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Banking on KC – Christine Kemper of Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy

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Click here to listen now, or read the transcript below:

 

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Christine Kemper. One of her many contributions to Kansas City is founding the Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy, where she's currently the Board Chair. Welcome, Christine.

Christine Kemper:

Thank you, Kelly. It's nice to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

There are several single-gender schools throughout the Kansas City area, but most of the time they're private schools. What's interesting about the Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy is that when it opened in 2019, it was the first single-gender open-enrollment charter public school in Kansas City. It was modeled after a school in Harlem, New York. So tell us about that connection and why you as the founder saw a need for a similar school here in Kansas City.

Christine Kemper:

I'm happy to. Ironically, the first school started in East Harlem. It was actually founded by a Kansas City native, Ann Rubenstein Tisch.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Christine Kemper:

Okay, so you do know that she grew up in Kansas City, went to Southwest High School. Anyway, ultimately landed in New York and little more than 25 years ago she noted, as in many communities, that there were great inequities in the public school system. And she set about to create a high expectation, high support environment in one of the most underserved communities in New York. And at that time that was East Harlem. And she modeled that school called The Young Women's Leadership Academy of East Harlem, after the finest private schools in the city, but made it tuition-free and open to any girl in the community.

Christine Kemper:

What happened is that in very short order, her students were exceeding their peers at other area public schools and so not long thereafter, similar schools were created in each borough of New York City. So there are now five Young Women's Leadership Schools in New York. And over time, more than two dozen of these affiliated schools have been created across the country. And I just met Anne about, it was about seven years ago, through our mutual friend, Julie Tomascik, and we were on a trip to New York with our daughters and we stayed with Ann. And if you've never met Ann, she's one of the most engaging, compelling personalities I've ever encountered. And I fell not only in love with her, but with the idea of what she had created with these schools.

Christine Kemper:

Julie and I put our heads together and said, "You know, someone should do this in Kansas City."

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Christine Kemper:

And we came back and talked to the Kauffman Foundation and other people who were a lot smarter than we were. Kaufman had actually just commissioned a study that showed where the greatest demand was for performing seats, and it was really in Northeast Kansas City. They did a heat map and the dark blue spot, the most in need area of quality public seats, is actually the very spot where we founded our school.

Kelly Scanlon:

So you started this in 2019, what grades are covered?

Christine Kemper:

We opened in 2019 with just fifth grade, and our plan is to add one grade per year until we're fifth through 12th-grade campus. So fifth grade, we have 75 girls. This past year we had about another 75 girls, so 150 across fifth and sixth grade. And now we're enrolling for next year and we'll be fifth through seventh. Ultimately we'll be a middle and a high school. We're currently housed in what is just going to be our middle school, and we plan to build an adjacent high school in time to welcome our ninth graders.

Kelly Scanlon:

With this being tuition-free, how is the school funded?

Christine Kemper:

That's been one of the greatest challenges of founding a school, because even though we're a public school, we don't receive the benefit of a building or any of the improvements needed to be made to a building that other public schools receive. So the initial money is all privately raised. So we actually, over the course of the first couple of years before we opened our doors, secured $8 million in funding, thanks to the generous philanthropic community in Kansas City.

Christine Kemper:

Once the girls are enrolled, we do receive a portion of public funding per pupil, but it is not nearly enough to cover the cost of building acquisition and operations, especially when you're growing just one year at a time. So public funding is an element, but private funding is really the only way it can happen.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned that when the first school was started in East Harlem, that within the first year, the girls there, the students there, started outperforming their peers. What are the benefits of single-gender education, and what is that secret sauce that produces those results?

Christine Kemper:

Single-gender education has been found to be beneficial for many students, not necessarily all students, but it isn't just the magic of having just single-gender in the classroom, you also have to have excellent, passionate, committed faculty and staff. So it's a combination of events, but research has shown in particular among lower-income black and brown girls, that often they show greater growth and achievement in single-gender schools than their peers in co-ed institutions, especially beginning in middle school. And a part of that is, as I said, certainly the faculty and staff and the curriculum is being delivered.

Christine Kemper:

But it's also true that in a situation where every valedictorian is a girl, when every class president is a girl, when every straight-A student is a girl, it becomes clear to every girl around her that success was possible for her.

Kelly Scanlon:

And they role model each other then.

Christine Kemper:

Exactly. You know, if you can see it, you can be it. And if you look around and every role model you have is a woman, then you can see yourself in every opportunity that's possible.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned the programming. Talk to us about some of the programs offered at KC Girls Prep. Are they the same programs you would get in any public school that you would go to, but it's just single-gender and more focused? Or are there other programs that the girls, the students there, can take advantage of that they wouldn't be able to regular public school?

