By Jennifer Wohlleb
A bad economy, budget cuts and the loss of area businesses with their tax base and jobs might spell disaster for a local school system, but Ballard County Schools found a way to not just keep its head above water, but to thrive.
Meeting the challenge posed by the 2009 creation of Unbridled Learning and its focus on college and career readiness, school leaders took a hard look at the way they were preparing students for their future and made some serious changes, particularly at the district’s Career and Technical Center.
PHOTO: Neal Okerson, a respiratory therapist and instructor at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, demonstrates intubation techniques to students in one of April Jewell’s nurse’s aide class at Ballard County’s Career and Technical Center. Photo by Julie Thomas/Ballard County Schools
These changes and the successes they have created have netted Ballard Memorial High School and Ballard County Career and Technical Center KSBA’s Public Education Achieves in Kentucky (PEAK) Award. The PEAK Award, given twice yearly, was established in 1997 to focus statewide attention on outstanding public school efforts that enhance student learning skills and promote the positive impact of public elementary and secondary education in Kentucky.
“Relevancy is important in our profession and historically, education hasn’t done a great job of staying relevant and current with what’s going on in a global economy,” said Ballard Memorial Principal David Meinschein. “Part of that for us is gathering the data that we need to make the decisions that keep us relevant.”
Being relevant meant taking a hard look at the high school’s college and career readiness scores.
“In 2011, when I first got here, we sat in a room together and said, ‘We have a great school, we have a great career tech center,’ … and we said, ‘34 percent of our students are college and career ready,’ and then we looked a little closer, and it was 34 percent were college ready,” Meinschein said. “None were career ready.”
At the same time, the graduation rate for the district was at 86.5 percent, another area the district needed to tackle.
“We didn’t quite understand the formula for success for college and career readiness, and so it really took some soul-searching and really looking at some of the sacred cows in our buildings and our culture and making some changes – in fact, a hard shift,” he said.
How they did it
With a 60 percent cut to the budget at the tech center, which has been operating since 1978, throwing money at the problem was not an option.
District leaders’ first step was to set some goals: increase college and career readiness numbers to at least 70 percent and improve the graduation rate from 86.5 percent to 90 percent. Then they went to work.
They aligned the curricula with a college and career framework; provided each student with individualized counseling, using an Individual Learning Plan process to ensure each student had a clearly defined pathway to college and career readiness; required seniors to take at least one college course; hired a second counselor who focused on college and career readiness and conducted a forensic audit of each student’s transcript; forged a partnership with Murray State University and West Kentucky Community and Technical College; created professional learning communities among instructors who were tasked with analyzing data and keeping up with student progress; and changed the master and daily class structure away from a block schedule to a seven-period day to give students more opportunities to take dual-credit courses.
Since those changes have been put in place:
• Ballard Memorial High School was ranked No. 1 for college and career readiness points in the state in 2013 and 2014.
• Eighty-six percent of students were college and career ready in 2014, an increase of 52 points since 2011.
• Graduation rates improved from 88.3 percent in 2012 to 94.2 percent in 2013, which was in the top 6 percent in the state.
• The 88-person class of 2013 graduated with more than 1,350 college credit hours, an increase of 27 percent from the previous year, and a savings of an estimated $28,000 in college tuition.
• Of the 417 students enrolled in career tech programs, 120 passed KOSSA exams or industry certifications in 2013.
“The only expenditure we had – and it wasn’t really an expenditure – I took an existing teaching allotment and I moved it to hiring a college and career readiness counselor who could focus on the individual students and their individual career pathway, and I’ll tell you, that’s a formula for success,” Meinschein said.
School board member Karen Tilford can vouch for the effectiveness of that hire. Her daughter will be graduating with 50 college credit hours this May with plans to pursue a nursing career, and Tilford credits the counselor with helping her daughter stay on her path to a future career.
“I don’t know how many times she has called me at work and said, ‘I think you need to come out here, we’re looking at next year, we’re looking at two years from now, come out here and tell me what you think of this,’” Tilford said. “And anytime I have a question, I can call directly to that person; I don’t have to wait for someone to try to look at it, or someone who doesn’t do this all the time. This person is on top of it all the time.”
She said this has been particularly valuable for parents who may not be experienced with the transition to postsecondary education.
Looking outside the district
Involving the community, particularly businesses, has been a boon to both students and area employers.
“In the past year, we have gone through the process of adding a new program to our career tech center,” Meinschein said. “We had auto body for the first two years that I was here and we recognized that it was not an area where we were sending a lot of students into the job sector. So as we began to think and talk about what we wanted to do, we began by having meetings with our community, with business partners, just to discuss what their needs were.
“We looked at our Industrial and Economic Development Board – every county has one – they do trends in your county and look at the business sector of what jobs will be important. For us, agriculture was at the top, along with industrial maintenance.”
So they dropped auto body and added industrial maintenance.
“For us, we want to make sure that when our students leave, they are receiving skills that are transferrable or have actual currency in the job market today,” Meinschein said. “And I’m not looking for skills that are transferrable next year or for when they get out of high school; we need to be teaching them skills that are transferrable 10 years, 20 years in the future; that they have the ability to gather new information, new knowledge and to make sense of that in an ever-changing work place.”
Community business partners have also been invaluable in filling in some of the gaps created by budget cuts.
“I have a provider (an engineering firm) for our welding program that provides about $40,000, $50,000 worth of metal for the past couple of years. Without them I couldn’t survive,” Meinschein said. “We partnered with other businesses to get our green house operational. Our local industrial board has helped us bring industrial maintenance up. So it’s through the generosity of our community we’ve been able to operate. My operating budget right now is not actually enough to run a career tech center. My district recognizes that that center is vital to our community, and they contribute as well.”
He said the school staff now knows what college and career readiness means and is ready to continue to change to meet its changing definition.
“We’ve done it in our building, we’re providing the students with something valuable, but now we’re able to look out past where we are,” he said. “I think it’s that P-20 concept of education … we’re on the edge of being able to push beyond our boundaries and look into the marketplace; that’s a shift. But our shift came because we were given a goal and we recognized what the goal was and we see value in it.”
— The deadline for entering the next PEAK Award is Monday, March 2.