In Conversation With ... KBE's newest members

In Conversation With ... KBE's newest members

In Conversation With ... Debra Cook and Samuel Hinkle, KBE's newest members

In Conversation With ... Debra Cook and Samuel Hinkle, KBE's newest members
In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate. Debra “Debbie” Cook of Corbin and Samuel “Sam” Hinkle of Shelbyville are the newest members of the Kentucky Board of Education, appointed this summer by Gov. Steve Beshear. Cook, a retired teacher, guidance counselor and administrative law judge, served on the Corbin Independent school board for 17 years. Hinkle was on the Shelby County board for a decade and is an attorney with Stoll Keenan Ogden.
 
Q: You took office at a time when the state education department is taking another look at the Unbridled Learning system. What are your observations on how it’s working? What aspects would you like to see re-examined?
 
Debra Cook: It is working, but like any system we have added in the past 25 years, there are things you can tweak to make it a little better. I don’t want to get into specifics, but there are things that need to be tweaked, and the board is looking into those. I have heard a few things from teachers and have given them information about the [online] system by which interested parties can leave comments, especially regarding the standards. Those comments will be reviewed around the end of October.
 
Samuel Hinkle: I have attended one board meeting (at the time of this interview), so that makes me far from an expert on the system. I have been impressed with the professionalism of the staff and the obvious focus of the board on making that system work. We are seeing some improvement, but from my perspective as a former school board member, I feel we have got lots to do.
 
I will say that local school systems are feeling the need for some stability in the targets. I am sympathetic to that. When I was on a (local) school board we were working very hard to get improvements and move toward the goals we had set, and it was somewhat dissatisfying to have all that changed. I have been on the state board long enough to see that there are some very good reasons for the changes, inevitable and unavoidable reasons, perhaps. I hope we are able to set targets and long-term goals and insist on continued improvement and reaching those goals, with continuity measurements.
 
Q: What role will your service as a local school board member play in your work on the state school board?
 
Cook: I think that experience is invaluable. A lot of people really don’t know what limits and avenues the school boards, local or state, have. I know the limits and the jobs those people have to perform and the duties they are entrusted with. I am familiar with how the system operates so I am not starting from ground zero. I was on an independent board, which means all the members are at-large as opposed to a county board where you are representing a particular portion of the county. My job on the state board is as an at-large member as well so I have the experience of not looking at what a portion of the county needs but at the bigger picture.
 
Hinkle: I hope it gives me a useful perspective. I think I will be focused on the ways in which the state board sets its standards and helps local boards in achieving those standards.
 
Q: You (both) recently expressed concerns about the new finance report cards and how they might be perceived locally. Is this the type of input you would expect to continue to give?
 
Cook: I was not questioning the report card itself. My concern was that the report cards be made more user-friendly or as user-friendly as possible. Perhaps it will take more explanation as to what they mean or how the data was gathered so that someone without a school finance background can better understand them.
 
Hinkle: I think the information in the report card is really important. When I raised that question I wanted to be sure that we looked at the messages that might be implied in presentations, even though they were not intended to be messages.
 
As far as my input, I am very interested in student achievement. One specific thing we are looking at is the extent that world languages are taught, particularly in elementary school. I hope the state board does what it can to encourage that teaching. The research has been clear for a long time that teaching students at an early age is the most efficient and valuable approach.
 
Q: The issue of local control vs. Frankfort control of school decision-making continues to be divisive. As a former local board member, what will you bring to situations where this comes into play before the state board?
 
Cook: One area I want to be on alert to is that while our state board sets our standards, our local board sets their own curriculum. I want to make sure that the standards that are set are attainable and are reasonable. That has to have local input. Also, are the standards being worded in a way that they are easily understood and so that the local board can build their curriculum around them?
 
Hinkle: I have been a parent, focused on quality education for my children; a site-based member, a school board member and now a state board member. My focus is quality education/student achievement. I would want every constituency pushing hard for student achievement. I can bring to the state board discussion the perspective of someone at the local level. But I find I am only sympathetic to the local level’s concern to the extent that those concerns are about kids. When it is not about the kids, I find I don’t have much sympathy for them. I think the state board is very focused that way, and I hope to be a part of that.
 
Q: How do you view the relationship between the state board and local school boards?
 
Cook: I think they complement one another – two groups whose goal is to educate our children as best we can. The goal is the same and they are helping each other get there.
 
Hinkle: I think that relationship probably varies from district to district. I have seen the board, in the short time I have been there to observe it, make what I consider to be good faith and serious efforts to reach out to local boards. That is almost a necessity if we are all going to pull together for the good of children. I suspect if the board is going to establish standards, there are going to be times it is necessary for the board to push. But I have observed a good bit of regard for people at all levels who share the goal of student achievement.
 
Q: Besides funding, what do you believe are the top three needs of K-12 schools?
 
Cook: I would like to say facilities; that is tied to money. We still have in my view some very inadequate facilities in the state. Another need is other resources, especially technology, but that is tied to money, too. Also, the attitude toward education. Not every family places the importance on education that I think they should. We have families who don’t always support the educational process, from administrators down to the teachers.
 
I think we also need to be vigilant that our universities put out quality, qualified teachers. We have people who would like to be educators, but because we can’t pay educators as we do many professionals, they steer away from that profession.
 
Hinkle: If we spoke long-term and big picture and philosophical, I would think the whole funding structure is something we should look at. I feel that there is some inherent unfairness in the current funding structure that we would be well advised to look at closely. I don’t mean the state board, I mean all of us as citizens of the Commonwealth.
 
Beyond that, as much focus as we can possibly muster on early childhood education. I mean as much rigor as early as possible and doing as much as we can do to help, in particular children that don’t have enriched educational opportunities at home, get that opportunity in school early.
 
Big picture, I wonder if there is anything more important than getting broad-based consensus on how important education is. It is easy for us and for most of your readers to reach consensus, but there is a risk of talking among ourselves. When you step back, you see you don’t have that consensus as a state yet. If we could get consensus, a lot of those other problems would be easily addressed.
 
Q: What would you like state legislators to know about K-12 education?
 
Cook: Our legislators 25 years ago got on the bandwagon for education when they came up with the reform act. That was such a leap for Kentucky. They have tried to move forward with things since then. However, we are still stifled by lack of funding. My message to legislators in regard to education would be you have got to come up with more funding.
 
Hinkle: When you ask the question, it is in part an indictment of ourselves that we haven’t educated them. I think that the legislature would benefit from spending more time with local school districts and the districts would do well to reach out to legislators. There is really no excuse for there to be an adversarial relationship there. This is about the kids.
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