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2023 PEAK Award winner

Cofield High School

Alternative school named for board member receives PEAK Award

Kentucky School Advocate
April 2023

By Brenna R. Kelly
KSBA staff writer

Top photo: Students at William Cofield High School can learn in a lounge area inside the district’s career and technical education center. Student Emanuel Corn works on his laptop while school social worker Martha Carlisle helps student Freddy Castillo.

In many ways, William Cofield High School is a typical high school. There’s a mascot, school colors, classrooms and a packed graduation ceremony. But with just three rooms tucked inside a career and technical education center, Cofield does not look or operate like a typical high school.

And that, its students, teachers and administrators say, is why the school works.

The Franklin County Schools alternative high school, now in its fifth year, allows students to earn a high school diploma or GED at their own pace while attending classes on their own schedule.

“It’s different in the fact that it’s not like a regular school at all,” said Emmanuel Corn, a junior, who has attended Cofield for about three months. “It doesn’t feel like school, it feels like a job. It’s not like a traditional classroom at all.”

In just four years, the school graduated 257 students and brought the district’s five-year graduation rate from 88% to 95%. For its success, the school received KSBA’s 2023 Public Education Achieves in Kentucky Award presented in February at the association’s annual conference. The PEAK award, the association’s highest honor for districts, is designed to focus statewide attention on outstanding public school efforts in the Commonwealth and promote the positive impact of public education.

The school, modeled after a similar program in Hardin County, was named for longtime Franklin County board member William Cofield, who died in 2021.

“William Cofield worked tirelessly as a board member of Franklin County Schools to ensure that all students were given the chance to succeed,” said Natalie Lile, Franklin County board chairwoman. “His legacy lives on at William Cofield High School and winning the KSBA PEAK Award represents the work of giving students the tools they need to succeed in the world.”
‘All walks of life’

William Cofield High School Principal Adam Nance talks with students and staff in the school’s lounge area.

While Franklin County’s two traditional high schools require students to earn 26 credits to graduate, Cofield students can earn a diploma with the state-minimum of 22 credits.Thanks to a law passed in the 2022 General Assembly, students can now opt for a GED.

Students can’t apply to Cofield, they are referred from their home school by a teacher or counselor. The reasons vary: some students need to work to support their families or themselves, some are so far behind they would not be able to catch up to graduate, some can’t function in a traditional classroom, said Principal Adam Nance.

“A picture of our class is beautiful because it is literally all walks of life,” he said. “It’s a cornucopia, it truly is.”

For one student who attends the school, the small setting and consistency helps with their severe anxiety.

“There’s a huge population of kids that it’s not the lack of effort, it’s the life, the cards they’ve been dealt that get them here,” said Lead Teacher Kasey Tarter.

Tarter, the school’s two other teachers and a social worker know each student’s situation, how many credits they need and then form a plan with the student and student’s family to get to 22 credits, Nance said. Some students come to class every day, others might come on days when they are not working – but all must maintain contact with their teachers.

“The kids have my cell number, I have their cell number. The rule is, if you’re not coming to school, you text me. It’s like a job, you don’t just not show up,” Tarter said.

Cofield student Tony Segovia works on his laptop in the school’s lounge. Students take classes online but have access to in-person help from the school’s teachers and social worker. 

But if that happens, Tarter will stop by the student’s employer or their home to find out what is happening. Over the more than four years the school has been in operation, only five students have dropped out.In addition to the academic credits, Tarter and the staff also try to teach soft skills students will need in the workforce, such as being on time, communication and taking responsibility.Students don’t have to wait until the end of the school year to graduate, they can be finished with high school as soon as they complete their credits or GED. So far this school year, 54 students have graduated.

“Depending on circumstance, it may be more ideal for a student to graduate right now,” Nance said. “We had one a few weeks ago who’s joining the military. He needed a diploma and a diploma date.”

Giving students flexibility

Cofield students can work on their classes online and get help from teachers and the school’s social worker in the classroom. But these aren’t typical classrooms.

One room is set up like a college computer lab, another is a lounge area complete with leather couches, LED lights and a kitchenette.

