LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Nine schools in Jefferson County that have been among the lowest performing in Kentucky may soon shed the stigmatizing label of “priority school,” depending on how students fare on the next round of state tests in a few weeks.
The Academy @ Shawnee, Doss High, Fairdale High, Fern Creek High, Iroquois High, Southern High, Valley High, Waggener High and Western Middle have each met their annual goals for the last two years and are on track to no longer be labeled a “persistently low-achieving” school.
“I think whenever a school is named a priority school, it requires a tolerance for truth,” said Dewey Hensley, the chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools. “Many of our priority schools are excited because the opportunity to move out of this status shows an evolution over a short period of time in which they have really been focused on changing the lives of kids.”
Over the past five years, 18 schools in Jefferson County have been identified as priority schools for having chronically low test scores and during that time, the district has received more than $35 million in federal grant money to help turn them around.
The nine schools alone have spent roughly $17 million – money they have used to provide better training for teachers in instructional strategies, creating new interventions for struggling students and extend student learning beyond the regular school day.
“I don't think anyone wants to be called persistently low achieving, there is a stigma that goes with that,” says Katy Zeitz, the principal at Waggener High. “But I also think there is a level of attention and support that comes with it…we need special resources to meet the needs that some of our students have.”
In order to exit priority status, the nine schools must meet their annual goals and have a 70 percent or higher graduation rate for a third consecutive year, as well as have test scores that no longer place them in lowest five percent in the state.
The turnaround effort and progress that some of the district's schools have made over the past five years was a major focus of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's day-long visit to Louisville on Thursday, who said he believes the way the schools were labeled was needed in order to enact change.
“I think it's so important to have schools that have historically struggled face the facts openly and honestly and get the support and resources they need and go to the next level,” Duncan said in an interview with WDRB News.
Fern Creek High – which was among the first six in JCPS to be identified as a persistently low-achieving school – was Duncan's first stop in Louisville. The school is now at the 73rd percentile and classified a proficient-progressing school.
“This is a school that has struggled in the past, that relative to most others in the state, it wasn't doing fantastic,” he said of Fern Creek. “When I visit a school like this… where as many as a third of freshmen were being retained and to now have that down to under 10 percent – that's remarkable progress.”
Fern Creek High principal Nate Meyer says if his school had never been classified as a priority school, it would not be where it is today. It has received $1.5 million in federal improvement grant money since 2010.
“We were able to re-staff the school, reallocate funds and do things differently in order to improve student achievement,” he said. “And we still have a lot of work to do because we have kids who are still struggling. But receiving all that additional support was worth the negative press.”
Work in progress
The turnaround effort remains a work in progress at each of the nine schools. Recent test scores show that math and reading proficiency levels at the schools are still well below the state average. But as Duncan noted during his visit, turnaround efforts are neither quick nor easy.
“This work is hard, complicated, never easy and sometimes controversial,” Duncan said. “Turning around underperforming schools is the most important work going on across the country. When we fail to educate, we actually perpetuate poverty and social failure.”
Two years ago, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday used the words “academic genocide” to describe the lack of progress being made at some of the district's lowest performing schools – words Holliday said he used to spur action not just in the district, but in the entire community.
Now that some progress is being made at some schools and that they may be exiting priority school status, Holliday said it will be up to the district to sustain that growth.
“The grant money will run out and it's imperative the district continues to fund the things that have been successful,” he said.
Hensley said the district will continue to provide support and resources to its schools, regardless of their priority status.
“We are constantly looking at each student and trying to move them to proficiency,” Hensley said.
New law called for turnaround efforts
Schools are placed in priority status as a result of a 2010 law that called for the Kentucky Department of Education to identify the state's lowest-performing schools and outline a range of interventions aimed at turning them around.
The interventions include: replacing the principal and site-based decision-making council, replacing more than half the faculty, closing the school and transferring its students to higher-performing schools or restarting the schools under the management of a private or nonprofit operator.
Priority schools are also required to receive a diagnostic review from the state every two years – assessments that gauge school effectiveness, reviewing academic performance, learning environment and efficiency within each school.
In the past, the reviews have called for some principals to be replaced, including recently at Doss High School, where the team found that
Zeitz, whose school has moved from the 6
to the 46
percentile in the state since her arrival, said facing “significant pressure” as the leader of a priority school that is exceeding expectations can be tough.
“There are some schools performing right above where we are who have not had to suffer the judgment or accountability or fear of the removal of the administrators that a priority school does,” she said.
Zeitz said the possibility of coming out of priority status would be huge.
“It's hard to be labeled,” she said. “The kids internalize that. It's a feeling of judgment. We've had to deal with some of the pain of feeling like the community doesn't think you are good enough or that you aren't doing a good job as a student or staff member.”
Desiree Cole, a sophomore at Waggener, attended St. Agnes Catholic School and chose Waggener over other schools because of the school's medical career academy.
“It's been a really good experience for me, even though the stereotypes put Waggener out to be not that good of a school,” said Cole, 16.
Cole said shedding that low-performing label would be a “great thing for Waggener and definitely improve our school spirit here.”
The state testing window in Jefferson County is May 8-22 for high school end-of-course assessments, while students in grades 3-8 and in grades 10, 11 will take the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) tests from May 14-21. Here is a link to the JCPS testing schedule.
Cole said testing time for some students can be a "stressful experience."
"For me, testing is just a way for me to show my skills," she said. "I don't worry too much about it."
Zeitz said her staff is “working really hard to do everything we can do to improve the educational outcomes for our students.”
“To come out of priority school status after three years, if we do that, that is a massive accomplishment,” she said. “I would love to be able to show the community we can get this done.”
Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.
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