dodges the question, saying that visiting schools is not a function of the superintendent.
Students today see right through superficial authority figures. Peers may respect Demps’ fatherly image, but his conservative dress and reserved manner would not earn him many points with the youth culture. Critics say Demps must connect with the student population for the district to seriously rebound. The students must know who he is and buy into his leadership skills and plans for improvement. It will be a challenge connecting to the youth, and so far, Demps has avoided the specifics of that task.
Several play-it-by-the-book administrators have tried to lead the KCMOSD without much regard for getting involved with the student body and have failed. The district could use a “New Jack” superintendent, someone with a radical approach to teaching students and an ability to understand the social issues (poverty, crime, teen pregnancy) that often interfere with learning.
Demps comes across as highly intelligent but very cautious. He does not appear to be a risk-taker. He takes long pauses before he answers a question and for the most part is careful not to say something he has not carefully thought out. He is a man concerned about his image and protective almost to a fault. He avoids talking about anything that is not school district-related. Even when he discusses district business, Demps sticks to what seems to be a well-rehearsed script of answers.
For a man in such a high-profile position, it may be a wise, calculated move to not expose himself to the media. But remaining a mystery in the district has caused many officials to question his communication skills. Judy Morgan, president of the Kansas City, Missouri, Federation of Teachers Local 691, and school board members Lee Barnes and Elma Warrick have suggested that Demps enroll in a refresher communications course.
Demps relishes his privacy; he won’t even allow the media in his office. Interviews for this story were conducted in a nondescript conference room with Demps sitting rigid at a table as if he were about to conduct a board meeting.
His private side is off-limits. Demps won’t discuss his family in any detail. Demps’ wife, an attorney, still lives in Oklahoma City. Demps tries to go home to his family every other weekend. They have children, but Demps won’t reveal how many or their ages.
“When I do go home, the normalcy of life overtakes me. I went home and my wife says, ‘Fix the fence’ because it needed to be fixed since last spring but I didn’t get to it. Marriage will do some good things for you — it will keep you humble,” he says.
Demps has no plans to move his family to Kansas City. “I have a two-year contract,” he says. “It is not smart to change a household for such a short contract.”
That statement could make district observers wonder whether Demps’ reign will be short-lived, even though he attributes a majority of the district’s past failures to the continual change of superintendents.
Demps was one of four people officially considered for the job. Federal Judge Dean Whipple, the court-appointed three-member Desegregation Monitoring Committee (DMC), and, to a lesser degree, the school board liked Demps’ administrative credentials. His first response upon being contacted was to say he was not an educator. But the hunt was on for someone with strong management tactics.
“I initially said ‘no,'” says Demps. “But I was told that they wanted someone who is a manager. And since I know I have well-established credentials as a manager of large organizations dealing with complex issues, I was confident I could lead this district.”
His lack of a background in education or public school administration was dealt with early by Demps. “There is an ancient argument in the United States that I have lived through many times, and it goes like this: ‘Must you have had experience working on the production line at Ford in order to be the CEO of the Ford Motor Company, must you have been a legislator in order to be the president of the United States, must you have been a schoolteacher in order to be a superintendent of a school district?'” he asks.
Management expertise was what the district lacked. Demps was hired because of his managerial experience, and he sums up his managerial style by saying, “I believe in participatory management.” Nonetheless, management expertise may not be enough to revive a district that some officials and community leaders feel has reached the point of no return.
Interestingly, Demps claims he knew nothing of the district’s long-standing problems and inner turmoil before he accepted the job as superintendent. “When I was contacted and asked if I would be interested in the job is when I began to learn about the district,” he says.
Was Demps living in his own private Idaho? The Supreme Court ruling ending the district’s desegregation order and magnet-school program was a national news story, and the district’s long-standing problems have received national media attention for years. It seems odd that a man praised for his management abilities would have not investigated the company he was about to sign a contract with — and to lead.
