By Munro Richardson, Ph.D.
Vice President, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
Ewing Kauffman was delivering one of his most stirring speeches. At the close of his remarks, he looked out at the Class of 1992 at Westport High School in Kansas City, Missouri. He leaned forward and said to the graduates, "With your high school graduation, you now have the power to choose what you will make of your lives."
Then his voice drew low, and his advice came to two words. "Choose well. Choose well."
They were simple words for the graduates to carry with them through their lives, and words that would echo through the Kauffman Foundation as we considered the wide-ranging options before us and set out a plan for a charter school in Ewing Kauffman's hometown.
This summer, the Missouri State Board of Education approved the charter for the Ewing Marion Kauffman School. This new public charter school will offer a rigorous college preparatory education to students in grades five through twelve, intended to provide them with the academic and life skills necessary for success in college and life beyond the classroom. The Kauffman School will open in the fall of 2011 with an initial class of seventy-five 5th-grade students, adding one grade level each year through 12th grade. An article on the charter approval that appeared in Education Week suggested that the Kauffman Foundation not only is the largest and most prominent private foundation to start a charter school, but the first grant making foundation to do so.
We believe the Kauffman School currently represents the most direct method of intervention to improve urban education in Kansas City.
We frequently are asked why we chose to start a charter school. There are several important reasons. First is because we believe our founder would have wanted us to do so. Like his advice to the high school graduates, Ewing Kauffman had clear expectations for his foundation. "Our foundation should possess the intellect to take initiatives in grant making or in project programs, rather than just being reactive to requests for grants," he said. "It is my desire to be an active foundation as far as possible rather than a passive one."
This approach is exemplified in Mr. Kauffman's own philanthropy. In his lifetime, he initiated operating programs for early childhood development (Project Early), character education (Project Essential), drug and alcohol abuse prevention (Project STAR), and high school dropout prevention (Project Choice). In the school design process for the Kauffman School, we followed the template Ewing Kauffman used in the design of these programs. We visited some of the highest achieving urban charter schools in the country. We engaged charter school founders, operators, and researchers to learn the best practices in the nation's foremost charter school models. We also paid close attention to the pitfalls of the first generation of charter schools (dubbed by some as Charter 1.0).
Second, the founding of the Kauffman School reflects Ewing Kauffman's deep interest in urban education. His signature program, Project Choice, was a dropout prevention program focused on select high school students in Kansas City's urban core. Project Choice served 1,400 students from 1988 to 2001 in a program that helped students stay in school by providing various kinds of assistance, as well as tuition for college or trade school as an incentive to graduate from high school.
Based on what we learned from Project Choice, in 2003 the Foundation established Kauffman Scholars, Inc., (KSI), a nineteen-year, $112 million initiative. This program currently serves 1,500 urban students from seventh grade through college in an after-school college preparatory and access program designed to enhance academic and life skills. The program ultimately will serve 2,300 urban students in Kansas City, including providing last dollar scholarships for college. In 2010, 95 percent of the first class of Kauffman Scholars graduating from high school went on to college.
Through KSI, students have improved their grades, test scores, and become better prepared for the rigors of college and a successful life beyond college. Despite the early successes of KSI, we recognize that the time we have with these students is only a fraction of their educational time during these important formative years. Over the past several years, we have often speculated about the deeper impact we could accomplish if we were able to offer this academic rigor and life skills development during the entire school day. These experiences helped inform expectations and design of the Kauffman School.
Third, we believe the Kauffman School currently represents the most direct method of intervention to improve urban education in Kansas City. Kansas Citians know better than most that money alone is not the answer. From 1985-1999, more than $2 billion—roughly the entire endowment of the Kauffman Foundation—was spent trying to improve the Kansas City, Missouri School District. Today, only about 25 percent of district public school students achieve proficiency on state tests. In 1999, the first charter schools in Kansas City opened with great fanfare. Citizens hoped the greater flexibility afforded charters would increase the quality of public school options for children and families through greater innovation and increased responsiveness to student needs. Regrettably, Missouri charter schools have not lived up to this promise despite successes in other districts around the country during the same decade. On average, approximately the same percentages of students in Kansas City achieve proficiency in charter schools as they do in district schools.
It is difficult to affect change from the outside. Over the last twenty years, the Kauffman Foundation worked with area school districts and schools to support the introduction of several school reforms, strategies, and models. While there were many successes, a number of these strategies fell short of achieving the whole-scale reforms imagined.
In her book, Inside Urban Charter Schools: Promising Practices and Strategies in Five High-Performing Schools, Harvard researcher Katherine Merseth identifies several critical factors that explain school performance through her examination of five high-performing charter schools in Boston. There is no "special sauce" explaining the success of these schools. We know that great teachers, strong school culture, and effective organizations contribute greatly to these results. But the best schools attribute their success to relentless focus on execution and lots of hard work. These schools continue to learn from the successes and failures of the first generation of charter schools that proliferated throughout the country during the late 1990s. They liberally borrow what works in other high-performing schools and continuously strive to improve. These charter schools are relentlessly focused on the bottom line—student achievement. They compare themselves only to the very best schools—not only those located right across the street—and continuously raise their own bar for success. Across the country there are more and more examples of schools where students achieve remarkable outcomes within three to five years of a school's founding.
Dr. Merseth's research demonstrates that successful schools fire on all cylinders at the same time—exhibiting constant cohesion among mission, values, objectives, systems, and people. Even when a program has proven results or research is clear on how to drive better student outcomes, engineering changes in schools from the outside is difficult. As a foundation, we believe the most direct way to pull the elements together necessary to produce better outcomes for students in Kansas City is to start our own school. In this way, we seek to incorporate effective practices from the country's most successful charter schools. In the process, we hope to demonstrate to the rest of Kansas City what is possible for urban public education and the thousands of students living in our community.
Finally, we seek to exhibit a new approach for education philanthropy. Although the ten-year, $10 million commitment by the Trustees of the Foundation to start the Kauffman School is a significant investment, this sum is not out of reach for a large number of other philanthropies. Despite waves of innovation sweeping across many parts of our country, too many places are still waiting for the innovative models to sweep into their communities. If successful, we hope to demonstrate another way for donors to invest in education and actively guide the change they hope to see in their communities.
Missouri's first charter schools opened six years after Ewing Kauffman passed away. Yet he had the forethought to challenge us to make bold choices that would enable young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to get a quality education and reach their full potential. We choose to seize the opportunity and create something new. A school has the power to change the lives of young people in this community in ways big enough to match the dreams we have for our children. Ewing Kauffman would expect nothing less.