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Episode 77: Lead with Love - Christine Kemper

In this episode, Lead with Love, we spoke with Christine Kemper, Marketing Professional, Board Member, and Founder of Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy, a school that teaches young women to use their voices, succeed in college and lead impactful, meaningful lives.

It’s giving Tuesday! This is where to give: Education – KCGPA      Arts – Heartland Arts

In Christine’s inspiring story, she sees a need in her community and takes matters into her own hands to meet the need. Find out how the students in her school are encouraged to put their own presence into the world.

Following a fifteen-year career that began in the U.S. Department of Justice and evolved to include roles in business communications, politics and higher education, Christine founded a marketing and research consultancy that has advised local, national and global brands since 2002. She is co-founder of The Collectors Fund and The Kansas City Collection, two enterprises that invest in art and build markets for artists, as well as YEP, an internship and scholarship organization focused on nurturing entrepreneurship among high school students. She has served in leadership roles for dozens of regional nonprofit organizations, including the Women’s Foundation, Women’s Employment Network, WIN for KC, the WWI Museum and Memorial, DeLaSalle Education Center, the Symphony Foundation and University Academy Charter School. Her current passion is in her role as a founder and board chair of Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy. 


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Happy Tuesday, it’s Jen Vellenga with the Speak with Presence podcast. This is Episode 77, Lead with Love with Christine Kemper. Now that the turkey is settled, you have shopped on Black Friday, found women-owned businesses on Small Business Saturday, worked your magic on Cyber Monday, now is really the time to see your dollars make a major impact in your community.

Today is Giving Tuesday. JRT and I have suggestions for you because we know you give where you care. One for the arts, and one for education. For the arts, there’s many places that you can give. This year, we’re suggesting that you give to Heartland Arts.  You can hear Logan Stacer, the executive artistic director and founder of Heartland Arts, on Episode 69, Halfway to Anywhere. You can learn about all the ways he’s impacting community with his arts programming. And then finally, today’s episode is really near and dear to our hearts. We interviewed Christine Kemper, who is the founder of Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy. If you want to make an impact in the area of education, this is the place to do it.

The KCGPA is Kansas City’s first and only public single gender school serving 5th to 9th grade, with plans in place to go all the way up to 12th grade. You’ll hear about that in this episode.  Happy Thanksgiving, happy kickoff to the Holidays, and Happy Giving Tuesday. Links to Donator in the show notes. 

This is Episode 77, Lead with Love with Christine Kemper.  I had four children in middle and high school at the time.  I was running my business, Julia has a full-time job, her kids were in middle and high school, and we just thought somebody should do this. And so we talked to everybody that we knew was trying to make a difference in public education, and they all just nodded their heads and looked at us like, yeah, sure, go start a school.  Sometimes you’re looking around for someone to start something and you just have to do it yourself. 

Welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast. I’m Jen Vellenga and I’m Jennifer Rettele-Thomas. On this podcast, we believe perfection is overrated, leaders listen, and we all speak up to influence change.

Today, we are on location in the Country Club Plaza area in Kansas City interviewing Christine Kemper. Christine is the founder and board chair of the Charter School Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy, or KCGPA. Let me just be clear here, when we met Christine a couple weeks ago, we’ve become great friends in a couple of weeks. We got the great tour with her and some other amazing women in the community and what I think was so amazing, the thing that really resonated with us, is the philosophy is, you lead with love.  There are many things Christine does, but this is a story we want to share today, leading with love. Let’s tell that story.

Listeners may go to the show notes and read her bio, but when we got a chance to tour this charter school in the northeast area of Kansas City, and that’s 17th and Van Brunt, we were walking down the hallway with Christine and a group of really amazing women, and we noticed a document with the character strengths they aspire to have their students possess. This document was posted on the wall in many locations and what stopped us in our tracks, what was it JRT? It was number 10, it was presence.  I just loved their definition of it.  It was the last trait right at the bottom and it says this trait might look like actively participating in a conversation or activity by fully engaging, by listening, asking questions, and speaking up actively and continuously tracking the speaker.