Demps signed a two-year contract, which pays him $156,420 annually, plus bonuses of up to $17,380. “His job is both court- and contractually ordered, and his contract is very clear on what he is supposed to accomplish,” says school board member Fifi Wiedeman. “His job is to ensure that the core curriculum is taught and learned.”
The bonuses are incentive-based. To cash in on the extra money, Demps must increase student performance and reduce the achievement gap between black and white students. The mandate to shrink the racial gap in achievement was a court-ordered, three-year goal and was handed down in 1997. The district has failed to close the gap. In some areas of study, the gap has widened.
The court-approved plan calls for the district to fully implement a new core curriculum (a four-year-old plan that emphasizes reading, writing, and mathematics), administer new student tests, improve teacher training, and hold students, teachers, and administrators accountable. Following the court’s plan is a part of Demps’ agenda, and he is fully committed to making it work. “We have not completed any of those things,” he says. “But we have started them — something that was not done before I got here.”
Confidence is Demps’ best trait. One would expect to see diplomas from Cooley High and Hip University hanging on Demps’ office wall, because his outer persona is so cool and smooth. Call that observation a compliment, considering Demps did not graduate from college. He came up the ranks as a hard-working government man. Demps joined the Air Force in 1952 at 18 and became an air traffic controller, which may explain why he appears so calm under pressure. Landing jets safely is the kind of job that requires pinpoint precision and a lot of bottles of aspirin. A few reporters won’t rattle a guy who spent 19 years (three in the military and 16 for the FFA) in the tower ensuring the safety of thousands of air travelers.
Demps has been accused of being intimidating, placing gag orders on employees, and being unwilling to listen to anyone’s ideas but his own. Demps agrees that he is a man who likes to be in control of his image, information, and staff. “I believe that all of my employees should have a strong sense of loyalty,” says Demps. He denies that he is or has been intimidating.
“He was hired to fix the system,” says Wiedeman. “We have to give him a certain amount of latitude because he has never been a public school superintendent. That is an advantage because he can make difficult decisions because he is not a vested educator.”
“He is looking at running the district in terms of a business, and he should because the district is a business, one of the largest in Kansas City,” says former school board member Gina Gowin.
The difficulty of the job doesn’t escape Demps. He works long hours and gets to enjoy little recreational time on his boat, which he keeps in Oklahoma. During his time here, Demps has taken a liking to the KC restaurant scene. “I’ve gained a few pounds since moving to Kansas City,” he says. “It has not had an immediate effect on my health but it has on my wardrobe.”
Demps prefers to keep a low profile. “He doesn’t want to be viewed as a celebrity; he wants to be viewed as the leader of the school district,” says Beth Hammock, public relations director for the KCMOSD.
Avoiding the limelight is perhaps Demps’ smartest move during his stint as the leader of a troubled school district. It is an intentional move and a part of his personality to shy away from the media. Many district residents believe the lust for celebrity status caused problems for previous superintendents. “I’m not one who wants to be out there,” says Demps. “I get my satisfaction from the job I’m doing. I don’t really need public accolade.”
As of May 1, 2000, the KCMOSD will be stripped of its accreditation for failing to meet the academic performance standards set by the State Board of Education. The district will have two years to improve. If it does make progress, the accreditation will be reinstated. If it does not meet state standards, the district could face a state takeover and a restructuring into smaller districts or other changes.
“We cannot prevent that from happening May 1. The students do not take the test (Missouri Assessment Program, or MAP) until the end of April, and the results, which could prove growth, would not be calculated before May 1,” explains Demps.
The system the state uses to determine accreditation status is complicated and confusing. The KCMOSD passed two of the three major components: resources and process standards. Nonetheless, it failed all 11 categories of the critical performance category.
“On the procedural components, the KCMOSD passed the review,” says Jim Morris, director of public information for the State Board of Education. “The district has all of the pieces in place — they have the staff, curriculum, and buildings. They just don’t have the performance and the accreditation system we use in Missouri that now puts the focus on academic performance.”
