Fixing Columbia’s Schools

When it comes to the Columbia School District, I only know what I read in the press. By the summer I arrived here from California eight years ago my twin daughters had just graduated college. All those years of shepherding the girls through public school – the awkward parent/teacher conferences; the homework that somehow became my responsibility, too; the driving to those life-enriching activities; the tear-laden drama of their relationships – were finished.

So when I didn’t have to pay much attention to what was going on in Columbia’s public schools, it felt liberating, an unchaining from the daily grind of worrying about whether teachers properly educated, socialized and civilized my children. To the contrary, there was a party line fed to newcomers that Columbia is one of the best places to live in America, a claim buttressed by the quality of its public schools. As it turns out, Columbia is not a bad place to live. But I’ve learned it’s not perfect, either.

Challenge No. 1: Regain The Public’s Trust

In one sense, most of the people in Columbia are just like me. Some 80 percent of the adults who live here don’t have children in the school district either, so most of what they know about it is what they learn from the press, too. The school district historically has enjoyed the confidence and trust of the city’s citizens, who like me, felt comfortable just letting things be and expecting them to stay wonderful. Then, everything changed.

It is the day after April 7, 2008, and according to press reports, then-Superintendent Phyllis Chase says she isn’t sure what voters were saying when they turned down – by a nearly two-thirds majority – a 54-cent property tax levy meant to support enriched educational programs. For a time, school district officials even considered hiring researchers to probe voters, eager to divine what caused them to reject their plea for funds despite the prospect of draconian budget and staff cuts.

No one asks those questions any more. Today, school board members and the new superintendent unanimously agree that the tax levy fiasco reflected the community’s loss of trust in the stewardship of the district, both fiscally and in its educational mission. They readily acknowledge a litany of misadventures that caused the erosion of faith, and they realize they must work harder to restore the community’s confidence.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see the missteps. Form an impression from the cumulative effect of press reports and there’s no escaping it was a mess:

  • A new high school site selected without transparency and community advice.
  • Scores of new hires without a plan to pay for them in succeeding years.
  • A controversy over the math curriculum that festered too long.
  • An achievement gap resistant to efforts to bridge it.
  • School violence that became a YouTube sensation.
  • Auditor reports that criticized accounting methods.
  • And of course, the fiscal constraints that mangled the district’s budget and left teachers out in the cold.

In the wake of all this the decks cleared, mostly by people stepping away. There’s a new superintendent, a new school board president and vice president, and recently elected and appointed school board members. By next year there won’t be anyone on the school board who’s been in office more than three years. They have a lot to fix.

Chris Belcher, the new superintendent who started on July 1, and who now must lead the rally, is a realist who describes his challenges with rapid-fire sentences that range from inspirational to down-home country. When asked which problems are the ones he wants people to understand aren’t his fault, he laughs. The fiscal conundrum is his to solve, but they weren’t of his making, he says, and he realizes that the relationship with the community could use some repair work, though he’s not responsible for the heightened tension. Belcher knows that his honeymoon – if he’s lucky – will last six months, and then he will own everything.

“I’ve been hired by the district, by the board, to increase students’ achievement, to close the gap, to create schools that are parent-friendly and welcoming to the community, that treat kids with great dignity and so forth, and if I don’t do my job I’ll get fired,” he says. “And I should be. So, the most important job is for me to hit on those markers.”

Belcher bristles when asked about his vision for the schools, aggravated that too many reporters have already posed that question.

“That’s very presumptuous to think that I can come here in two weeks and look at stuff and tell you what I would do differently,” he says. “We’re in a very complex system, and the only way that change and vision will occur in this district is if it’s done as a very large process, where enough people’s visions and thoughts are captured so that they don’t have any problem supporting it and following it.”

The new superintendent realizes that everyone is waiting for him to decide how he will prioritize all the issues needing attention. Building the new high school, for one, is already on the front burner, and if he’s going to convince the community to agree to a bond issue by next April’s election, he must articulate soon a rationale for it, and then sell it to an already reluctant constituency in a down economy. He’s concerned because even though he is “100 percent behind it,” convinced the district needs a new facility and that it will bring economic development and other benefits to the community, it’s possible the district may have underestimated the cost of replicating new programs.

So, Belcher’s strategy is to reach out to as many constituencies as he can so he can better understand what people want, and what they’re willing to do to get it.

“I can give you anything you want,” he promises. But, “I can’t give you everything you want.”

If Columbia wants more, its voters are going to need to step up and provide the resources.

To get them do that, however, Belcher will need to build consensus, and he concedes that’s no easy task. But he’s ready to listen and to talk about things. “I don’t hold much off my tongue,” he says. “I tend to have a good, honest debate.” But he also realizes that the decision-making process can be “painful” and it’s “going to create unrest and anxiety in my own system.”

