Student Showcase Wows at Missouri Charter School Conference

Meet twins De’Onta and De’Na Newborn, two sixth graders at Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy in Kansas City, Missouri. Imagine them opening the state charter school conference singing a beautiful duet with the poise and skill of professionals. The high note struck by the young man nearly shattered the glasses on our table.



Then imagine their 8th grade colleagues (left) at the same school showcasing a five minute debate on whether the Cuban embargo should be lifted. Their debate coach, Bill Lindsey, told us that over 250 students at their school have been involved in debate over six years, winning over 300 individual trophies and 30 team trophies in national and local competitions. Most compelling, says Coach Lindsey, is that debate improves the student math scores! All debaters are proficient or advanced in math…some have moved from basic to proficient.


The debate was followed by a large group of 10-year-olds from a Kansas City charter school called Académie Lafayette who showcased a play in French. They not only spoke fluent French, but they interacted like young thespians! These students have spoken French starting in kindergarten in all their classes, with the exception of English taught one hour per day. I was delighted to meet the Académie Lafayette Head of School Elimane Mbengue (right), who hails from Senegal. Many teachers in the school are native French speakers.


Here are a few other photos showing the array of talent showcased by students over a three-hour period. What an inspiring and uplifting evening!

It was my pleasure to be one of the keynote speakers for the conference in Kansas City, Missouri, hosted by the Missouri Charter Public School Association. Executive Director Doug Thaman kindly invited me, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation generously sponsored enough copies of Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story for each charter school in Missouri. The foundation has also established their own charter school in Kansas City. I was delighted to reunite with my Minnesota friend Aaron North who is now a director at the Kauffman Foundation. Aaron and I used to co-host a live weekly web radio show called “CharterAmerica” when he was with the Minnesota authorizer, Volunteers of America.

Finally, I was greatly inspired by a fellow keynote speaker, Maxine Clark (right), the “Chief Executive Bear” of Build-A-Bear Workshop. Maxine left her position as CEO of Payless Shoe Stores at the age of 48 to build on a dream inspired by her daughter. Today there are more than 400 Build-A-Bear Workshop retail stores worldwide, and Maxine has been named to retail Halls of Fame and as one of 25 “Most Influential People in Retailing” among other plaudits. Last year she moved on from her company at the age of 64, to focus on philanthropy for education reform and chartering. Her personal story of “reinventing herself” and giving back greatly moved me. It was delightful to meet her, and we hope to work together in our efforts to improve public education in the future!