Overall, the district has performed poorly, but there are several academic oases: Lincoln College Preparatory High School and Middle School, Graceland Elementary, North Rock Creek Korte, McCoy Elementary, and Three Trails Elementary have met state accreditation standards.
“The decision reflected the facts,” says Demps. “I’m troubled by the decision because the State Board of Education had the discretion not to unaccredit those schools which did not meet the standard and leave the others that did accredited. We have some very high-performing schools in this district. They chose to remove accreditation from the entire district when in fact they themselves, two or three months after that decision, have indicated that we have schools in the district which scored in the top 10 in the state in various subjects.”
The state board does not accredit individual school buildings. The board evaluates the districts as a whole. “Some individual buildings did relatively well in the district. But we measure the system,” says Morris. “The State Board of Education could not have accredited specific schools.”
The school most penalized by the state board’s decision is the district’s academic shining star — Lincoln College Preparatory Academy. The high and middle schools had some of the top scores in the state in 1999, and both have produced top students since 1983, when Lincoln adopted the advanced-curriculum format.
But Lincoln Prep does not represent the typical KCMOSD school. “Using Lincoln as an example is not fair because their deck is stacked,” says Ajamu Webster. “They get many of the top students in the city, so it’s not fair to compare them to the other schools in the district.”
The accreditation issue has given the district a stigma that interferes with Demps’ attempts to attract top-level talent to work for the district. It has also given parents greater justification to pull their children out of the district.
Many district staff and board members feel that the state board unfairly stripped away the district’s accreditation. There have also been suggestions that the state board is biased in its decision. The only two districts that are unaccredited in Missouri are the Kansas City and St. Louis districts. Both are primarily urban and predominantly African-American districts.
Demps repeats that he will stop at nothing to get the district reaccredited. Yet he refuses to outline how he intends to make that happen. Demps just issues his stock answer that the district will focus on the court-ordered plan. Demps then adds that he is working on enhancing learning and demanding better performance from his staff. “The plans have been in place,” says Demps. “I’m here to get them into motion.”
Another problem that Demps must solve is competition with the influx of charter schools. With the district’s loss of accreditation, charter schools offer an alternative that could contribute to the district’s demise.
The passing of legislation in 1998 opened the door for the charter school movement. The next year, 15 charter schools opened in Kansas City. Two more have been approved to open this fall, and an estimated 20 more are slated to start up in the next few years.
“The charter school legislation and the bill that was passed was economic rape of the KCMOSD,” newly elected state Rep. Sharon Sanders Brooks said at a school district budget hearing. “(It’s) economic rape of this district to allow 35 schools to come on board without accreditation standards.”
So far, approximately 3,000 students have left the district, forcing the district to cut services and resources to eliminate $18 million to $20 million from its budget. “We have to combine and merge school programs and shut down some buildings. And we don’t know how many more students we are going to lose,” explains Demps. “If we lose a substantial amount between now and late August we will have to reduce the budget again, and that is the torpedo that is coming at us that I want everyone to see. We have a ship moving along a course that is doing fairly well, and we are making headway. We are concentrating on teaching the core curriculum and professional development and assessment.”
Frequent Demps critic, attorney, and district parent Clinton Adams doesn’t blame the superintendent for the charter school problem. “Students’ leaving the district to enroll in charter schools is not Demps’ fault,” he says. “It is a serious problem he has inherited. Now it is his job responsibility to address the problem. To this point I have seen no substantive plan or anything designed to address the problem of the charter schools.”
Demps refuses to comment on Adams, who is actively involved at the school-site level and frequently lobbies board members. District officials have described Adams as a frank, intimidating figure who persists until he gets what he wants. But Adams describes himself the same way. He has a long history of antagonizing superintendents, and district officials are not sure of his agenda. He says he is just protecting the interest of his daughter, who is a senior at Lincoln College Preparatory High School.
