Mary Lim

Friday, September 11, 2015

va: interview with michael zeller

Michael Zeller's thoughts
After emailing Michael Zeller (one of the Board Members of Academic Lafayette) Sara and I arranged to meet at Aixois yesterday for some early morning coffee. Meeting him was really helpful to us, and we learned a ton. He offered a multitude of information about the history of Kansas City and also about the educational system. Just talking to him revealed the complexity of the problem, with all the factors involved in integrating schools. 

First, we explained our project to him and gave him a sense of the problem we were trying to solve. Immediately he replied with the history of how Kansas City became segregated. Sara and I were aware of some the disparity between the incomes along Troost through Scott's talk, but Michael went more in-depth. I feel like there's a common misconception that there was one event that caused another, however, this is usually not the case. It was an amalgamation of a series of decisions of groups of people. Really starting with slavery, there was a concentrated amount of African Americans east of Troost in 1950, which was actually pretty diverse in terms of household income. Natural "profit lines" moving westward fulfilled itself, where all the businesses knew the source of money. As these lines persisted, whites started to leave the city to the outward suburbs. Middle class blacks started to flee due to the crack epidemic sweeping Kansas City. 

This created poverty zones where 90% of the children in certain schools were in poverty. It was reasonable for families to leave with their children, where the schools did not seem a good place to flourish. Michael mentioned a "tipping point" of no return, where once a school is concentrated with one demographic, especially those of the lower class, it cannot go back. In this opinion, for these schools, it would be better to close down. 

Currently, many families in the city are actually looking for diverse schools in Kansas City, but there are no good schools in the metropolitan area. They only have the option of going to private or leaving. They only have the option of going to private school or leaving to the suburbs. There is another option, though, and that is Academie Lafayette (36% minority, 25% reduced lunch). As a charter school, it is diverse in a sense that it has teachers from all over the world, however it is still primarily white. Their enrollment process is done by lottery for solely kindergarten students (because it fully immerses French students). What's crucial about the school is its trust that the school has developed in the community. Parents trust the school, which brings them to enroll their kids. Out of 70 schools in Kansas City, 68 are in poverty. The current educational system lacks this trust. The problem with Academie Lafayette is that there is a limited amount of space, and 150 kids get turned down each year. 

Michael then brought up CEE, a program in Detroit which "churns" its schools. What it does is close down 5% of the lowest performing schools, and opens up 5% more. For there to be a change in the educational system in Kansas City, charter schools need to open up nearby east of Troost and start in the most obvious locations. The biggest obstacle to overcome is the lack of funds available for schools to open up. It takes up to $8 million on average to renovate a school in Kansas City, where each child in a district school must need $14,000. 

The root of the problem, Michael suggests, is incrementalism. Banking industries need to support metropolitan areas, and not promote lending to the suburbs. What's crazy is that Kansas City encourages moving away from the city. There is an industry of lenders and builders that profit from suburban sprawl. Another problem is people's fundamental fear of "the other" and also gun culture on the east side. 

On a brighter side, Michael thinks that "the tide wants to come in." What he means is that young people want to move to the city, but people eventually leave because there are not the right resources available and it is not a family-raising environment. It's all about the psychology of group think. One example is Crossroads, which was rebranded to make it seem more "hip." There also needs to be a way where we bring the black middle class back to Kansas City and stop people from fleeing. 

In terms of how to approach people, Michael advises to have a clear and compelling vision. It is crucial for a leader to allow ownership to the audience and let them own/change the vision. He explained that it's about setting up a "syndrome" or setting up opportunities for a self-fueling syndrome; showing that one could live safely along the corridor. 

Sara and I learned so much just talking with one person. Michael gave us some other contacts, and we plan to interview Darron Story, a black middle-class male who moved to Lee Summit and Erik Welst, a educational leader. 

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