And Christine is sitting right here with us going, they’re just talking about me.  Yes, we are. So these students are learning how to speak with presence. Christine, welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast. Thank you for having me. We’re so glad that you’re here. We invited you to be on our podcast because of how you use your voice to create change for young girls.

What inspired you to lead with love and use your voice to launch this academy? I’d say that it was a process. I moved to Kansas City about 30 years ago and was super surprised upon coming here to find out that our public school system really didn’t serve all of the kids. And I have been involved with various schools since then, a couple of charter schools, De La Salle Academy and University Academy over the years because I have come to understand that charters can be a real agent for change in a system that sometimes is maybe too large, maybe too bureaucratic.

I don’t know what it is that has caused the historic challenges in the public district here, but I do know that charters have been a great answer. And so, I didn’t really ever set out to found a new school, but I don’t think founders generally do set out to. Entrepreneurs usually spot a problem and try to find a solution. 

And the problem for me was that decades after moving here, we still weren’t moving the needle for all kids in the public system. And particularly not in the deep northeast part of Kansas City, which is generally east of Troost and north of Truman. And it’s the area that most often has gone underserved. 

It’s the area that has the most unmet demand for performing school seats. It lacks affordable housing. Anyway, why was that area of Kansas City an important place to found a charter? Well, actually it’s interesting. There are now a couple dozen charters in Kansas City, and many of them are concentrated in areas.

There are some fantastic charter schools in the Brookside area, but there really aren’t many in the northeast.  So, to answer your question, yes, there, there are a couple. Guadalupe is in the northeast and they’re fantastic. SVN is in the northeast, they’re fantastic. But in the media area where we are beyond those two schools, what we have is a great deal of unmet demand for performing school seats.

It happened to be about seven years ago. I met the founder of a national network of schools called the Young Women’s Leadership Network. That system began by the founding of a single school in East Harlem 28 years ago. And the founder of that school is a Kansas Citian. Her name is Ann Rubenstein Tisch. You didn’t know that. I did not know that. We knew that’s what started in Harlem, but I didn’t know she was a Kansas City person. So, this is kind of a funny… coming full circle moment. 

I met Ann seven or so years ago when I was in New York with our mutual friend Julie. We had our 13-year-old daughters along with us and Julie said let’s just go stay with my friend Ann.  Well, Ann has a fantastic home in the Upper East Side, and she welcomed us with open arms.  And it was there that I began to understand what she had started 28 years ago has really become a movement across the country. So, Ann grew up in Kansas City, went to Southwest High School, went to Wash U, went off and had a career in journalism, married Andrew Tisch, moved to New York.  Her daughters enjoyed the finest private school in Manhattan.  But she was keenly aware of the inequities happening across the city, and particularly in Harlem. So, she took it upon herself to replicate many of the qualities in the private school system into a public school for girls.  Uniforms, high academic expectations, high support, just no tuition and no religion.

And that school was so successful in getting girls through high school, into and through college, that it’s now been replicated in each borough of New York. And there are now a couple dozen affiliates across the country. So, I met Ann through my friend Julie, got really excited and inspired to hear about how she had been empowering young women across the country for decades.  I went back to New York on a subsequent business trip and toured the Harlem School and came back to Kansas City. Julie and I met with everybody we could think of to try to get somebody to start this school.

You know how that works. You know, because I had four children in middle and high school at the time, I was running my business, Julia has a full-time job, her kids were in middle and high school and we just thought somebody should do this. And so, we went to the Kauffman Foundation. We went to the Hall Family Foundation.  We talked to everybody that we knew was trying to make a difference in public education. And they all just nodded their heads and looked at us like, yeah, sure, go start a school. Someone should do that. And really, the more that we did our homework and the more that I came to understand the real disparities in where communities are being well served by the current system, and that includes charters and the district, the more I became fixated on the northeast as our East Harlem of 30 years ago.

