KONZ | Recapping the most memorable JCPS stories from 2015 - WDRB 41 Louisville News

KONZ | Recapping the most memorable JCPS stories from 2015

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Students participating in 'Book Madness' at Farmer Elementary School in February 2015 (Toni Konz, WDRB News) Students participating in 'Book Madness' at Farmer Elementary School in February 2015 (Toni Konz, WDRB News)
WDRB reporter Toni Konz visits with Waggener High principal Katy Zeitz in April 2015 (WDRB News) WDRB reporter Toni Konz visits with Waggener High principal Katy Zeitz in April 2015 (WDRB News)
Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary principal Allyson Vitato won a $25,000 award for excellence in education on Jan. 15, 2015 (Toni Konz, WDRB News) Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary principal Allyson Vitato won a $25,000 award for excellence in education on Jan. 15, 2015 (Toni Konz, WDRB News)
Atherton High School's Caitlin Roy (submitted photo) Atherton High School's Caitlin Roy (submitted photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Welcome to the last school day of 2015.

In the 14 years that I have covered public education, I don't think I've ever written a holiday column or a year-in-review type of article.

This year, however, has probably been one of the busiest of my career and I would like to reflect back on some of the stories I've written.

How many stories have there been? Oh, about 225 or so. And the vast majority were about Jefferson County Public Schools (shocking, I know).

From the district's $1.4 billion budget and new principals to new programs, student profiles and snow days, 2015 will be a year I'll never forget. 

My first two stories of the year? Jim Jury being named the new principal at Louisville Male High School and Superintendent Donna Hargens looking for a contract extension (she would get a four-year extension in February).

My last two stories of the year? How Eastern High's holiday Care-A-Van delivered cheer to 230 needy families and a follow-up story about how the district's new budgeting process will "not reduce the number of classroom teaching positions."

100 Schools in 100 Days

Last December, I made a commitment to visit 100 Schools in 100 Days – a chance to sit in classrooms, visit with students and school staff and see what is going on inside JCPS. It was a commitment that was hard to keep, given all of the snow days. 

By the middle of May, I had made it to 60 school visits and I recapped those visits here. In the end, I fell about 20 schools short of my 100 schools in a 100 days goal. Since the start of the 2015-16 year, I have visited 21 different schools. If I have not visited your school yet, I will get there!

It was during one of these visits that ended up at Atherton High on the morning of Jan. 30, 2015. I had just picked up my morning coffee at the Dunkin Donuts in the Highlands (my favorite spot) and I called the school's principal, Tom Aberli, to see if I could drop by. When I got to the school, all of the buzz was about the previous night’s basketball game.

Senior Caitlin Roy had entered her first varsity game with less than two minutes on the clock and made the winning shot. As you see in this story, Caitlin is not your “regular” student athlete. She is legally blind, has autism and cerebral palsy and is developmentally delayed, but that has never stopped her from pursuing her dreams.

It's a story I would have never been able to tell had I set up the visit in advance. Sometimes, you just need to show up and listen. This was one of my favorite stories to tell all year and I was incredibly honored to be invited to (and attend) Caitlin's graduation party in June.

To call a snow day, or not to call a snow day?

It was a winter filled with LOTS of snow days in Louisville. In case you forgot, there were EIGHT snow days in 2015. After fielding phone calls and reading tons of tweets from parents, students and staff members, I decided to explore how JCPS makes the decision of whether or not to have class.

Cathy Hasken is one of about a dozen people who help decide whether JCPS' 101,000 students will go to school on bad weather days.I rode-along as she inspected roads, bus stops and subdivisions along Manslick Road, Taylor Boulevard and Southern Parkway in southern Jefferson County.

It was also during a week of snow that I visited Young Elementary to check in on the dozens of reptiles, mammals, amphibians and fish that live in habitats inside the school's Discovery Lab.

I had a great time visiting with Oreo and Princess (the guinea pigs), Bailey and Snowy (the rabbits), Sydney (the blue-tongued skink), Sweet Pea (the turtle), Greta (the gecko) Sebastian (the hermit crab)...and was happy to report that they were all under the careful eye of plant operator Tom Plappert, custodian Clifford Hibbs and teacher Judy Pollom.

