April 14, 2017
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Awais Sufi has spent the last 18 months traversing this Midwestern town in search of solutions to its educational shortcomings. He’s met with parents, educators, philanthropists, faith leaders and anyone else with a vested interest in education.
Earlier this week, he presented the culmination of his efforts: the launch of SchoolSmartKC, a new nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap in Kansas City public schools.
Scattered around the second floor of the local Big Brothers Big Sisters were many of the same people he engaged months ago, community leaders from across the political spectrum, including Kansas City Mayor Sly James and Dr. Mark Bedell, the superintendent of schools.
“I really wanted to engage in an authentic way with the various constituents that all have an interest and incentive for a wonderful school system here,” Sufi, now the president and CEO of SchoolSmartKC, said in an interview with RealClearEducation for “The First 100 Days” podcast. He stressed that the organization should be “community owned” and that the “agenda of improvement [is] something that they [the community] believed in and ultimately would sustain.”
From his extensive outreach emerged three primary strategies: improving parent engagement, making direct investments in schools with quality offerings and backing pro-student policies. While education is a politically volatile issue – take Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing, for example – so far, many influential members of the community are behind Sufi and the goals of his new organization.
“Our partnership with SchoolSmartKC is bridge building in Kansas City at its finest,” Bedell said. “SchoolSmart is helping to provide us resources we wouldn’t otherwise have, and we so appreciate their investment in Kansas City in order to make our education landscape more student- and family-centered.”
For its first direct investment, SchoolSmartKC is awarding a two-year grant to Communities in Schools, a nationwide program focused on supporting low-income students. CIS will put site coordinators at 10 schools – six traditional public schools and four charters – to assist underprivileged children with clothing, nutrition, health care and transportation.
Sufi explained that, for many low-income students, circumstances outside the classroom often prevent them from succeeding inside it, no matter how good the quality of the instruction or learning environment may be. When families aren’t able to provide the resources necessary for their children to succeed, CIS seeks to fill that void. Sufi believes that, in many cases, schools have become “society’s last stand against all of the ills that are plaguing us.”
Bedell agrees. “With innovative programs like Communities in Schools, we are able to focus on the whole child, and give each student exactly what he/she needs to succeed each and every day,” he said.
It’s important to note that SchoolSmartKC exists to serve all Kansas City public schools – charter and traditional alike. The district serves roughly 26,000 students and it’s a high-choice environment compared to other urban areas: Approximately 45 percent of students attend charters. Sufi emphasized that SchoolSmartKC supports school choice — but not without strong accountability: “Choice without that accountability is a path to nowhere from our vantage point.”
The funding behind the new organization comes primarily from three donors: the Hall Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation. Kauffman was the primary incubator of SchoolSmartKC and much of the policy vision came from Aaron North, the vice president of education at Kauffman.
“The real fundamental goal [is] to close the achievement gap within 10 years,” North explained. Starting with that vision, Kauffman brought in Sufi as an education entrepreneur in residence. He began his outreach across the city and, over time, the three funders joined together to help Sufi launch SchoolSmartKC as its own independent nonprofit.
North believes that Kansas City is the ideal location for such a program. He describes the city as “big enough to matter, but small enough to manage.” Kansas City, he explained, has the flexibility to try some innovative reforms that larger metropolises like New York or Los Angeles may not have, and, as a smaller urban area, it is easier to measure and track student progress. As with most ambitious education reforms, political battles and resistance may lie ahead, but North hopes that, in time, SchoolSmartKC could be a model for community engagement and improved education outcomes nationwide.