And so, we recognized that was the place for a school. We recognized that we had the model for the school. There was no other single gender public school in town.  We have outstanding private single gender schools. And my interest has largely been in empowering women.  That’s just where I have spent my energy professionally and philanthropically over the years.

I love the model of an all-girls school. Anyway, the more that I learned about it, the more I fell in love with the model.  I finally realized that sometimes you’re looking around for someone to start something and you just have to do it yourself.  I did get on the Missouri Secretary of State’s website and create an entity and wrote a letter to the IRS and said, I think I want to be a not for profit and got some of the things in a row.  I was able to get a $5,000 grant to have a lawyer look at the stuff that I did and make sure that I didn’t screw it up. We did some early fundraising and I kept meeting with all those same people that I’d been meeting with before, but the difference was this time I was saying, okay, I’m going to take the lead. 

And I was still running my business at the time. I did still have those kids at home. None of that changed. What I didn’t understand was that it was going to become a full-time endeavor. What was your business? Market research, strategy, and communications. So not in education. Not in education at all. No. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and I have worked in politics and fundraising and entertainment and advertising and PR and market research. I’ve had a pretty varied career. I think now as a founder and having gone through what I had the last few years trying to bring this school to fruition, I look back and think every single one of those skills has come to play in founding a school. 

Being an educator would have been an extra bonus. But the truth is, I’ve been an education board member for many, many years. It’s not my job to be the expert about education. It’s my job to enable the educators to do their magic. So, we ended up raising enough money to hire Tom Krebs, who was our founding CEO, who is an extraordinary human and an expert educator and administrator and leader. 

And I’ll tell you that when he was brought up to me as the best person I could possibly hire to be my CEO. And CEO is equal to superintendent.  I said, really, a white man to be the CEO of my school for black and brown girls. And the person who had recommended him to me said, it’s really simple. He’s the best and you can hold it against him that he’s a white man or you can hire him.  And I tell you what, hiring him was the best decision that I ever made for this school. He then found Tara Haskins, who is a phenomenal Afro Latina school leader. She was our founding school leader. She remains with us today. Together, the two of them populated our school with some of the most extraordinary teachers that we could ever ask for.

Tara and Tom, that relationship sounds like a beautiful match for allyship and collaboration. And exactly what we need in this world is people who are different coming together with their expertise and skill sets to move the needle forward on change so that we can all collaborate in better ways.  So, I love that your CEO is a white male and that he brought in somebody who’s not like him. I’m sure it’s part of the reason for success. And the fact that they have someone like you who stepped in and said, I’m going to do that because that needs to be done. Yeah, I think that has played out to be true.

The thing about race, and race is an issue, is that people are really talking about it more in the last five years or so than they have, to me, in the past. And I’m keenly aware of race. We’re talking about it a lot in our school. I mean, if you look at our website, it says we are a feminist anti racist school.  We have put a stake in the ground that this is what we are about. It is our goal when we are hiring talent to always have our pipeline be filled with at least 75 percent of the candidates are women of color. And if we don’t get to that marker, then we pause and keep filling the pipeline so that we have an excellent chance of populating our leadership team and our faculty with people who look like the kids were serving. 

We were told early on by the families that that was important to them. We have worked really hard to be race conscious but that also includes talking about when we fall down on the job. You know, what are our own unconscious biases that we bring to the table?  Even for our faculty, white, black and brown faculty, you know, when they deal with our kids. 

What are the practices that we have to go to, to make sure that we are fully embracing and empowering the black and brown voices at all levels? Anyway, it’s tricky. I’ve become much better at talking about it since founding this school, but I’m always aware that I’m white and I am not the expert in this work. 