Perhaps to counter charter schools’ appeal, Demps has begun the process of increasing school principals’ control. “Site-based management is one of the great things that will happen here,” says Demps. “I can see great benefits, but first we have to train the principals to be educated leaders.” Demps was surprised that school principals were not more involved in running the district. He advocates site-based planning and says principals are more involved now in the decision-making process.
Many, but not all, of the district’s principals agree that Demps has given them more control to manage their schools. “It’s business as usual,” says a principal who wished not to be identified. “The principals are not more involved in the decision-making process. It sounds good, but it’s not true. Site-based management is just one of the many things Demps is spewing out to make it seem like he is doing a good job and being an effective leader.”
Demps cannot make everyone happy. According to his two-year contract, that is not his job. He was hired to strengthen the administrative staff and improve student achievement.
“The future of our kids’ education should not rest solely on whether or not Demps has the capacity to lead this school system. One man is not going to save the district. It’s going to take the board, parents, and community leaders,” says Adams.
The year started off with high expectations from the community, which viewed Demps as a nontraditional superintendent with the skills and ability to change the district. Recently, however, he has begun to receive criticism for the way he has diagnosed the district’s problems, set up his administrative staff, and disseminated his plan.
This backlash has occurred at the same time the white establishment has heaped early praise on Demps. The superintendent has received rave reviews from KC Mayor Kay Waldo Barnes, state education commissioner Dr. Robert Bartman, several civic and business leaders, and most of the school board members. Demps has also been fully supported by The Kansas City Star, which has published a series of editorials endorsing the superintendent. “My personal opinion is that he has brought administrative expertise and stability to the district,” Barnes said in The Star.
“I believe (the praise is) all premature,” says Adams. “We have not seen any results. He should be given a chance, but let’s not judge his performance until he actually develops some initiatives that actually improve academic performance.”
It’s in the African-American community that Demps has faltered. Some in the community feel that he has not been responsive to their needs. Demps, they say, has not listened to community leaders’ ideas and has completely shut them out of the planning process. Such a perception has brought charges that Demps’ actions have insulted community activists who have long supported the district.
“He is perceived as a good administrator, but he has to work on being a community-based leader,” says school board member Lee Barnes. “He doesn’t understand the importance of community involvement and how that can benefit the district.”
Questions have arisen about whether Demps knows he needs district parents’ support.
“His approach appears to be, ‘I’m here; I have a job to do. Whatever you did in the past did not work, so there is no sense of even trying to go that route. We are going to do something different,'” says Webster. “What that attitude does is disrespect the history, the contributions, and sacrifices of the local process.”
Feelings of resentment and alienation have cropped up. Some have called for Demps to refresh his public- and community-relations skills.
“The KCMOSD is not the only game in town, so Demps must be careful how he comes across with the community,” continues Webster. “Demps has to appeal to the parents to keep their children enrolled in the district. They don’t relate to Demps at all. He comes across as arrogant and abrasive. He is coming at the parents like this is the only game in town, and you can’t use that approach when people have choices.
“Demps is not about engaging the community. Demps does not understand that his number-one customer base is the African-American parents. If you are not doing whatever it takes to build confidence and make them excited about staying with the KCMOSD, then you are opening an opportunity for your competition to come in and take students away. The charter school groups are out there doing that and they are meeting with churches and organizations. They are doing everything they can to get people to see that their ice is colder. That is their strategy — they are saying, ‘We got the coldest ice in Kansas City.’ And Demps is like, ‘I have some ice and you can come get it if you want it. In fact, it’s not going to be as cold as it used to be, because we don’t have any money.’ People don’t want to hear that.”
Tension between Demps and district parents is building. Yet Demps does not seem to acknowledge the rift. At a budget hearing at Central High School in February, outraged parents bombarded him with questions and demanded answers — immediately. Demps seemed unaffected by the hostile environment and politely answered the questions, never losing his cool. He remained professional and in control, never gesturing with his hands, changing his facial expression, or raising his voice. He simply stood up and answered the questions in a friendly, precise tone.
