Chad Onianwa interview with King Kihei:
Kansas City Public Schools’ accreditation status has been hovering over the district like a cloud for nearly a decade.
After losing its ranking in 2011 KCPS oscillated between unaccredited and provisional accreditation status, and this followed the closing of 29 of its 61 schools in 2010. Under the lens of both local and national media attention, the pressure in the air is thick and the district still struggles to find its wings.
Few are being impacted by that pressure more than the students themselves.
“You can feel it. You can see the tears, the concern… they wanted to talk about it, but felt like they couldn’t. Like it wasn’t appropriate.” These are the words of King Kihei, a Kansas City artist who works with local youth developing their creative writing skills.
During one of his classes with Kansas City Young Audiences, Kihei and his co-instructor from the Recipe Poetry Guild asked the students what was on their minds. The issues that kept coming up were accreditation, redrawn neighborhood boundaries, and schools closing or moving. The same conversations were also repeatedly surfacing in articles written by the students in Kihei’s creative writing group.
Missing from much of the media coverage, however, were the voices of students themselves and those whose daily lives revolve around KCPS: teachers, parents, and staff. In all these conversations about the district, where was the perspective of the people?
“For kids, half of growing up is at school. For parents, you trust the school system when you leave your children in their care,” Kihei says. “Even for teachers it is confusing.” In a district with such high rates of student churn, it is difficult for educators to really get to know their students. Understanding individual learning needs is important, and this is made even more difficult if students, and sometimes even teachers, are frequently forced to relocate. What was lacking was a constructive way to talk about these issues that would educate parents, faculty, and students on all sides of the issue.
Back to School
In my interview with Kihei, he stressed that he was particularly troubled by the students feeling they could not discuss the district’s accreditation with teachers, administrators, and parents. After all, his work with them focuses on helping them learn how to express themselves and articulate their opinions.
Kihei is great at communicating his own vision. His passion is connecting to individuals through spoken language, and this clearly contributes to his skills as a poet, activist, and musician.
“There’s an art to language. It’s who you’re communicating with and how… it’s not always what you say, it’s how you say it. That’s the thing… and what better way than through art?” Kihei says.
For the Hawaii-born artist, it became clear that there had to be a way to project the feelings of these students out into the community. People needed to know that youth were uncomfortable about what was happening in the district, that they felt they didn’t have a voice to say so, and that they especially did not want to be seen as mere statistics in the fight for accreditation.
“If you can’t speak, we’ll speak for you” Kihei decided. “We’ll support you in that way… and hopefully that inspires [you] to have the courage to speak. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.
What better platform to begin to talk about these issues than a parent-teacher conference?
Kihei worked with the students, the Recipe Poetry Guild and videographer Lyn E. Cook, to shape a Rocket Grants proposal called Parent/Teacher Conference. This idea was based on the classic concept most of us are familiar with– but expanded to the community level. Kihei and his collaborators then reached out to many friends in the community, including community organizers, politicians, school board members and animators, in order to help the proposal materialize.
The complex project unfolded in three stages. The first part was composed of three separate meetings, at which parents, teachers, faculty, district representatives, and students came together for a community forum. The meetings addressed both the history of problems in the district and the current situation, and participants could ask questions, offer personal insights and suggest solutions.
The second part of Parent/Teacher Conference became a ninety-minute documentary, produced by Cook, featuring interviews with participants at the conference, students and other informed community members. Issues of racial segregation and discrimination, high superintendent turnover, busing, and funding cuts, arose over and again throughout the various testimonies and conversations, but sometimes seen from quite different points of view.
The last component is an animated music video with an accompanying spoken word piece, produced by Kihei. He and Cook are now looking for a venue to premiere the documentary and music video for public discussion.
Designing this project to approach the issue from different angles was a crucial part of the process.
“It’s one of those topics that everyone was uncomfortable to talk about… We tried to get the perspectives of different people: The teacher, bus driver, administrator- someone who works for the district- then a student, and last is the concerned parent.” Kihei says explaining how they gathered input for the project.
“I understand so many more aspects of it now than I did before.”
A lover of discussion and debate, Kihei smiles when reflecting on the insight gained from tackling as large an issue as public education in the metro area.
“I was like ‘Man that’s a big monster, but we’re still going to tackle it anyway. I might not knock the wind out of it, but we’ll untie it’s shoelaces or something.'”
Against the World
“Sometimes you have to put that mirror up and ask ‘what side are you on?'”
Part of what made organizing a project like Parent/Teacher Conference so difficult was courting district representatives to participate in the discussion. Ideally, their presence would provide a voice from the bureaucratic perspective as well as the opportunity for administrators to meet face-to-face with members of the communities they represent.
“Going to the school board and telling them we’re doing an art project… they think you’re taking pictures or something. But after telling them ‘We’re doing an art project on school closings and we’d like to get the school board involved,’ there was a few people that were interested but in most cases the cooperation wasn’t there,” Kihei says.
“I can understand [why] ’cause you’re dealing with their livelihood– a person’s job. Maybe someone on the board supports the project but they can’t because of the conflict of interest. But sometimes you have to put that mirror up and ask what side are you on?”
Even today, after the community discussions have come and gone, Kihei finds himself asking this question often. Regardless, Kihei plans to keep the conversation centered around the students.
Currently, KCPS has retained their accreditation status according to their 2017 report despite some scores slipping back down from 2016. Throughout the turbulence, Kihei stays optimistic. He sees something different in his students and community after working with them through Parent/Teacher Conference.
“I’m excited for the kids and the youth coming out of that system. It encouraged that fight in them and I see a lot of success going on. It’s forcing kids to think a little different. It’s started raising the standard for all of us.” Kihei says
Having access to platforms where you’re able to voice your opinions as a community is important. But having that accessibility as a young person and knowing that your voice has weight in these conversations can be transformational. Hopefully, projects like Parent/Teacher Conference will lead change to help normalize youth participation in these discussions.
Parent/Teacher Conference is just one example of what local activism can look like: spreading knowledge about what is going on, and teaching communities how to navigate the institutions that influence their lives.
Markers like accreditation and standardized tests scores are useful to identify areas where our schools may need improvement. As this project shows, however, the issues are much more complicated than that, and it’s only by listening to the voices of all those involved that we can hope to make our collective goals real. Listening to the voices of our youth – who bring a unique set of experiences and opinions to the table- Kihei articulates the point best:
“Just because you’re not accredited doesn’t mean you’re not educated.”