You have presence, Christine. You’ve probably always had. Can you tell us a story of how presence has served you in your leadership role?  I will say that the word that came to mind for me is authentic. I really just try to be who I am, wherever I am. And part of my authenticity is that I really do want to engage with people in a meaningful way.

I really do love my interactions with people. And being present for me means really being in communion with someone and trying to understand where they come from and trying to find if we can have common ground and make something happen.  I don’t really play games. So maybe that’s part of the authenticity piece.  I just say, here I am and what I’m about, and won’t you come join me on this journey? And sometimes that can be disarming in a way that turns out to be very positive because a lot of people play games. Or do power struggles. And that’s just not really what I’m about. So maybe if that’s being present, then I guess that’s how presence has served me.

I have been super fortunate in my professional life in that my business was built on relationships. I didn’t take out ads, didn’t really go out and market myself, but would find work because someone recommended me from the last project. And I find it very easy to hold on to friendships.  Every time you sell a job, every time you hire a person, every time you walk the school and talk about why it’s important, for me, it’s bringing my whole self.

When listeners are hearing about KCGPA and the impact it has on girls, and which will eventually have an impact on the communities in which they live and hopefully return if they go away to school.   Can you just give us an overview of what the structure of the school looks like now that it has launched?  Okay. I like the part that you said about affecting the girls in their communities. I’ve had people ask me before, why girls?  For me, the answer is, I really believe if you change the life of a girl, you change the dynamic of her family, the family changes the community, and the community helps change the world.  And that changes all to the good, in my view.   Feminist ideals don’t really have to do with being feminine, but they do have to do with empowering all people. So that’s why girls.

The school itself will ultimately be a middle and high school. We started just with fifth grade in 2019. We had great timing; pandemic came in 2020.  But undeterred, we did recruit a second fifth grade class, even as we were remote that following year, and then recruited another incoming fifth grade class as our rising fifth graders rose to sixth grade and so on. We’re currently five through nine. We have four grades in middle school and we just launched our high school. And next year we plan to have our ninth graders roll up to 10th grade. And then ultimately, we’ll be a five through 12 middle and high school. 

We’re located, as you mentioned, at 17th and Van Brunt. Our building is a classic red brick school. It was built as an elementary school back over a hundred years ago. It has operated as several different schools and even a public library over time and it was empty for some number of years as well. It now serves as our middle school and thanks to the pandemic, our enrollment numbers are such that we can still fit ninth grade and probably 10th grade in our current building.  We haven’t built the adjacent high school yet. So that’s where we are physically located. It’s how we’re structured today. I tell people that we are building a bridge as we’re walking across it because every year we have to hire and start recruiting for a grade that we have not previously offered.

We hired our founding ninth grade teachers last year so they could begin to build the curriculum and the program for the incoming girls and welcome them on day one and be ready to receive them. So, it’s a little bit upside down. It’s very entrepreneurial. With entrepreneurial businesses, many times people will put a lot of capital in up front so that those companies can start and operate before they’re profitable. And we kind of have the same model. We’ve had to raise a bunch of private funds to launch this public enterprise. It’s going to be upside down for a while until we are fully enrolled and fully operational. But the idea is that by the time we are five through 12, we’ll be able to exist largely on public funds.

So how many students do you currently have?  It’s a moving number every single day. I checked this morning, 177.  Great number. Tell us a little bit about the demographics. The demographics are that about 50 percent of the kids identify as black. About 23 or 24 percent identify as Latina or Latinx. We have another 10 or 15 percent that are of mixed race. And then we have a chunk of kids who are immigrants and refugees from all over the world, including some Afghani girls who came to us after the Taliban took over Afghanistan and their families were relocated here in the Kansas City area. We have a very diverse population. One thing they share in common is almost all the families we serve are pretty low income. 

We do serve breakfast and lunch for free to all of our girls every day. During the pandemic, we found out they didn’t have internet access or even devices to be able to access the internet. So, we wrote grants to provide them with Chromebooks and Wi Fi devices so they could actually access the academic work in their homes. They often don’t have a lot of the resources that they need personally.

