Christine Kemper has a busy schedule. But as she says, “I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t.” Which is why, despite her recognition of the need for more effective education in Kansas City, it was not something she thought she’d be able to take on herself. “Maybe in six years,” she laughs. The mother of four is no stranger to the world of education, however. Her resumé, which includes time served on the board of DeLaSalle Education Center and a current role as president of the board at University Academy Charter School, reveals both passion and practice. But ultimately they have been preparation, because now she is taking on one of her most important roles to date—serving as board chairperson of the forthcoming Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy (KCGPA).
The all-girls school will bring a new wave of opportunity to girls in Northeast Kansas City, providing tuition-free education to 100 fifth-grade girls in the fall of 2019. Though Kemper recognized the importance of such a school in Kansas City, particularly in the Northeast community, she originally did not envision herself becoming so deeply involved in it—perhaps laying the groundwork and letting someone else take over. But the more she learned about public education in Kansas City, the population she wanted to serve, and her desired outcomes, she moved the project to the top of her priorities.
The groundwork had been laid years earlier in Kemper’s relationships with Kansas City native Ann Tisch, founder of The Young Women’s Leadership School (TYWLS) of East Harlem, and Julie Tomasic, a longstanding member of the Kansas City Police Department and the current head of Mayor Sly James’ security detail. Five years ago, Kemper and Tomasic traveled to New York City to visit Tisch’s school, which at its founding in 1996 was the United States’ first newly launched all-girls school in 30 years. After observing TYWLS’ model and its focus on educating young women, Kemper was deeply moved by the dramatic improvement in the results of the girls graduating from Tisch’s school compared to their peers.
But back in Kansas City, students were—and are—falling behind. In 2015-2016, only seven open-enrollment schools within Kansas City Public Schools’ boundaries had more than half of students proficient in math and reading. For students who had taken college-entrance exams, scores fell far below requirements for competitive admissions. And those burdens are borne disproportionately by low-income communities of color in Kansas City.
“Our public-school system in Kansas City is not adequately serving the entire population. And for me, getting an education is an issue of equity. I feel very strongly that all young people should be given the opportunity to have a quality education. In Kansas City, when schools aren’t performing, those are the families least likely to be able to pay tuition to go to an alternative school,” says Kemper. It was clear that Tisch’s school was effective in its objectives, inspiring Kemper to bring a school like Tisch’s to Kansas City.
By late 2015, continuing into 2016, Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy was in its quiet planning stages. But as the country’s political climate and dialogue transformed, Kemper—long aware but newly reminded of the disparities between the way men and women are treated— the launching of KCGPA became particularly prudent. It was a charge Kemper knew she needed to lead, ending her short-lived resistance, founded in lack of time, never interest. “I want to be sure to be giving young women every opportunity to discover their power and their voices and to be able to thrive academically, personally, and professionally,” says Kemper.
Raising the funds to ensure KCGPA’s success and bringing on a team who shared the vision and passion for the school was critical. Coming on board as the chief executive officer is charter school veteran Tom Krebs, who having grown up in and around segregated schools, has long been angry about the differences in educational opportunity that remain the norm. With KCGPA, he has an opportunity to personally challenge—and hopefully change—the status quo.
“It’s an incredible gift to get to contribute to a space where young women are free to dream, think, and act without restraint. We need the voices and leadership of these young women, to both address the challenges and opportunities that lie in our future. We’re lucky beyond belief to get to make this a reality,” says Krebs.
Kemper’s tenets—a place where young women thrive academically, personally, and professionally—are evident in the way KCGPA will operate both inside and beyond the classroom. The schools’ overarching mission is what the team refers to as “high expectation, high support.” In the classroom, the faculty to student ratio will be a small, but supportive, 16:1. And students will be assigned to advisory groups, a community-within-a-community that will aid them through their academic career. They will meet every morning, and they will stay within the same advisory group throughout their duration at KCGPA, creating a stability and familiarity between themselves, their peers, and their designated faculty member. Every year, one grade will be added until the school reaches its full scope, serving students in fifth through twelfth grades.