Priority Schools 

For the past five years, I have reported about the district’s 18 lowest-performing schools. 2015 was the first time that nine of those schools could exit priority school status, depending on how students fared on the next round of state tests. In the end, only Waggener High School and Fern Creek High School were able to exit, while three new schools entered.

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.

As we move to 2016, look for the school board to discuss whether JCPS should look to an outside firm to overhaul its priority schools.

Class of 2015

Nearly 6,200 seniors graduated from JCPS in June. 

Each year, I search for a great graduation story – one that really explains how a student (or students) beat the odds. I had visited Ballard High earlier in the year and met Macy Knights and I knew I had to tell her story.

When Knights crossed the stage during Ballard's commencement ceremonies, the 19-year-old (who was born with Down syndrome) accomplished something most other students with an intellectual disability are not able to do -- she graduated with a standard high school diploma.

Student behavior

Shortly after the start of the 2015-16 year, my phone began to ring off the hook about student discipline problems in JCPS. It started with a few calls here and there from teachers and bus drivers who were frustrated, principals who felt their hands were tied by lax district policies and parents who felt their children were not being kept safe in their classrooms.

Over the course of a few months, I submitted numerous open records requests for police reports, discipline data, the number of teacher resignations and other complaints pertaining to student behavior.

Minority hiring

A year ago, 52 percent of the district’s 101,000 students were classified as non-white, but only 15.6 percent of its 6,525 teachers identified themselves as a minority. District officials said that if they were sitting in the same spot a year later (2015) it would be unacceptable.

A year later, not only are the numbers roughly the same, a concrete plan to boost the numbers has not been presented to the school board.

As part of the district's new strategic plan, entitled Vision 2020, JCPS has a goal of raising the percentage of minority hiring from 16 percent this year to 25 percent by 2020.

Test scores 

Student test scores in JCPS declined during the 2014-15 year and the district's graduation rate remained the same as last year, while the number of students considered college and career ready increased by about 2 percent.

The new data, released Thursday by the Kentucky Department of Education, shows that after three consecutive years of posting gains, only 73 of the district's 138 tested schools met their annual performance goal set by the state – down from 96 last year.

And then, in a blockbuster move that comes just a week after test scores were released, JCPS chief academic officer Dewey Hensley suddenly resigned from his position Thursday, leaving another big hole in Superintendent Donna Hargens' cabinet.

Hensley who was named the district's top academic officer in 2012, submitted a letter to Hargens and Jefferson County Board of Education chairman David Jones Jr., saying that working conditions in the district have "not been very enriching." 

Synthetic drug investigation

The first few phone calls and emails about Cloud 9, Bizarro and other liquid synthetic cannabinoids came in early May.

“My friend sent me this today and many others are talking about it,” one local high school student told me. “It’s going to cause a lot of damage. We’ve already seen some kids get very sick off of it.”

“One will get banned or goes bad and then they switch up the label,” another student said. "They are getting this stuff at the local smoke shops."

By the end of June and early July, I began to get calls from parents and family members.

“They aren’t doing this in back alleys or basements, they are doing it in your living room,” one father told me. “If I hadn’t walked into my living room and noticed that something wasn’t right, I would have never found out.”

Over the past six months, I spent a lot of time with WDRB anchor/reporter Tamara Evans investigating these dangerous, illegal drugs. You can read our report and watch the eight-minute segment that aired on our Oct. 21 newscast here.

Happy Holidays

These are only a handful of the stories that I have told this year. I feel fortunate to have covered JCPS for eight years, first at the newspaper and now at WDRB. 

As 2015 comes to a close and we look to 2016, I look forward to visiting more schools and telling more stories -- the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Have a safe holiday season!

Please take a moment to follow me on Facebook and Instagram for more updates from my beat. 

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter. You can also follow Toni on Facebook and Instagram for more updates from her beat.

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