We hired a social worker in the pandemic who would take her folding chair to the homes of the families that we served, and she would set up her chair out front and interact with the families and help connect them with the resources that they need. So again, while our population is quite diverse, there are many commonalities among the families that we serve and it’s again why we located where we did.  We’re trying to be in the part of the community where we can move the needle the farthest.

You’ve mentioned there is a high school in the future. You have purchased the land where that future high school will go, and you have constant ongoing needs just to continue to serve these incredible girls.  Can you talk a little bit about how people can give and what are some of the needs that you have if people want to roll up their sleeves and help?   I’m happy to but first, I feel like I should talk a little bit about funding because I referenced that we get public dollars.

Actually, up until last year, charters, although they received a public allocation, did not receive as much as district schools.  And that was just a strange political issue that was finally resolved by the Missouri Legislature. Our per pupil reimbursement is the same as the district. However, unlike the district, nobody gives a charter school the physical structure that they need. We have to buy or build our own buildings. We are responsible for renovation and for repairs in a way that a district school is not.  So, at the get go, a charter is upside down financially.

We have been fortunate enough to have this community support us. We’ve raised more than $20 million since inception. That sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But when you’re doing a high school, it’s not nearly enough money. We’ve focused about the first $10 million of that on the middle school to purchase, renovate and operate the middle school bridge as we were walking across it. So, you know, we had to hire our founding team before we even had kids in the building. And that school is now fully baked, although not fully enrolled. And then the high school, again, we’re in our ninth grade and eventually it’ll be a nine through 12. The other $10 million that we’ve raised is toward that high school built.

Eventually we’re going to bust out of this building that we’re in and require more space. We did acquire the land immediately adjacent to us. And we have a master plan that includes attaching a high school to this current building so that actually all the kids can access the entire space. But again, that’s on hold. But the campaign for that high school is going to be a $20 million lift as well. So, we’ve got at least another $10 million to raise. But to your point about the piece that we need to keep the lights on is that because we’re reimbursed for enrollment and attendance and that number is not sufficient to cover the cost, we do annual fundraising as well.

We just had our first fundraising event. We called it Leading with Love, which is a theme that apparently you have picked up on. It is who we are. We had a fantastic event with 500 people attending at the Loews this past June. We do an annual fundraising campaign as well, a written one at Giving Tuesday.  We send out notices. We’re fundraising constantly both for operational and capital support. 

If someone wants to help us financially, that’s pretty easy. They can reach out on our website. There are two. The school website is kcgpa.org, which is easy to remember if you think of GPA as grade point average.  kcgpa.org is the school, kcgirlslead.org is our fundraising site. It’s the one that we put together to describe our capital campaign. A giving can be done via either of those sites. If someone signs up to receive our newsletter or to contact us to be a volunteer, then they will start to be on our regular communications list. They’ll be kept up to date for when we need volunteers, when we’re doing a coat drive, when we’re trying to raise some money to throw a party for the teachers to inspire them.

They can also contact me directly through the website. I’m very happy to talk to anyone who wants to share time and treasure with the school. That’s wonderful. We’re so honored to know you and to participate however we can in supporting the school and this is coming out on Giving Tuesday. So for those of you listening and you’re looking where you can support, this is a very worthy cause.  And we appreciate your time so much, Christine. And we’ll be excited to come visit and help out in any way possible as we move forward in and watching you and your team continue to grow the impact of this school in our community.

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Jen V. & JRT

Jen Vellenga and Jennifer Rettele-Thomas are the co-founders of Voice First World®, a communication and executive coaching company. They train executives and leaders on the Presence Paradigm™, a communication technique created from Jen V’s decades of training actors to perform authentically, with presence, on stages, on audio, and video. If you want to learn more about how to speak and lead confidently, book a discovery call at www.voicefirstworld.com/calendar

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