Christine Kemper:

I would say there are some differentiating things about KC Girls Prep. For one thing, we have many English language learners, and we also have girls who are coming to us in fifth and sixth grade, who are far below grade level in terms of math and reading. And one of the things we do that's pretty different, is we offer two hours of math and two hours of literacy every single day. So one hour addresses the grade-level material, and then the next hour meets that student where she is to help bridge the gap. So there's a very intense focus on math and literacy. It's also why we have four years of middle school because we know girls are going to be coming to us largely with deficits. And so we want to be able to get them fully prepared for high school by the time they finish middle school.

Christine Kemper:

One of our key pillars is STEAM curriculum. You hear a lot about STEM, we talk about STEAM, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, as we try to increase the number of girls and women who pursue those paths. And another thing that I would call differentiating about us is that we really concentrate on educating the whole student, which means attending to her social and emotional learning as well as her academic pursuits. For example, every morning, our students start each day in small groups. We call them prides, you know, like a pride of lion?

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Christine Kemper:

And those students touch base with an adult and each other every single day to get grounded for the day. And that gives our team the opportunity to assess where the girls are in their emotional states and address any issues that they may see. And I love that you asked about our programs, but I can't help but say that I feel like we're more than a school in its programs. Since last March, we provided breakfast and lunch to every single student enrolled in our school, as well as for every sibling in her household.

Kelly Scanlon:

Wow, that is over and above.

Christine Kemper:

Well, because if you give breakfast and lunch to one kid, and there are four kids in the house and they're hungry, what's going to happen? They're going to divide up that one meal among four, and they're all going to be hungry, and nobody can learn when they're hungry.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Christine Kemper:

So we were able to get grants to be able to make sure that every single kid in the household gets fed. And so we turned to our friends at Inspired Occasions, the catering company, and they had food-safe delivery vehicles, and people who are trained in safe food handling, who were idle on Mondays. And so for a few hundred dollars a week, they have been going out into the community and delivering meals for our girls every week, since last March.

Kelly Scanlon:

You talked about COVID hitting and shutting down, and that happened in your first school year. What impact did that have on your first-year goals?

Christine Kemper:

I have to say, of course, it was heartbreaking on many levels as everybody knows, but one was on that point of achievement. You know, we had already seen such huge growth among our students in the first year. It was just really hard to shut the building down and move to remote learning. And we haven't done our second-year assessments yet, but I suspect we probably won't be on the same trajectory as we were in the first year. But on the subject of becoming stronger, our students have really become better self-starters. They've become more proficient at learning via Chromebook, they've been more responsible for their schedules and their homework, and they've still found ways to forge bonds with their fellow students and faculty using Zoom.

Christine Kemper:

As an example, we had a great opportunity this last year, an organization called Spray KC, I don't know if you know of them, but they're dedicated to making Kansas City a mural town, and they do these fantastic heroic murals all over the community, and they came to us with an interest in helping our school. So we had all of our students divide up into cohorts and together the girls would come up with a vision for what they wanted the murals to look like. And then via Zoom, they pitched the artist their ideas about the murals, and then the artists painted the murals according to the vision of the girls.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, I love it.

Christine Kemper:

I know, it was just a beautiful thing, and I watched it via Zoom and it was just stunning how they rose to the occasion and how engaged they were with the artists. And now when you walk into our common area in the school, there are these five enormous, fantastic murals that the girls haven't even seen in person yet because we [inaudible 00:10:38]. So I guess what I'm saying is, there have definitely been painful, painful downfalls due to COVID. We haven't decided yet whether we're going to revise our academic goals for the year, we're going to see what happens with the tests that we'll be taking later in the month. But in terms of that whole girl piece, I think we've still really seen remarkable growth.

Kelly Scanlon:

Some people say there are drawbacks to single-gender education, one of those being is that it is single-gender and there isn't the immersion between genders and being able to learn that the real world has everyone in it. And so what are some of the drawbacks that you hear and how do you address those?

Christine Kemper:

You know, I think that one that you just named, is amusing to me because it seems like it makes sense. But then every year in New York the network hosts a big event, it's a fundraiser actually, and I've gone to it a couple of times because I want to get exposed to leaders from other schools in the network and see how they do things and meet girls who've been the product of these schools. You have to remember, we started working on this years before we opened our doors, so there isn't yet a graduate of KC Girls Prep that I can meet and talk to her about her experience. But I had talked to girls from other schools and a few years ago I met this one young woman who was a junior in college at Brown or one of the other really great schools, and I asked her how it was going from an all-girl environment to a mixed-gender college environment, and she said, "You know, I've been around boys my whole life, school is not my entire universe. The Thing for me was when I got to college, I could tell exactly who the other girls were who'd been in a single-gender environment versus the ones who'd been co-ed because the girls in the all-girls school shot their hands up and ask questions and got engaged in debate much more than the girls who were a product of a mixed-gender environment."

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Christine Kemper:

And that observation just really stayed with me as a strength and also kind of a turning the issue on its head. It's not as though these girls exist in a world that doesn't have boys and men, but when they're in school, they are in an environment where they are encouraged to use their voices and support each other in sisterhood and just become their best selves and not be worried about what the boys think.

