KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Six years ago, Mark Bedell was late to his interview for the Kansas City, Missouri, Public Schools superintendent vacancy.
To hear Missouri State School Board of Education Vice President Carol Hallquist tell it, Bedell showed up a bit “disheveled” but with good reason.
He had spent the day exploring Kansas City — visiting coffee shops and laundromats, checking out the Country Club Plaza and Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District. More importantly, he spoke with residents and asked about the district.
“That kind of boots-on-the-ground caring has really enabled him to engage the community and a really great Board of Directors,” Hallquist said. “... We are very fortunate to have Dr. Bedell.”
For Bedell, who arrived in Kansas City after serving as an assistant superintendent for the Baltimore County School District, the mission of turning around KCPS, which received full accreditation from the state school board Tuesday for the first time in nearly 22 years, was personal.
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He grew up in Rochester, New York, the son of drug-addicted parents and the product of a dysfunctional school district.
That upbringing drew him to the challenge of turning around KCPS, which was founded in 1867 and became the first in the country to lose its accreditation on May 1, 2000.
“This is not an easy assignment and, one of the things I’ve shared with many people and even with my wife (Robyn), I had options to go to other districts,” Bedell said. “But my wife said, ‘But you won’t have fun. You need to go somewhere where they need help, because that’s your background, that’s the body of work that you’ve had. You’ve gone into schools that have struggled and, working with your team, you’ve been able to turn around schools.’”
Bedell committed to putting his children in the district — and followed through on that promise — but he’s not the only KCPS administrator with skin in the game.
KCPS Board of Education Chair Nate Hogan shared the story of a young student from the district whose parents divorced, who lost a sister to violence and whose grandma died from chronic illness within a year.
That student started skipping school in sixth grade and moved six more times — for a total of eight times during his childhood — by his sophomore year of high school before dropping out and getting his GED.
“He had a ton of potential, but measured against his proficient and advanced peers he certainly didn’t look like it on paper,” Hogan said.
That child was Hogan. He grew up in the KCPS district and rose to become an executive with Cerner and later Healthcare Solutions despite troubled beginnings.
“I’m a product of KCPS,” Hogan said. “I was as vulnerable of a student as there is, dealing with the same trauma and mobility that many of our kids continue to experience today. The reality is there’s nothing exceptional about Nate Hogan.”
But he believes his story highlights the importance of focusing on improvement — for individual students and subgroups as a whole — rather than leaning so heavily on test scores alone in weighing a school district’s performance.
“We need to redefine how we evaluate potential in our kids,” Hogan said. “I’m an example of what focusing on growth for students can yield in the way of life-changing results. For too long, we have left too many students behind because of a hyper-focus only on kids who perform well in a single moment in time on a standardized tests.”