6-12 (2)Turnaround Leslie County

6-12 (2)Turnaround Leslie County

Persistently Leading an Aboutface

Persistently Leading an Aboutface

Students important element in turning around Leslie County school

By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff Writer

When you hear about school turnaround, you think of leadership changes, intensive teacher training, new strategies – all steps taken by adults aimed at helping students learn and achieve. 

At Leslie County High School, all those things happened – but students are more than receptacles for these changes: they are players.

PHOTO: Tenth-grader Cheyenne King works on a project involving the periodic table of elements in herphysical science class. Each student contributed by researching a different element.

“We use a lot of data,” said Principal Kevin Gay. “Students take ownership of their own data – that has been part of it.”

Leslie County High is among the 10 schools in the first batch of persistently low-achieving schools singled out for improvement by the state education department in 2010. Two additional cohorts have been added since then.

The vehicle for the student data is a notebook maintained and analyzed by each student – at this point, one for math and the other for English. Science will be added next year. The notebooks contain daily tests, unit tests, worksheets, attendance records, goals, benchmarks, syllabuses and even graphs to chart their progress.

“It gives ownership to the people who need ownership of the data,” Gay said. “The kids know what their data is. They know every assessment they take is important for their education. Our students before were just blowing that off.”

Every quarter, the school has “Data Days,” several days set aside for teachers and administrators to meet with the 500 students individually or in small groups to review their data, look at their goal setting and find ways to help those who need it, Gay said.

“This has been a ‘together’ effort,” said Ruth Ann Collett, leader of the science professional learning community. “The kids have worked very, very hard. If they hadn’t bought into it, it wouldn’t have worked.”

Keeping the notebooks is not that much work, said junior Donovan Roberts. “We just review what we missed and you know what you can do to improve.”

Teachers maintain similarly voluminous notebooks to keep tabs on students and their progress, along with curriculum materials.

Now heading into its third year as a PLA school, Leslie County High saw a nearly 14 percent increase in students scoring proficient or higher in reading and math between 2010 and 2011. The composite ACT score increased from 17 to 17.3 during that period and the school met all 10 No Child Left Behind targets in 2011. Further, in-school suspensions have plunged from 124 during the first quarter of 2010 to 33 in the same period last year.

“We really have changed over two years. The gains we’ve made and the changes we have made have really been phenomenal,” Gay said. “We’re still not a model school in every area, but we have some pockets of excellence.”

Students also were instrumental in the first step of the turnaround process: developing the school’s official vision, mission and beliefs.

“We talked to our kids about what they think a good education looks like. Our kids were right on track,” Gay said. “I thought we would have to tweak it a lot but we really didn’t have to, because they want to be engaged, they want to be challenged.”

The school’s beliefs have become a touchstone of sorts that are used in making tough decisions, he said.

“It has helped over the years. People can have different interpretations of them but they understand the intent, and that helps when you have issues. It takes the personal out of it, too,” he said.

Many other changes
In another early step, the school took a “systems” approach in retooling staffing and job descriptions, aligning them with district, school and student goals, all “working toward the same vision,” Gay said.

With the School Improvement Grant that funded the turnaround, the school added math and language arts teachers, a director whose function is similar to a school administrative manager and a student intervention manager who studies data and assessments. The person who filled a new central office position, director of academic performance, is also assigned to the high school. Gay said the district has tried to build sustainability into the SIG, and hopes to retain many of these positions later.

The school is using a timetable approach to systematic school improvement planning, complete with color coding to track progress in elements of school culture, academic performance and data analysis.

“We look at it weekly and revise it monthly,” Gay said. “It’s been a living document.”

Major changes for the teaching staff include formation of professional learning communities that meet weekly, classroom walk-throughs by a multi-person team and teacher growth plans, which are reviewed at least twice a year.

Students are getting extra time for studies via an extended school day. A 35-40 minute block is set aside each day for Response To Intervention, intense intervention for the bottom 20 percent of students, tailored to their weaknesses. The other students use the time to improve their skills.

Collett said teachers have worked hard to turn around the school. In her 24 years of teaching, she said, this is the first effort that has worked, “because it’s not just been one of those frivolous p.d. things you go through and never look at again. The follow through has been so thorough.”

Two years ago, the drafting of the school’s vision and mission, along with a general cleanup of the inside and outside of the building itself provided what Gay called “a quick win.”

But the turnaround process gets harder after a school has some success, he said, “because the issues get more intense. The issues get more complex as you start becoming a better school.”

Trickle-down education benefits entire district

By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff Writer

Only one school in Leslie County was put on the list of persistently low-achieving schools two years ago, but the changes made in response to that label have benefited the entire district, school officials said.

“There’s been a trickle-down effect,” said Superintendent Larry Sparks. “The things we’ve seen at the high school that have really made an impact – like the PLC (professional learning communities) work – is trickling down to our elementaries and our middle school.”

The improvement in the culture and climate at the high school and the effect on student academic performance has spread beyond that school, he said, adding, “It’s contagious ... It’s made a difference districtwide.”

Every school now uses 30-60-90 day planning like the high school. While their goals are different, “All schools are supporting the work of the district. The elementaries are supporting the work of the middle school. The middle school is supporting the work of the high school,” the superintendent said.

One key strategy, the data notebooks kept by both students and teachers at the high school, has now been adopted at the middle school and is being studied at the elementary level.

Following a leadership audit at the district level, changes also were felt in the central office. The education department’s assistance team, Sparks said, “helped us develop our capacity and ensure that once the whole process is over we would be able to do the work in the district that needs to be done and continue to facilitate improvements and growth not only at the high school but throughout the district.”

Central office job responsibilities were redefined and reorganized, and systems and processes put in place. Four people retired and weren’t replaced. The district staffing “got leaner” and more focused, Sparks said.

The improvements also encompassed the school board, said Chairman Lonnie Napier.

“We started holding people more accountable,” he said, specifically the superintendent and his team. “The role of the board member has increased a hundredfold in Leslie County.”

Board members also became more involved and visit schools more frequently, Napier said.

“We started being more visible, talking to the teachers and asking them, ‘If we’re in a supportive role –what do you need from us as a board?’ It became more of a team—through the superintendent, his office, through the principal, through his team and with the state,” he said.

Sparks attributes the district and school bounce-back to a receptive attitude toward the changes recommended by the state team.

“We’ve basically embraced every suggestion,” he said. “We didn’t fight anything:  ‘Tell us what you think we need to do to get better and we’ll do it to the best of our ability.’ There was no push back, there was no resistance. We just ran with it.”

What the PLA label means

Both federal and state yardsticks are used in calculating whether a school is persistently low-achieving – the federal guide is based on the No Child Left Behind Law (from which Kentucky recently received a waiver) and state criteria are tied to proficiency in reading and math assessments.  The first cohort of PLA schools was identified and named in spring 2010 and since then two additional groups of 10 have been listed. These schools receive federal school improvement grant money for a three-year period to assist them in implementing plans to improve student achievement.

This story is the first in an occasional series that will examine the strategies persistently low-achieving schools have implemented to engineer a turnaround.

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