On a recent morning, one student lounges on a couch while preparing for a welding certification test while others work on laptops at bar-height tables.

Student Jayla Defrates was in the lab studying for a section of the GED. The test has four parts and Defrates had already passed two sections. Thanks to the change in the law, students who are 17 and enrolled in a district-operated alternative school can opt to take the GED.

Students who get the GED aren’t included in the district’s graduation rate, Nance said.

From L-R: Adam Nance, William Cofield High School principal; Kasey Tarter, William Cofield High School lead teacher; Jennifer Kantner, board member; Kemba Cofield; Larry Perkins, board member; Virginia Cofield; Chuck Fletcher, board member; Natalie Lile, board member; Mark Kopp, Franklin County superintendent; Kerri Schelling, KSBA executive director; and Davonna Page, KSBA immediate past president.

“Franklin County has a firm stance and our Superintendent, Mark Kopp, says if it’s going to help, if it’s what’s best for kids, that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.In the lounge area, Corn, 17, was working at a table with the school’s social worker Martha Carlisle. He came to Cofield after struggling at Franklin County High School.

“I think it was like, everything wasn’t hands on enough,” he said. “And plus, I didn’t get to work at my own pace, everything was like too fast.”

Corn had never heard of Cofield when a counselor first talked to him about moving to the school; now he’s on pace to graduate next year.

“I come every day, but I might leave earlier on some days,” he said. “But I know other people who like either do the same thing I do, like leave early or whatever, or come in at certain times and leave for other classes.”

For Corn, leaving early is a perk that Tarter gives him if he finishes his work and if he asks for help.

In traditional school, the teen struggled to ask for help, leading to him falling behind, so Tarter devised a card system using Corn’s favorite thing – cars. The front of the card has a red sports car, the back a green sports car. He uses the card to signal to teachers when he needs help.

“Probably if I keep going at the pace I’m going, I’ll probably graduate sometime next year,” he said.

In keeping with his interests, Corn plans go to a trade school after high school to become a mechanic or car detailer after he graduates. When friends ask about his alternative school, Corn is ready with an explanation.

“I keep it real and tell them exactly what it is,” he said. “It’s for people who struggle in school, so if you really are struggling – you just got to see it to believe it, for real.”

School’s namesake was longtime board member

Virginia Cofield, left, looks on as Franklin County school board member Jennifer Grisham-Brown, right, presents William Cofield with a plaque at the ceremony to open William Cofield High School on Oct. 22, 2018. (Provided by The Frankfort State Journal)

A native of Georgia, William Cofield came to Kentucky in 1973 to become a professor at Kentucky State University, but he also became a local, state and national leader.Cofield, who died in 2021, served on the NAACP’s national board of directors for 30 years, hosted a long-running television program in Frankfort and was inducted into the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights Hall of Fame.

He also spent 25 years on the Franklin County school board. The first African-American appointed to the board, Cofield never faced opposition in an election, according to the Frankfort State-Journal.

In 2004, he served as president of the National Caucus of Black School Board Members. Cofield decided not to run in 2016 and retired from board service.

“I’m a teacher by training. I had a wonderful experience, being that I served at each level – preschool to college,” he told the newspaper. “I enjoyed it tremendously: serving the community and the young folks.”

When district officials were thinking about a name for its new alternative school, board member Chuck Fletcher moved to name the school after Cofield, whom he called “an icon.”

Cofield attended the school’s dedication in 2018 and his wife, Virginia, and daughter Kemba are regulars at graduation, said Cofield’s Lead Teacher Kasey Tarter.

“He was so proud to have this school named after him,” Tarter said.

Principal Adam Nance said the personal nature of the school is a fitting tribute to Cofield.

“He was a kids first kind of man,” he said. “No matter what, he had the best interests of students in mind.”

2024 PEAK Award nominations

Does your district have a program that is PEAK-worthy? KSBA will begin accepting nominations for the 2024 award this fall. Stay tuned to all KSBA communications – Advocate, Aware, website and social media – for more information. For more info, visit our website.

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