An elderly man concerned about the potential loss of $18 million in the district’s budget for the next school year screamed out, “Why would this happen? This is not something that would just pop up overnight. Why wasn’t there any foresight, or didn’t you guys see this coming ahead of time? This is something I know just didn’t come up all of a sudden. It seems that if you guys were doing your jobs, this wouldn’t be going on.”
“This is the result of charter schools’ hitting the district this year,” responded Demps. “That’s the answer, sir — charter schools.”
In Demps’ view, charter schools are the biggest threat to the district, particularly in how their growth affects the district’s budget. He has alerted district officials that very difficult times likely lie ahead due to students’ flight from the district to charter schools.
“There is no way to know how many students will leave the district. We have an imperfect law permitting charter schools to open in this district with no consideration for the impact on the school district they are leaving,” says Demps. Each student that leaves sets the district back an average of $6,500. The district receives money based on enrollment data. “We have no control over that loss of potential revenue,” says Demps.
A potential problem, depending upon charter schools’ performance, is that returning students cost the district money that was already lost to the charter schools. Yet the district is still responsible for educating that student. “Charter schools have not demonstrated that they can improve achievement,” says Demps.
Demps remains a man loaded with confidence and thus far has not been shaken by criticism. He is sticking with his plan to follow the specifics outlined in his contract, which has severely pricked at the status quo.
Reversal of the Nov. 17, 1999, dismissal of the Kansas City School District’s desegregation lawsuit was a major blow to the district’s independence. U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple’s original decision to dismiss the 23-year-old suit released the district from the holds of the federal court and the state education department. Demps has stressed that the district was trying to move forward — away from a district that has been controlled by a court to one that is controlled by its residents.
Arthur A. Benson II, attorney for the plaintiff schoolchildren, appealed the lawsuit’s dismissal. He argued that Demps was not delivering on promises to improve student performance. Benson also wanted the monitoring committee to resume day-to-day authority over district operations.
On the day the ruling returned the district to court oversight, members of the school board executive committee met in private. Speculation swirled among the press and district observers. Cameramen with faded jeans hoisted cameras over their shoulders as the field reporters eagerly waited for board members and Demps to come down from the top floor on their way to the public meeting on the first floor. Reporters wanted a juicy sound bite for the 10:00 news, but as Demps made the walk, he uttered no comment.
“How will today’s decision by the judge affect the district?” a reporter shouted. Demps never said a word as he fought his way through the throng. Demps does not serve up sound bites. He remained tight-lipped as he casually strolled toward the public school board meeting.
The room was filled to capacity with district employees and parents. When Demps entered, there was no mistaking who was in charge. He has a commanding presence. All eyes were on Demps, and the district’s highest-ranking official made no apology for the meeting’s late start. The proceedings began without a hint that Demps was upset that the courts might regain control of the district, making his authority less effective.
School board member Helen Ragsdale, who followed closely behind Demps, attempted to handle the frenzied crowd members by handing them copies of an official memo stating the district’s position on the court’s decision. Ragsdale, speaking for the board, had to shout over reporters, frustrated that they couldn’t get Demps to speak on the record. “We remain committed to the core curriculum and will do everything in our power to ensure that it is taught,” said Ragsdale in a warm, motherly voice that was mostly ignored. “The DMC (Desegregation Monitoring Committee) order will not interfere. We are used to it and are not surprised by the decision. We must move forward and continue to think about the children.”
Demps still will not comment on the ruling. The appeal could have been avoided if Demps had agreed to a settlement with Benson. Such a settlement could have eliminated court-appointed monitoring. Demps could have settled with Benson, preventing the appeal of Whipple’s decision. Some board members question Demps’ decision. Despite Demps’ errant move, a board majority continued to support the superintendent. Demps’ only response to criticism over his decision was to say he didn’t think settling was appropriate. But he does say this about Benson: “He is smart, hardworking, and a very nice man. We disagree strongly on what the future of the district is in regards to the desegregation case. Benson does not think it should be dismissed; I believe it should.”