If all Columbians know about the school district is what they learn in the press, then they don’t know anything about the people on the school board. Meeting these board members, one can’t help but wonder why such nice people would subject themselves to the vagaries of campaigning and the criticism – perhaps, abuse – that follows. None of them enjoy running for office nor have any higher political aspirations, and they don’t seem to hunger for power or control. They’re a passionate group of people who think they can do a good job of guiding the school district, and they choose to contribute huge chunks of time because they care about the community and its children. For most people, there’s not enough money to pay them to take on this responsibility. These school board members ran for the privilege to work for free.

It’s been called a “young board” because the members are largely inexperienced. Only Karla DeSpain is a veteran of eight years, and she doesn’t plan to run again after her current term expires next April. The newest member, James Whitt, was appointed in June.

Rebuilding the community’s trust is a primary objective for all the board’s members, because they know that without voters’ willingness to provide financial support many of their ideas won’t ever survive. They agree that communication and outreach are critical, but thus far they’ve not been together long enough to crystallize their message into a plan. It’s difficult to get them to commit to specifics. The board members say that greater transparency and a stronger effort to collaborate with all Columbians, not just parents, have already improved the atmosphere. They’re not eager for a repeat of the April 2008 election and another vote of no confidence.

Jan Mees took over the reins of the school board last April. Prim and proper in a way that reflects her school librarian’s past (though they call them media specialists these days), the new board president sits at her kitchen table bedecked with a checkered cloth and describes the work of the board since last year. She is diplomatic, but without prevarication.

“I think we’ve had to take steps to undo some of the decisions that had been made, perhaps by inexperienced people – i.e., the board or overzealous administrators – who had some great ideas that really were great but that didn’t have time to be accepted and grasped by the public.”

“Undo” is an understatement. In the last two years, the board was forced to slash $12 million in expenditures to finally balance the most recent $158 million operating budget with a bit less than $3,000 to spare. That tiny cushion, however, could get swallowed by a $500,000 bite if property assessments tank in this poor economy as predicted. Struggling to keep teachers in the classroom, school officials carved away the staffing at the periphery – administrators, support personnel, literacy and math coaches – some 70 positions in all. Gone is funding for doctoral stipends and field trips, and there are fewer class sections and electives in the high schools and middle schools.

“The face of trust has changed,” Mees says, referring to the board’s heightened recognition that it must improve how it communicates its deliberations and decisions. “We are going to be strategically planning much more strenuously with our board committees. We have to get our message out correctly. We have to correct misinformation … in some way that we are able to reach the voters that will go to the polls.”

The board’s new vice president, Tom Rose, mirrors that concern over the way the board and its administration is viewed by the public. Although press reports didn’t always provide all the facts, Rose says, he concedes that they didn’t fabricate the events, either.

“It began to look like we were not in control of anything,” he says, adding that things could have been “handled better.”

“Communicate, communicate, communicate”: This is now Rose’s mantra. He’s learning to quell his exuberance. “That’s where sometimes I’ve gotten in trouble, by confidently saying one thing, and then finding out it’s something different.”

Now he is more careful, considered.

So what’s the convincing rationale the board will give the community if it decides to push ahead with a bond issue for the new high school during an economic downturn?

Rose talks in generalities about how a good educational system attracts businesses and prepares the future workforce. It’s central to the economic vitality of the city.

That may be true, but fuzzy answers won’t convince the community that a third high school is what Columbia needs, what Columbia can afford. How will the school district manage redistricting when a new high school is always a good idea for someone else’s kid? How will the district pay for replicating programs, athletics, new staffing? And is an April 2010 vote too soon, considering last year’s wounds have yet to fully heal?

“Let me tell you why I have to give you a fuzzy picture right now. And this is the problem we run into if I tell you absolutely what I think,” he says. “I have every faith in the world that that’s going to be a fully functional high school. But if I tell you something where our board and our group haven’t completely formulated the plan, then that’s the problem. And people don’t understand that we have to take time and make sure we’ve got a cohesive plan.”

That “plan” will come together over the next several months, says Superintendent Belcher. The long-term facilities planning committee will make its recommendation, and then that will be vetted through the board. Belcher says Columbia needs the new high school in order to level out the grade structure so that kids spend three years in middle school (grades 6 to 8), and four years in high school (currently, each high school covers grades 10 to 12, with Rock Bridge educating 1,700 students and Hickman 2,100). Three high schools each with about 1,400 students in grades 9 to 12 will offer a better experience, Belcher says, than the current configuration.

After the new high school is completed at a cost of up to $87 million, operating it could add an estimated $800,000 a year to the annual budget to cover additional personnel, utilities and supplies, says Linda Quinley, district director of business services. If tax revenues from increased property assessments don’t materialize by 2013, when the school is scheduled to open, then budgets will get tighter or taxpayers may need to chip in.

