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Tardy Slip

Smart kids get no credit and little respect from the Kansas City School District.

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Northeast High School senior Philong Nguyen aced a test last spring and earned an invitation to participate in the Math and Physics Institute, a college-level program offered by the University of Missouri-Kansas City. All summer, he looked forward to attending the MPI's daily classes.

Other Kansas City School District students were excited as well. Five from his school had enrolled in the MPI, as had seven kids from Central, Paseo and Southeast. It was a rare opportunity for Philong, who -- like the kids from Central and Southeast -- attends a school deemed "academically deficient" in a district that's only provisionally accredited by the state of Missouri.

On August 28, Philong caught a ride from his Northeast Kansas City neighborhood to a school in Independence.

There, he was told to go home. Kansas City students can't participate in the MPI this year.

Philong suspected he might have been turned away because of his race or because the elite program didn't welcome kids from inner-city schools. When he returned to Northeast, though, he learned the real reason: School district officials had nixed the program late in the summer because they felt its price tag was too high.

No one from the district had bothered to tell the kids.

"I was disappointed," Philong says. "I felt kind of sad."

The institute began nineteen years ago as a partnership between UMKC and metro school districts. High-school kids earn up to thirteen college credits from the year-long course. The credits easily transfer to colleges, says Libbi Sparks, a teacher from the Independence School District, which will spend $48,000 this year to send twenty MPI participants. "Everybody accepts them because we actually have college professors teach, not high-school teachers."

Over the years, more than 400 Kansas City School District students have participated. But after a long, chaotic procession of fallen superintendents, the district's commitment has waned. Fewer students have enrolled, and fewer district teachers have been assigned to help those students who did take on the challenging program.

By the time Superintendent Bernard Taylor took office in spring 2001, few at the central office even knew the program existed. The MPI rose to the attention of district lawyer Lisa Machicao in August 2001 after UMKC officials submitted a contract renewal. Machicao's chief concern, she tells the Pitch, was that the renewal didn't propose a fixed cost; in recent years, the district had paid as much as $2,900 a student. District officials balked, but because students were already enrolled in the 2001-2002 program, administrators postponed their decision until the following year, Machicao says.

In spring 2002, Machicao drafted a new contract that would limit the district's payment to $1,000 a student. UMKC officials balked -- $1,000 wasn't enough, they replied.

The university's counterproposal was $2,400 a pupil. In early June, Machicao e-mailed MPI Director Elizabeth Stoddard, stating this was not "financially feasible." The dozen gifted students' college credits would have cost the district $28,800 -- considerably less than the $2 million it had budgeted for lawyers and legal fees ("Legal Tender," February 14). During the past year, the district spent more than $40,000 to provide lawyers to five board members who held an illegal meeting ("Taylor Made," October 4). It also spent more than $20,000 for Taylor and board member Elma Warrick to have legal representation while a federal judge decided whether to make public a $100,000 report on allegations of patronage and micromanagement by board members ("Secret Warrick," June 13).

Machicao also told Stoddard that the district intended to find another way to offer college-level physics and calculus courses "taught by university professors." UMKC notified the district in late May about which students had enrolled in MPI. Machicao sent an internal e-mail to the school district's director of curriculum, Ralph Corse, saying she wanted to make sure that the students "have been or will be notified that other options to get math ... college credit will be forthcoming and that the district will not participate in MPI."

In subsequent internal e-mails, Corse proposed -- on behalf of a district that spends more than $300 an hour on lawyers from Hogan & Hartson, one of the nation's most powerful law firms -- trying to create a cheaper program with Penn Valley Community College. He also spoke with a UMKC dean about creating a less-expensive program employing teachers with master's rather than doctorate degrees.

Meanwhile, UMKC crunched numbers, and in late July Stoddard announced in an e-mail to Corse that the MPI had earned state approval as a "gifted and talented student" program. The district could be reimbursed by Missouri for up to 75 percent of the program's cost. The district might have to pay only $525 a kid, Stoddard told them.

Corse liked the price. "What needs to be done to facilitate the UMKC offer?" he asked Machicao in an e-mail. "Do you think it's feasible? It sounds great to me."

The next day, Marilou Joyner, a state education official assigned to help Kansas City regain the accreditation it lost in 1999, threw her support behind the plan. "I think it would be in the best interest of the district's students ... to go ahead with the MPI for this year."

Then, a few days later, Corse and his colleagues apparently figured out that reimburse means to be paid back later. Instead of paying just $525 a kid up-front, they would immediately have to shell out $2,400 a head and then wait for a check from the state.

On August 13, Cheri Medina, special assistant to the superintendent, wrote to her colleagues, "$2,400/student is excessive. You could almost pay one full year of tuition at UMKC for that." (Actually, $2,400 would buy 13.5 credit hours at UMKC -- one full-time semester and a half credit more than what students could earn through the MPI.)

In the same e-mail -- sent just two weeks before the start of school -- Medina wrote, "I discussed this with Dr. Taylor, and he stated that we need to find another way to serve these students other than through this program. Does anyone have any ideas?"

That same day, Stoddard requested a meeting with district officials and sent Machicao statistics detailing how Kansas City students had fared recently in the MPI.

Machicao had requested the data on August 12 -- the first time in months of wrangling that district officials showed any concern about MPI's academic worth. District officials had previously raised concerns only about money, according to district documents.

These statistics ultimately sank the deal, Machicao and other officials tell the Pitch. During the previous two years of the program, only six of eighteen Kansas City students had successfully obtained college credit. (The students did earn high-school credit, however.)

District officials argue that the program's leaders were not adequately assisting Kansas City students even as they continued billing the district. But the stats were misleading. Over its nineteen-year history, including periods when district teachers assisted students in the strenuous program, 64 percent of Kansas City students earned college credit, according to UMKC data. (The district was unable to provide this information because its central office maintains no data on success rates in its college-level programs .)

It's a tough program. Only 75 percent of all MPI participants -- including kids from such fully accredited districts as Blue Springs and Independence -- complete it with college credit. "For the Kansas City, Missouri, School District, this is a very different atmosphere from what you are used to (if you know what I mean), but get used to it and do your best," 2002 Southeast grad Danielle Cole wrote in an MPI evaluation. "Please don't give up!"

On August 13, with the start of school just around the corner, Machicao sent Stoddard a terse e-mail saying the district would not participate this year.

Stoddard refused to give up. With a flurry of e-mails, she persuaded district officials to have more meetings. She then mailed each of the Kansas City students a letter saying she was "looking forward to meeting and working with you." (Stoddard agreed to provide the Pitch information about MPI, but she declined to comment on the failed contract negotiations.)

That same day, Machicao sent an e-mail to four top district administrators -- Medina, Corse, Charlene Luster (executive director of special education) and Patricia Rowles (executive director of curriculum) -- that read: "Please someone needs to take the lead on notifying our students who thought they would participate in MPI this year." Machicao tells the Pitch that she didn't feel it would have been appropriate for her to notify the students.

Apparently no one else did, either.

"I'm not 100 percent sure why no one notified the kids," Corse says.

Two weeks later -- on August 28, the day Philong was turned away -- Corse notified principals about the change in plans. "After careful evaluation of the data," he wrote, "the decision was made to discontinue our participation and support."

The district says it is working now to establish a college-level physics and calculus program. But even if it succeeds, Philong and the other eleven MPI students from the district will have lost at least a semester of college education.

"I just wanted to go there," Philong says of the MPI, "so I can be prepared for college."

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