The reversal, which a majority of the school board reluctantly supports, could result in the district’s remaining under federal-court control for several more years. The court has suggested that the district must improve academic performance and shrink the achievement gap before it can be freed from court control. Yet the question remains: “If the desegregation order didn’t work for 23 years, why put it back in place?” asks Gowin.
Demps’ being required to again report to the monitoring committee may be a major factor in making his stay in Kansas City short. The DMC’s oversight has long been viewed as a roadblock in the district’s progress and as hindering the superintendent’s ability to make decisions. Demps relishes his independence and seems to function better without interference. In the past, the DMC ran the show, muscling former superintendents to make key decisions that the committee recommended. But not Demps.
“The reversal does not impact the institutionalization of the core curriculum and professional development,” says Demps. “The legal matters have to do with our status before the law. The instructional matters are internal workings of this department, which are not touched by the DMC.”
According to Demps, the DMC had already begun to pull back from in-depth management of the district shortly after Demps arrived. “They were limiting their direct decisional involvement,” he says. “They had begun the process, probably in early November, of advising mainly at my request on matters that I brought to them.”
Progress was made because Demps was able to take the Desegregation Monitoring Committee out of the decision-making process.
“I don’t know whether or not we would have been able to proceed as well as we have if the DMC was still delving into the deepest nooks and corners of the organization and making decisions,” says Demps.
The district has been shackled to the court system since the 1970s. “This district has been under a federal court for more than 15 years. That situation pervaded everything done in this district,” says Demps. “In my view, it had a lot to do with the contortion of management. When I got here, there were good, hardworking people in this central administration who wouldn’t even bother coming to me for a decision. They would go straight to the DMC because the DMC was making all of the decisions.”
Demps views the district as his to run. He has surrounded himself with a staff that will help him. His team, however, has also been under fire. Their lack of Kansas City roots breeds some suspicion.
Demps promoted Cherri Shannon to chief of staff and later to chief instructional officer. Two former co-workers at the Oklahoma Department of Health and Human Services have joined Demps’ team: Cynthia Clegg, assistant superintendent/organizational development (human resources), and Jack Goddard, program monitoring and compliance officer. David Smith, executive officer for public engagement and advocacy (communications director), was brought in from an East Coast foundation. According to the Oklahoman newspaper, Goddard was named in a 1998 lawsuit alleging that he and two other people discriminated against blacks, promoting less-qualified whites, including friends and family of top white administrators.
“I think he (Demps) means well. Unfortunately, I think he has failed to surround himself with the individuals who have the capacity to lead and take the district forward,” says Adams. “I have not been impressed with the team he has assembled. They do not bring any skills or strong background credentials to the table. I’m very concerned.”
Poor staff choices have crippled past superintendents in their ability to perform adequately. “This job is not impossible. Good, intelligent, qualified people can do the job. It’s difficult but not impossible,” says Adams. “If you have a vision, commitment, skills, and ability to recognize talent and hire talent and believe in accountability, you can succeed. At this phase I’m still waiting to see. I have some questions about his vision. I’m taking a wait-and-see position.”
Demps strongly supports his choice of staff members. “The criticism of my staff is unfair because the people who are shooting those arrows have been in this district for many years. My response to them is, ‘If your advice and thoughts were that good, how come the district is a failure?'” asks Demps. “I needed a staff that could respond to me. A superintendent generally brings in key people to get major work done, particularly in a district that needs such an overhaul.”
Many of the district’s problems stem from it’s being an urban school system. “The issues are so complex, the history is so deep, and some of the hurt is still deeply felt,” says Demps. “Some of the rejection of the district is due to the last 15 years of much money spent and poor student performance.”
A lot of the public resentment comes from the courts’ intervention and their allocation of an unlimited amount of resources to address illegal segregation, a practice that denied African-Americans a quality education. “The district has performed poorly despite receiving those resources,” says Demps. “The district had an opportunity to improve the quality of education, but they failed to take advantage. A lot of the criticism is well-founded and justified.”
