KC schools on path to big changes

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —After a hard year of closing schools and cutting budgets, John Covington and the Kansas City, Mo., school district are ready for what he's calling "the transformation of the school district, phase two."

Before a full house of city leaders at Union Station on Thursday, he retraced the rapid course the district has taken in the first two years of his tenure, but then he got to the big ideas under way: Like the expansion of the student-centered learning system, the coming of new technology and distance learning labs, a richer career and technical education program, performance-based teacher evaluations, and "green" technology in schools.

Many of the ideas Covington reintroduced Thursday have been in the works for months, having grown out of the community's strategic planning workshops a year ago.

"If anyone asks, 'Can any good thing come out of Kansas City?' " Covington declared, "tell them to come and see."

Since arriving in Kansas City in the summer of 2009, Covington spent most of his first year developing — and redeveloping — his executive Cabinet and planning the massive changes that would draw national attention throughout 2010.

In his second year, the district closed 40 percent of its schools. It cut staff. It cut out thousands of contracts, all in the process of slashing $68 million from its budget.

Classroom transformations also were taking shape, most notably launching what the district had called standards-based learning in five pioneering elementary schools, with five more to be added in 2011-12.

Now called student-centered learning, the new system scraps the old organization of students by grade level and instead groups them by the level of skills they have proven. Teachers do less whole-class lecturing and trying to herd students at the same pace, but instead guide them in student-driven projects.

Some of Covington's plans already have had to navigate politically challenged waters.

The district is using a $13.6 million federal grant to pioneer a teacher evaluation system that will enable teachers in 10 participating schools to earn up to $12,000 in performance bonuses. How well the system works could go a long way in advancing a national debate over the effectiveness and fairness of the policy.

Covington also endorsed the vision of a district with a "portfolio of schools" that encourages more site-based independence at specialty schools.

And he also promised a new one — the Kansas City Preparatory Academy, a school for boys that will open in the fall of 2012, patterned after Chicago's successful Urban Prep Academies.

The school board, led by Airick Leonard West, has been advancing the idea of a portfolio district that looks for opportunities to bring more contract schools as well as charter schools into the fold that would be held accountable for their performance.

Other classroom initiatives include:

* The Senior Capstone Project, in which every senior develops a research-oriented project with a mentor.

* The Truman Academy for Career and Technical Education, which expands the current program at Manual High School with the collaboration of business and industry partners.

* Distance learning labs, which will connect secondary schools and foreign language schools with other classrooms across the district and the world, enabling more specialized courses.