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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) - "The social injustice and inequitable opportunities need to end and I really, really felt compelled to really take on the challenge," is what Houston Barber said in reference to taking on the position of principal of the Academy @ Shawnee.
The school's students face many challenges. Nine out of ten students live in poverty. Less than a third of the school's students test proficient in reading and math. The school has been without a principal since August.
When Barber told teachers he would leave Fern Creek High School just two months after Kentucky's top educator praised his work in person for turning around the troubled high school, it came as little surprise, until they learned what his next assignment would be.
"Most people say why? I say why not," said Barber about his new appointment.
The new principal for the Academy @ Shawnee calls this the toughest test of his career.
Yet Barber came in with some bold goals.
"This school will be one of the very best schools in not only JCPS, but I envision the entire state of Kentucky," Barber said.
Barber says it will take three to five years to turn the school around, but he says, "we're going to push."
As early as four weeks into his job, Barber said changes began to take shape. "One of the things that we recognized immediately was just the need for having mentoring. I'm very passionate about the three to one model. This means one adult in social-emotional, one adult for academic needs, and one adult for mentoring. So those adults will be by name for each child."
Mentoring extends to faculty and staff as well. Barber said teachers work more in teams now, especially on testing.
One of the projects teachers are joining forces for is what's called a data day. Barber said, "It's where they meet and discuss and coordinate planning based on where there student's needs are, so they're able to assess where their students needs are according to standard and develop their plans to help move students to the next level. So it's really a powerful practice to engage the students and staff."
"I think what is necessary is there are some teachers that may not commit to our plan and want to be a part of it so there probably will be some turnover, but I think it will take that to get everyone on the same page," Barber said when asked about potential faculty changes and reassignments.
Barber challenges his teachers to look through their students eyes. "The truth is, some will go home wondering if they'll see their parents, or where the next meal comes from, or if a loved one will end up on the news or in the morgue," Barber said.
"The school I believe can act as a beacon of hope and hope is like oxygen to the soul and so if the school thrives, then the neighborhood will begin to see the same success and I think the silhouettes of poverty will begin to become traces."
Barber is also very candid about the investment. Taxpayers already shelling out $17,000 per student, per year, more than double that of JCPS' top performing high schools.
Barber admits every dollar doesn't reach every desk, but that's changing. "Every kid will be in a pathway. We want them to be excited about learning. For example, we have aviation flight. We have opportunities for engineering. We're going to create possibly for computer engineering and other opportunities that will meet our students needs."
Barber's first evaluation comes in May which is also around the next round of state testing. Shawnee traditionally scores among the lowest in the state. "The ultimate goal is to get us out of the bottom ten like right away," Barber said.
"I was told at Fern Creek we couldn't do this and we did it," said Barber when asked if he worries about failure.
"Yes there will be just as many failures but we're going to succeed and I feel confident that anybody and everybody paying attention will want to be a part of this."