The district’s problems cannot all be linked to racial prejudices. “I think that the underlying problem was that the district was predominantly African-American. After ‘white flight’ took place and the district shrank from 70,000 students to 35,000, the district was mostly African-American,” says Demps. “I’m not about to say that 75 percent of the students in the district are in the condition that they are in because they are African-American. I’m an African-American and I know I can learn, and every African-American that I know can learn. So I’m not going to say that the problem is because they are African-American. I think the problem is that the district has been caught in turmoil for too long and the changeover of superintendents has had a bad effect on the district. This district needs stability, and you can’t get that by changing superintendents every 18 months.”
Although leadership has been inconsistent in the Kansas City School District, not all of the district’s problems can be laid at the superintendent’s door. Education systems nationwide have trouble recruiting talented people. Many college graduates pursue careers that are much more lucrative than education administration.
“A lack of quality personnel in critical positions has largely led to the district’s poor performance,” says Adams. “There has been a dearth of quality instructional leadership — good principals. The teachers are not strong. There are some individual good teachers, but not enough. And as a whole, academic instruction has been poor.”
Recruiting good personnel is high on Demps’ priority list. He realizes the district is experiencing a shortage of math and science teachers. But that shortage is also a national problem.
“Recruiting teachers …,” says Demps. He stops, takes a deep breath, and wipes his forehead before continuing. “Attracting and keeping teachers — we need a continuity of good teaching, young people with newly minted degrees to come to Kansas City and stay. Not just come, but stay. Recruitment is one thing, retaining is another. The challenge is more so felt now because a new teacher may want to come but will say, ‘Oh, my goodness, they are about to be unaccredited.'”
But Demps faces an additional hurdle in teacher recruitment. His relationship with the local teachers’ union is not good. “I don’t believe Demps is accustomed to working with a union,” says Judy Morgan, teachers’ union president.
Another obstacle is the public’s perception of the nine-member school board.
“We basically have a dysfunctional school board; that’s why we have a dysfunctional school district,” says Adams. “We have had a history of a dysfunctional board. A board should make policy, set direction, establish goals, then give the power to the superintendent and the administration to implement.”
Adams also chides the quality of school board candidates. “The board members lack the intellectual capacity to run an educational system of this magnitude,” he says. “Most of the board members are second- and third-rate people. Qualified people do not run (for the board) due to abandonment; people who have the talent and ability to serve productively are not interested and have given up on the district.”
The board’s inadequacies may soon end. Four new members were elected to the board on April 5. The new group, which includes a respected businessman and retired teacher, will join what has been the district’s most stable unit in years. The makeup could help Demps, but only if the district addresses its most pressing issue: accreditation.
“It is professionally difficult for educators, administrators, teachers, and principals,” says Demps. “It certainly must be embarrassing working for a district that is unaccredited.” Demps admits that even he is embarrassed by the district’s status.
“Losing accreditation is psychologically damaging to the students and employees of the district and further erodes public confidence in the school system,” says Adams.
Demps is not sure what effect losing accreditation will have on students’ futures. Morris says it is not as devastating as it may seem. “There is a perception that if the district is unaccredited that your diploma will not count and you won’t be able to get into college,” he says. “The plain fact is, that is not true. Colleges look at other things: test scores on the ACT exam, transcripts, class rank. Any student who is otherwise qualified to go to college anywhere will be accepted. Accreditation does not have a bearing on the institution’s decision, and admission officers have told us that. There is no technical impact on a student’s eligibility for college or other post-high school options. Nor does it affect a teacher’s license.”
But Adams sees a different type of fallout. “If the district continues to fail, black middle-class flight will accelerate. The white middle-class is virtually already gone,” he says. “Then what you are going to have left is a district comprised of disaffected, disadvantaged, and underclass students, which will make it more difficult to improve academic achievement. When your higher-achieving students leave the district, it makes it more difficult to raise the scores. People who once supported public education now have alternatives.”