In the beginning, literacy will be a major focus. According to Kemper, their fifth-grade students will come to the school reading at a second-grade level. One of the most critical components to remedying this—and something that will remain a hallmark of KCGPA—is meeting students wherever they are, academically, and bringing them up to the appropriate level. KCGPA will also have longer school days, and a longer academic year, which breaks down to 30 percent more instruction time.
KCGPA will place a heavy emphasis on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Fine Arts, and Mathematics.) But Krebs’ hope is that one day, STEAM will be so incorporated into education on a national level that it no longer needs to be called out as an area of focus. Until then, the studies will be foundational in the school’s curriculum. But opportunities to make a difference don’t stop after the last class of the day ends—KCGPA will work with area organizations to help students and their families find access to any services they might need, including translational ones.
Equity and inclusion are the founding principles of KCGPA, incorporated throughout the organization, but also reflected not only in the population served, but from the top down, starting with the faculty and staff. “We felt very strongly in our recruiting process, that we want to be represented by women and women of color,” says Kemper. An internal agreement serves as the core of the hiring process—if a candidate pool is not at least 70 percent women and 70 percent people of color, more recruiting will be done before the interview process is even started.
A national search led to Tara Haskin, who relocated from Houston to Kansas City to take on the role of founding school leader. What caught Haskins’ attention primarily was KCGPA’s all-girls model, one that has shown effectiveness not only in East Harlem but in one of her prior roles in Houston. As she learned more about the mission of KCGPA, she realized that the school wasn’t only championing equity on paper but keeping it at the core of the organization and using it as a driving force to lead the school.
When it comes time to be fully immersed in her role, Haskins is most excited to develop KCGPA’s teachers and make sure that they are delivering the content to students at the highest possible level. “The stronger our teachers are, the stronger the impact they will have on students. The founding school leader will help drive the school culture, but teachers are the ones who will actually push it forward.” She is also looking forward to getting to know the girls on an individual level. In her experience, she’s noticed that the strongest school leaders get to know not only their students but their families as well.
Tomasic, who has served on the police force for 28 years and will now serve as a board member, has according to her, made some great arrests, helped incarcerate some threats to the community, and worked on large cases, or as she describes it, tried to change the world ‘on the back end.’ “I now truly feel that my biggest and best contribution to crime reduction in Kansas City will be helping to found this school,” says Tomasic. She believes that education is key to solving a lot of Kansas City—particularly Northeast Kansas City’s—problems.
Thanks to Tomasic and Kemper, Mayor Sly James will serve as a member on KCGPA’s board, dovetailing with the end of his mayoral term in 2019. “Mayor Sly James and I have this beautiful bit of symmetry because he has long been an advocate for women, and for quality education, and for the Northeast part of Kansas City. It really made sense to bring him on board,” says Kemper. The Mayor has been active throughout the development of KCGPA, including location scouting for the building.
Rounding out the team is Jahna Riley, an AmeriCorps alumna and Kansas City educator who will be KCGPA’s family and community engagement coordinator. The team will have high expectations of themselves and their students, but also of themselves and the school. One of their first major goals will be to reach the prestigious distinction of being a National Blue-Ribbon School. Currently, only one other charter school in the state of Missouri, University Academy Charter School, has that designation. But there is already one seal of approval; KCGPA is an affiliate of the Young Women’s Leadership Network, which started with Ann Tisch in 1996. The national network is comprised of all-girls schools that have achieved a more than 95 percent high school graduation rate and nearly 100 percent college acceptance rate.
“I have been so powerfully moved by the response of the community, which has recognized the importance of this school. I am so gratified that people are putting their faith in us to bring KCGPA to the Northeast. It has been moving on every level. Personally, and professionally, I don’t think I could be investing my time in anything more important than this,” says Kemper.
The doors to Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy might be opening in the fall of 2019, but the metaphorical ones—opportunity, equity, and inclusion—will open for hundreds of students, decades, and generations to come.