Kelly Scanlon:

Exactly, and the confidence that that breeds. And as you say, they're more engaged.

Christine Kemper:

Yeah, and some of the research that I looked at, and I'm sure maybe one of your listeners is going to call and give me research that completely turns it on its head, but you know, shows that you can have girls and boys performing in sync with each other academically year after year after year, and then something happens in middle school, not to all girls, but to many girls. And that's when puberty starts, that's when life starts to get more complicated in many ways. And the girl's trajectory often will start to decline, where the boys will continue to go up.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Christine Kemper:

But in an all-girls environment, that is not the case. And so all we're trying to do is create a place for young women to realize their own strength and be their best selves and take away some of the extraneous noise. Now, I don't know what the parents of kids at Rockhurst High School would say are the benefits for boys, because I haven't focused on that, but I think my point is, I'm not trying to say that there's one model that works for all students and that single-gender is superior to co-ed. I'm saying that for some students, it's the best opportunity and it ought to exist in our public schools as it does in our private schools. And that's what I think the argument is for this school.

Kelly Scanlon:

What is the application process? If someone's interested in sending their daughter to the school, what process do they go through in order to be considered?

Christine Kemper:

It's pretty easy. There's a single application in the Kansas City, Missouri school district that includes a district and charter schools. And they can go to the school app KC and apply, or they can go to kcgpa.org and find a link to apply. And by apply, I don't mean take an assessment test or pay tuition, all I mean is sign up and say you are going to be in fifth, sixth, or seventh grade, and you're a girl residing within the boundaries of Kansas City, Missouri school district. That's it.

Kelly Scanlon:

And they are automatically accepted? Are there other steps in the process?

Christine Kemper:

There's certain information that the school needs to gather as any public school would need to, you know, pass records and proof of residency and that sort of stuff. That just is a must-do no matter where you enroll. But what I'm trying to say is there isn't any sort of gate that would keep a girl from enrolling. For example, we've got fifth graders coming in, reading at a kindergarten level. You're not going to get kept out because of a reading score. Our school is open to any girl in those grades in the Kansas City, Missouri school district. And that's it, full stop.

Kelly Scanlon:

You are very, very passionate about this school, this kind of education in the benefits that it brings, and I know you've talked a lot about numbers and outcomes and so forth. But there's more than that, that it seems like is at play with you. What motivated you to start it?

Christine Kemper:

You know, I really felt strongly that someone should start it. And I think that, as with anything else, when you study a topic and you start to really learn, then you start to take it personally. And so I had a notion that this school would be great for especially a certain segment of our community that was being underserved, but I had four kids in high school and a full-time job and didn't really think that it was something I could take on. But the more I studied it and the more I talked to people and learned and realized that I don't know, sometimes you just have to be the one.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Christine Kemper:

And part of it is realizing that as hard as I was working and as busy as my life was, you know, I'm coming from a position of privilege. My kids are going to go to college and it's going to be paid for, and they're going to go to bed at night and not have empty stomachs. And the inequity screaming at all of us from different parts of our community just finally became so personal to me that I decided I had to do it.

Kelly Scanlon:

You and your family have been at the center of so many philanthropic and entrepreneurial endeavors here in Kansas City, and you obviously have a stake in shaping our community's future with the girls who graduate from KC Girls Prep. Where do you see Kansas City headed? Where are the opportunities?

Christine Kemper:

Now you're asking me to look into my magic globe. I will first say that I am really heartened by the open dialogue about systemic racism in our community and country. This past summer and the black lives matter movement, while not a new message at all, has finally resonated at levels that it never has before. And now everyone, not just black and brown people, are at the table seeking change, and organizations are examining their practices, and I think becoming more intentional about creating equitable inclusive environments.

Christine Kemper:

And so I'm really hoping that as a larger community, we continue this work and find ourselves in a future that values all people. And I'm excited about the entrepreneurial community, and I think that opportunities have been happening for businesses to develop and grow in ways that weren't true when I moved to Kansas City 25 years ago. You asked me where I think it's going and I want to answer where I hope it's going, which is that we continue on these paths and become an even more creative industrious kind, and inclusive Kansas City in the future.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Christine Kemper for being our guest on this episode of Banking On KC. The mission of Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy is to educate the whole student, to encourage her social and emotional learning, in addition to her academic pursuits, all in a supportive environment where her voice is heard. And because the girls are role models for one another, they can see themselves in every opportunity. The message they hear every day is, "If I can see it, I can be it." A similar message describes Christine, "If I can dream it, I can do it."

Joe Close:

Once she was introduced to the concept of single-gender education for girls in underserved communities, she knew it had to be introduced in Kansas City, but with four kids, a full-time job, and a number of other responsibilities, she had many reasons to believe she was not the one to lead the effort until she told herself that sometimes you just have to be the one. Never underestimate the power of one. In how many ways, big or small, can each of us be the one, if we just commit to looking for the opportunities to do so?

Joe Close:

Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.