The ability to master standardized tests is a large part of passing the state board’s performance indicators. Opponents of standardized testing have stated that standardized tests are an unfair way to measure academic achievement, particularly for a district that is predominantly African-American, because of cultural biases in test questions.
Mastering the basics is critically important, says Demps. “I celebrate my heritage, but I also know that if I want to prosper in the United States, I better learn how to read, write, and figure, as they used to say, to meet the American standard. Our kids are in competition with every kid in the world. You can’t escape that fact.”
To help increase test scores, Demps developed a Saturday school program for students’ educational enrichment. It is his first major initiative to be put into action. The pilot program began in January. Approximately 2,800 students whose scores on standardized tests were below grade level were chosen by the district’s Planning, Research, and Evaluation Department to participate at 11 schools holding Saturday classes.
“I didn’t just bring it to the table, I said do it,” says Demps of the program. “Everyone is so negative about education because they are so tied to the legacy way of thinking. What was done 15 or 20 years ago is what you have to do now. Do you have to do it the same? You don’t. You can try a new way to do it. People told me you can’t do Saturday school because people expect the kids to be home on Saturday. I replied that people also expect their kids to learn.”
So far the results have been mixed. The teachers, who are paid extra for the Saturday classes, say the program has made a difference but that student interest has declined. When the program initially started, 2,800 students were enrolled.
“I’m not impressed with his Saturday school program. It was hastily put together to show that they are doing something,” says Adams. “I don’t think that the same teachers teaching the same students the same way with the same curriculum is going to yield anything but the same results. You are just adding another day. You have to make fundamental changes in the instruction and delivery methodology. Putting students in school an extra day isn’t going to yield any results.”
Demps moved quickly to address poor academic performance by instituting Saturday school but moved slowly in hiring a deputy superintendent, who is also the district’s instructional leader. Demps cited filling the position as a top priority when Demps was hired, presumably to address his own lack of educational credentials. The deputy superintendent is considered a key position and vital to students’ academic success. The individual who fills the position oversees the district’s educational component and implements the core curriculum. Demps said it was tough to lure qualified candidates to the district because of its problems.
Recently, it was announced that Pittsburgh, Pa., public school official Joseph L. Hines will become the district’s instructional leader beginning in May. Hines comes from a public system similar to Kansas City’s. He was a regional superintendent in charge of one-third of the schools in the 39,000-student district. Like Kansas City, the Pittsburgh district is predominantly African-American and scored poorly on standardized tests. Under Hines’ direction, the Pittsburgh school district’s test scores improved. Hines also worked in the Tucson, Ariz., district as director of African-American studies.
Despite the public’s wait-and-see attitude concerning Hines, Demps doesn’t have a lot of time left on his contract.
“He has a two-year hatchet over his head — the district is about to lose its accreditation and has only a two-year window to make some progress or the district gets split up. So he is under the knife,” says Webster.
Demps is not certain whether he will stay beyond his contract. If he doesn’t, the district faces yet another superintendent-hiring process. KCMOSD needs stability, but it is too early to tell whether Demps will be the stabilizing factor. He has a new board before him, and many challenges remain. His tasks are perhaps made more difficult because of his somewhat enigmatic personality.
The superintendent’s role is to manage the district, but in Kansas City he is looked upon to do much more. “We have to get away from looking for a savior or some messiah to lead our educational system and lead our kids to the promised land,” says Adams. “We depend too much on the superintendent and the board. It’s up to the community to take control of our children’s education. Demps has a lot ahead of him, but so do we as parents and citizens.”
How would the superintendent grade himself on his performance thus far? “I would give myself an A minus,” he says. But it’s going to be the grade the KCMOSD receives from the state board that matters most to students and their parents.
“We will get to the point where we will get provisional certification, then full certification. But I want the district to have A-plus certification,” says Demps. “It’s going to take a couple of years, but it’s doable because we have smart students in the district. We just need to get everyone focused on the task and stay with it — everyone must stay the course.”
Contact Shawn Edwards at 816-218-6778 or firstname.lastname@example.org.