How voters would react to that prospect is unclear. How the school board communicates its game plan for the future could make all the difference if it decides to go ahead with the bond issue vote.

Challenge No. 2: Develop A Workable Plan

The school district will soon have to determine what it will do in other areas of education as well. Every district in Missouri must develop a Comprehensive School Improvement Plan, a five-year look into the future. Board members agree that the CSIP will provide a unique opportunity for them to grapple with many of the questions that don’t currently have answers. They also promise that this plan will be more specific and pragmatic, and will provide a working roadmap upon which the community can rely.

That’s a good thing, considering the current CSIP, covering the years 2004 to 2010, is mired in platitudes, some impossible-to-achieve goals, and vague deadlines. Looking at it (online at is like playing “Where’s Waldo”; it’s intriguing to spot the items that cause furrowed eyebrows.

The current plan, for example, has identical start and completion dates for all the objectives, spanning the five years of the report and providing no identifiable deadlines. The plan calls for elimination of achievement disparities between groups of students, a lofty goal when most of the community would be pleased if the schools made just a reasonable dent in the problem. Another ideal but unrealistic goal for 2010 is that all students are going to read at grade level by the third grade.

When Michelle Pruitt talks education during lunch at the Cherry Street Artisan, her lunch sits untouched on her plate the entire time because she is listening and responding to questions with such intense concentration. At her day job, she’s a computer whiz for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and so it’s not surprising that she’s data driven, confident in their ability to identify problems and to measure results. About the current CSIP, she sounds contrite. The objectives, she agrees, “are all empty” and she promises the new ones will be better.

“My hope for the [CSIP] that we’re about to do this fall is that it is going to have a lot more in terms of specific objectives,” she says. “And they will have outcomes we’re going to measure.”

Pruitt agrees that the outcomes in the current CSIP are too generic, so “it doesn’t matter whether you know when the deadline passes.”

She picks out one objective that is a “particular bone of contention” for her: “The district will provide high-quality professional development for teachers.”

“How do we know if it’s high quality?” Pruitt asks. “What does it even mean? Does it mean that the teachers who use this optional professional development actually have more student test score growth? Does it mean they fill out some reflective survey and say ‘I love that’?”

So what happens next?

“You see what a big hill we need to climb,” she says, “to go from this document to another five-year plan as quickly as possible.”

Challenge No. 3: Close The Achievement Gap

Race. Say the word anywhere in America and it evokes a frustrating and emotional history of repeated injustices. Four men – two black and two white – having a beer on the White House lawn to discuss racial profiling symbolizes what is still not right, despite our increasing willingness to talk about it. Columbia, like the rest of the nation, often treads too carefully on the issue.

On the June night when Jim Whitt, a retired General Electric senior manager and the founder of Columbia’s cPhase Sports Association, a group that provides kids with athletic, academic and social development programs, was appointed to fill a vacancy on the school board, there weren’t many people at the meeting; neither white nor black communities were well-represented. It seemed as if most people were satisfied to learn what they know about the school board from the press.

The absentee stakeholder missed a dramatic vote that ended up in a tie broken by the consideration of race. Tom Rose was the one who spoke up. If it didn’t choose Whitt, he said, the board would not represent the community, and what he meant was that there wouldn’t be a single black member.

It’s important to understand that while race played a part in the decision, no one who was there would say that Whitt only got the job because he is black. Diversity seemed to affect the discussion by helping the board reach consensus.

Yet when Whitt is asked, facetiously, how he feels about being the black community’s representative on the board, he doesn’t flinch even a bit, because he understands reason behind the question.

“The whole issue of not talking about race – a lot of people say ‘Why do we need to talk about it?‘ ” Whitt says. “If you can’t talk about an issue you will never solve an issue. You will never address an issue, if you can’t talk about it.” Whitt commends the board for its willingness to consider diversity and he’s glad they chose him.

There are two words that consistently surface in discussions about student performance in the public schools: achievement gap. While school officials have different ways of describing it, the gap has multiple layers, and there’s a tendency not to want to inject race into the definition. When pressed, however, officials will admit that in Columbia it’s about black and white.

The most visible elements are the comparisons of test scores. Identifiable groups of students perform at varying levels, bringing into question the fairness and consistency of teaching, and the sensitivity to cultural and socioeconomic differences. Beneath the surface are all the family structure, child rearing, learning environment, and psychological elements that keep children from succeeding, and what the schools can or should do about them.

One of the reasons the achievement gap gets so much attention is because for most kids, Columbia schools provide a positive learning environment, and parents are pleased with the education students receive. The concern and despair over certain groups of children not succeeding is a good thing, as long as educators can figure out what to do about it. And that is where things seem to stall.

