Patty Kamper was fed up.
The energetic, seasoned teacher was sick of the chaos that reigned at Wyandotte High School, where a favorite student prank was urinating into the wall heaters. Teachers stayed inside locked classrooms, afraid to confront the young toughs roaming the hallways.
Kamper was discouraged by perennially poor student achievement. And she was tired of constantly trying to adapt as officials made one fruitless attempt after another to turn things around.
So when a new principal arrived at the imposing red brick campus in a tough, high-poverty neighborhood, this is how she greeted him:
“Hi, I’m Patty Kamper, and this is my last year here.”
That was in 1996, but Kamper is still there, teaching art at a transformed Wyandotte. Today the halls are orderly, and students work industriously in small “communities” with the same teachers throughout their high school years. Attendance, achievement test scores and the graduation rate have climbed steadily.
Kamper and most city leaders credit a school reform program called First Things First.
Since the program was instituted in Kansas City schools, the district’s high school graduation rate has gone from 48% to 81%. On the Kansas State Assessment test, 32.7% of the district’s fifth-graders tested proficient in reading in 2002. Last year, as eighth-graders, 64.4% had reached proficiency.
In recent years, the program has drawn increasing interest from low-performing school districts around the nation, including Los Angeles Unified, which received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last year to implement First Things First in two of its troubled high schools.
As district officials in Los Angeles attempt to persuade schools and parents to embrace the program, Kansas City’s experience has become a guiding light.
In 1996, when former psychology professor James P. Connell arrived in Kansas City to pitch his then largely untried school improvement program, the elected board of the 20,000-student district was under pressure to improve results in their schools, which are in predominantly minority, largely low-income neighborhoods. With the promise of a start-up grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, board members decided to take a leap and launch the program districtwide.
They chose a few schools, including Wyandotte, to lead the way. The chosen schools spent the 1997-98 school year getting ready and implemented First Things First in 1998-99.
More schools were added each year until every campus was using the program by the fall of 2000.
Kamper, impressed with new principal Walt Thompson’s determination to bring order to the school and his promise to support faculty ideas as the program was implemented, decided to stay and help coordinate a redesign of the school.
“He told us, ‘Design a school you’d want for your kids,’ ” Kamper recalled. She said the faculty, along with some parents and community members, spent hours looking at successful schools and figuring out ways to apply First Things First’s principles to Wyandotte. Every aspect of the school -- from what themed learning communities it should offer to its bell schedules -- was put to a vote.
“It’s remarkable that in just one year, we were able to do this,” she said.
Today, students at Wyandotte choose one of seven themed “learning communities,” typically with no more than 325 students, that operate semi-autonomously within the school. Students remain with the same classmates and teachers all four years. Families are expected to play a key role, and the school assigns each faculty member about 20 students and families, with whom they are to work closely.
Wyandotte’s learning communities include business, health careers-life sciences and visual arts and technology. Students also take traditional classes and electives, scheduled in “blocks” of longer sessions and fewer classes per day.
Instructional coaches at the school work with teachers to improve education, and time is built into the workweek for teachers to hone their skills.
In addition to improved graduation rates and test scores, district officials credit First Things First with other changes. Before the program’s implementation, 45% of Kansas City students tested in the bottom one-quarter nationally in math and science. Achievement in both subjects has improved strongly throughout the district, according to a study released last year by MDRC, an independent research organization.
“We’re pleased with the success we’ve had, but we’re not satisfied,” said Steve Gering, the district’s deputy superintendent for teaching and learning. In addition to wanting to continue to improve student achievement and graduation rates, the district began focusing recently on ways to eliminate a persistent gap in achievement between middle-class white students and impoverished minorities.
For years, Gering said, the district had been “stuck in reform cycles,” trying one thing, then jumping quickly to another if there were no immediate improvements.
“We needed a common framework, and we needed to stick with it long enough to show results,” he said.
Teachers at Wyandotte say the package of reforms has created a much more personalized kind of education that students have responded to with major improvements in behavior and achievement.
“So much of it is about the relationships,” Gering said.
English and special education teacher Traci Burks, co-coordinator of the 174-student visual arts and technology community, said the community’s staff makes decisions about its scheduling, discipline and some budget matters.
As family advocates, they also get far more involved in students’ lives than they probably would in a large, traditional school.
“It can be tough, but it’s so rewarding,” Burks said. “I know we’re making a difference for our kids.”
The other co-coordinator, computer graphics teacher Kevin Edwards, offered a poignant illustration of the power of the family advocate program. Edwards, who routinely gives students and parents his cellphone number, got a call during the last winter break from one of his 10th-graders. His family’s rented house had caught fire, and the family had lost many belongings. Edwards spoke to the boy’s father to get more details, then used the district’s e-mail system to summon help. Within days, staff members had donated clothing, food and money.
“It was because of the trust [the boy] had in me that he felt comfortable enough to call,” Edwards said. “In a traditional school, you don’t have that relationship with the students. Here, it becomes like a family thing.”
The teachers union leaders, at first angered because the school board had chosen First Things First without consulting them, backed the campaign after district leaders sponsored a retreat to seek the union’s help.
In South Los Angeles, teachers’ objections to the program at Fremont High School recently caused district officials to halt plans to start it there.
“You can’t run a reform program that nobody at the school has any confidence in. It’s that simple,” said United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy. He added that Fremont teachers complained they were not allowed a significant role in tailoring the program. “If they are going to come in and tell us how to do it, we are not interested.”
But teachers at Washington Preparatory High School, in the Athens neighborhood of unincorporated L.A. County, voted this spring to implement First Things First, based on its track record.
Craig Sipes, who has taught science at Washington Prep for five years, said he initially opposed adopting First Things First.
“It seemed to be just another flavor of the month,” Sipes said. But he decided it was worth a try after learning more about the program and reading the research on its effects elsewhere.
“We need to change somehow ... and we’re changing based on what has worked at least somewhat measurably in other places,” Sipes said.
At Wyandotte, some teachers were initially skeptical too.
“The school had not been successful for so long.... There were some naysayers,” Thompson said recently as he escorted a visitor through the school’s spotless corridors and into its high-ceilinged classrooms.
Debbie Durham sent three kids to Wyandotte: one who graduated in 2004 and attends community college and twins who are in 11th grade.
“It’s easy for parents to know what’s going on with their children” and to voice concerns to the principal and teachers, Durham said. “The teachers all know me, and that makes me feel good.... You know they care about your child’s future.”