When Wesley Cornett was hired as Somerset High School’s principal in 2011, he knew the challenges he faced. The district has about a 70 percent poverty rate. At the time of his hire, the district didn’t offer music classes beyond the fourth grade. And, he was told, “the environment was pretty toxic.”
Six years later, the high school’s culture and climate has changed thanks to a focus solely on student opportunities and student achievement. The school is now recognized as distinguished and ranked 15th among all Kentucky high schools in state testing, rising from an overall score of 64.1 in 2012 to 84.3 in 2016.
Somerset Independent board member Elaine Wilson talks to Wesley Cornett and Charlie Brock during a clinic session at the KSBA annual conference.
Cornett said the turnaround began by letting students know administrators and teachers care about them. “We had to get back to what we do and develop relationships with our students,” he said during a clinic session at KSBA’s annual conference in Louisville Feb. 25.
Before each school year, Cornett and assistant principal Charlie Brock meet with new students. They contact the middle school administrators to identify the “trouble” students and then they make a point to spend time with them so they will have a relationship prior to any potential disciplinary problems.
“I want every kid to be successful,” Cornett said, noting that how you treat students will stay with them longer than what you teach them.
The school also revived its arts program where, Cornett said, “opportunities were lacking.” The high school brought back music to students and invested in its auditorium to give students a place for theater, music and choir.
The next step was accountability. He said the administrators at the high school “live in those teacher’s classrooms. If we’re not monitoring it, it’s not happening.” He said they do between 1,200 and 1,400 walk-throughs a year.
Cornett and his staff began analyzing the data from student test scores and the standards that were being taught. “We had to be about learning targets and literacy,” he said.
Next, Brock said, they more closely aligned their assessments with state testing.
When Cornett first talked to teachers about making changes, some were unsure of the changes, but now have bought in. Cornett said veteran teachers have even said, “I’m going to change how I teach.”
Another component of the school’s turnaround was eliminating a timeline of how long it took students to master the content.
“We have to reteach, reassess until we know our students are getting it,” he said.
Added Brock: “We don’t care when the student masters the standard as long as they master the standard.”
Cornett said the idea is “a little revolutionary” but he tells teachers “if they fail, you fail the test.”
After a test, teachers do not give tests back to students. Instead, they let them know what content areas they missed so students know what they need to improve. When they are ready to try again, they can retake the test. “You have to learn the standards to pass the test,” Brock said.
The school also uses what is called flashbacking or spiraling in its tests. For example, a test for chapter one of a subject might have 18 questions. But a test for chapter eight could have 40 questions, and include questions relating to any or all of the preceding seven chapters.
“How can we make kids become long-term learners” is the goal, Brock said.
Cornett said reteaching standards to students isn’t about saying things the same way slower and louder, but saying them in a new or different way. The message to the teachers: “What are you going to do differently?”
He said the school also had to get parents involved. “There were some growing pains associated with our increased rigor,” he said.
Somerset High has also shown improvement on ACT testing. The school’s average ACT score was 19 in 2010. It increased to 20.9 in 2016. And in addition to the increased test scores, the high school saw a reduction in the novice level.