There is one less artist in Columbia because an impressionable, talented, black junior high school student who showed promise in painting and drawing once listened to his white teacher. Nathan Stephens, a Columbia resident his entire life and a product of its schools, is now the director of the Gaines Oldham Black Culture Center on the University of Missouri campus, but when a teacher told him there weren’t any prominent black artists he withdrew.

“I quit painting and doodling and drawing. I gave it up,” Stephens says. “I was actually pretty good at it.”

It’s the only time he recalls being treated differently because of his skin color, but that doesn’t mean he’s not attuned to the particular needs of black kids. This year, he helped found the Black Parents Association of Columbia’s Public Schools, convinced that without one, things wouldn’t change for the better. When the school board last year “announced that it was failing black children,” it was time for the parents of those kids to step up to an advocacy role, he says.

Already, people have said the organization is “racist” or “bigoted” because of its name and its perceived separateness. Stephens does not hide that those claims are both disconcerting and aggravating, saying that there are constructive and appropriate reasons for the parents to band together.

For one, he says, the existing parents organizations haven’t directly addressed the specific problems. More to the point, “we’re the experts,” he says. “Being a black child formerly of Columbia Public Schools, being a black parent, and having black children in Columbia Public Schools, who better to take on this failure than black parents? And so to me it wasn’t so much disdain, or not a willingness to work with that established group, but to say, we’re the experts.”

Sometimes, black parents also need help navigating the schools’ bureaucracy, either because they need someone to translate the educational jargon, or to help explain special education or discipline policies. Finally, there’s an element of self-determination that’s important for the black community, whether they’re parents or not. This city, he says, needs more, not fewer, institutions for minorities.

As for the achievement gap, Stephens says it’s more than just the numbers, it’s also about cultural competency and the ability of the schools to socialize children in a way that’s respectful of their uniqueness. When kids must cope with the conflict that is created by telling them to “keep your neighborhood stuff in the neighborhood,” that contributes to the poor outcomes, Stephens says.

“The moment you start telling an honor student ‘pull your pants up, have some respect for yourself, have some decency,‘ ” the reaction you’ll get is counterproductive, Stephens says. “Are you telling me what I like isn’t good? Are you saying I’m a bad person because I like this? What goes on internally in that honor roll student? Rather than creating a partner, you’re creating a barrier.”

A Columbia Public Schools brochure instructs how people can help eliminate the achievement gap: talking to students about their experiences in school; encouraging students to take advanced honors courses; making sure students attend school daily; emphasizing the importance of education; and volunteering in the schools and through community organizations. For a problem so deep and abiding, it doesn’t sound like much.

Phil Peters, the school board candidate who tied with Whitt and then lost, calls the brochure “a Band-Aid where major surgery is needed.” The executive director of Columbia’s First Chance for Children, a group that advocates for early childhood education, and a law professor at MU, Peters is an advocate for “following the research,” and making sure students get plenty of help early to put them on track for success and then to follow up with kids as they progress. He says he most regrets losing out on the school board seat because he will not have the chance to confront the achievement gap.

Challenge No. 4: Boost Teacher Morale

So, who’s going to do all this work? The answer is actually pretty simple: the teachers. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that despite the superintendent and his flock of administrators, and regardless of the school board and the voters who elect them, not a single child will end up educated unless there’s a decent, professional human being in the classroom. And the ones in Columbia are not happy.

Restoring teacher morale – which has taken a hit after a two-year salary drought – won’t be easy in a down economy; they’re showing the strain after back-to-back years without salary schedule increases. Sit with some of them, rather than reading about them in the press, and Columbians will learn that this city’s public schools have become a sadder place, where slights, both major and small, have begun to add up. The teachers say they’ll still act like professionals and not let the kids suffer because of their discontent, but it’s getting more difficult when their efforts feel so unrewarded.

Everyone knows this, particularly the new superintendent.

“I cannot improve student achievement in this district,” Belcher says. “Am I teaching a class? Am I teaching the student how to edit and modify a draft? It’s incumbent upon me from the leadership role to create the culture where people that do have the ability to institute achievement-teachers-will take up that cross.”

No one has any answers for the moment about the money, or about the additional burdens teachers will have to assume if the school district becomes even more assertive about the achievement gap, dropout rates, school discipline and the pressing needs of every single student in the system.

The school board and the administration will have to grapple with all this in earnest as the school year begins. It all boils down to whether the young board and the new superintendent can build a new partnership with the community, one that rebuilds trust and confidence, and promotes a collaborative and constructive effort to build a school district that transforms young people into the kinds of adults everyone says they want. It’s something for all of Columbians to think about, especially if all they know about the school district is what they read in the press.

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