By Madelynn Coldiron
Leslie County High School is close. Caverna High, Sheldon Clark High in Martin County and Western High in Jefferson County are getting there.
They are among the state’s 41 priority schools that have been digging their way out of that classification, formerly known as persistently low-achieving. They will remain priority schools until they have met their annual measurable objective for three years. Of those above, Leslie County High has achieved that twice prior to the state’s new accountability system; the others, once.
“I’m cautiously optimistic” that the school will leave behind priority status this year, said Leslie County board Chairman Lonnie Napier. “It’s been a long road coming back but I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Then there is the transformation score devised by the state education department for these priority schools to gauge their progress in college and career readiness, overall scores, ACT, gap, graduation rate and other factors. (See chart below.)
“We are just chipping away at that. We just know we’re going to get those few points,” said Christian County Schools Superintendent Mary Ann Gemmill. On the 13-point transformation scale, Christian County High has nine points.
Of the 41 schools, 10 were identified in 2009-10 and 12 in 2010-11. The rest, in cohort 3, were named in 2011-12. Bolstered by federal School Improvement Grants – which will end after this year for the first cohort – these schools, especially those in the initial groups, were able to hire extra personnel, improve programs and benefit from state Education Recovery Teams.
Even so, just 17 have made what the state education department considers adequate progress since being given that undesirable distinction.
“We would assume that a school that is making the necessary movement into turnaround has scored – if it’s been in there three years – should have scored at least six points against the total of 13 if you’re a high school or against the point total of 11 if you’re a middle school,” Susan Allred, KDE’s associate commissioner of the Office of Next Generation Schools and Districts, recently told the state board of education.
Allred said three factors contribute to the ability of a school to make turnaround progress:
• The willingness of the staff to accept help; there has been “significant resistance” in some schools, she said. However, she noted, the receptivity of cohort 2 and cohort 3 schools has been “far more welcoming since the work is beginning to prove itself.”
• The ability of the Education Recovery Team to become effective. It sometimes takes time for the team to “gel,” since most members are highly skilled educators used to working solo.
• Attitude, which Allred explains as: “How long it takes for the adults to get over themselves and realize this is about kids.”
Other factors, she said, include the ability of teachers to analyze and use data and large numbers of new teachers in a school.
Over the past three years of working with priority schools, “We have learned a lot about school improvement and in particular turnaround improvement,” said Fleming County Schools Superintendent Tom Price, who was a regional education recovery director before coming to the district, which also has a priority school.
“We know it has to be data-based – you have to remove any possibility that you’re guessing what needs to happen,” he said. “It still takes strong leadership. And you have to be using best practice based on what we know from research that works in schools today.”
An evaluation of the improvement efforts by the University of Kentucky (see story on opposite page) listed several external barriers that principals in priority schools cited as continuing challenges. These include the community’s lack of urgency for reform and low expectations; in the case of high schools, feeder middle schools with too many struggling students; and low parental involvement.
Price notes that the schools in the earlier cohorts have benefited from more federal funding than the latter, though KDE has done its best to transfer money from other sources.
When Fleming County High was named a priority school in cohort 3, it received about $50,000 for improvement efforts, he said, “as opposed to hundreds of thousands in that first cohort.”
But Price hesitates to say that the funding issue has been a deal-breaker in terms of schools being able to make quick turnarounds.
“Schools are just like students – each one is different and has its own barriers and strengths,” he said.
KDE is trying to figure out how to help the priority schools maintain progress when School Improvement Grant money runs out.
For each of the three regions into which it has divided the state, the agency will identify hub priority schools that are doing well, and will base Education Recovery staff there. These schools will function as “labs,” for others to observe and for student teachers to train. Best practice information also will be circulated.
KDE will be partnering with University of Louisville and a national group in a “train the trainers” program to produce high-quality school turnaround leaders. It’s important to maintain that leadership focus, said Amy Wilcox, chief instructional officer for Christian County Schools.
“When the Education Recovery Team leaves, you can’t go back to ground zero. That’s why it all goes back to leadership,” which she feels was the key to the progress her district’s high school has made.
The priority schools also will be expected to continue with tasks they are doing now, including 30-60-90 day planning and quarterly data reports to KDE. Allred said schools in cohorts 1 and 2 currently are writing sustainability plans for the next three years and districts are being asked to review their own supports for continuing growth once the assistance teams leave.