LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Located about a mile from each other, Roosevelt-Perry and Byck elementary schools have long served the children of the Russell neighborhood – the majority of whom come from low-income families.

Over the past decade, Jefferson County Public Schools has made multiple efforts to re-brand the two schools, adding programs officials hoped would attract students from beyond the impoverished west Louisville neighborhoods surrounding the schools.

But those efforts have come up short, and now – after being labeled the worst performing elementary schools in the state – Byck and Roosevelt Perry are facing drastic interventions and a turnaround battle that will last at least three years.

Dismal test scores resulted in the Kentucky Department of Education designating Byck and Roosevelt Perry as persistently low-performing schools in 2015.

The move means each school must undergo a major overhaul this fall. The turnaround work began in February when a team of educators from the state visited the schools to conduct a leadership assessment and diagnostic review.

“What we had hoped for, to reach higher levels, we have not gotten there but we are strategically working to improve,” said Jefferson County Board of Education member Diane Porter, whose district includes Byck and Roosevelt Perry.

Last school year’s standardized tests – given to all third, fourth and fifth graders – show the vast majority of students at the two schools are behind.

At Roosevelt Perry, only 9 percent of students tested “proficient” in reading; and 12 percent in math. Not one of the school’s 55 fifth graders tested proficient in writing. (Only fifth graders are tested in writing).

At Byck, 26 percent were proficient in reading, 25 percent in math; and 19 percent in writing.

Other figures show the kids showing up for school at Roosevelt Perry and Byck are increasingly unprepared for kindergarten.

Last fall, only 15 percent of kindergartners at Roosevelt-Perry were “ready” for school, down from 26.3 in 2014 and 34 percent in 2013. At Byck, 47 percent of kindergarteners were ready, down from 54 percent in 2014 and 57 percent in 2013.

For parents like Andrea Knight and officials with the Louisville chapter of the NAACP, the situation is frustrating.

“There aren’t any textbooks, they don’t teach them how to write in cursive,” said Knight, whose son attends Byck. “It doesn’t surprise me that so many of the kids are so far behind. And for many of us, we don’t have another choice to send our children someplace else.”

The diagnostic reviews released by the state on March 28 found that Roosevelt Perry principal Nichole Marshall and Byck Elementary principal Tammy Darden have the capacity to lead the turnaround efforts at each school, but they need additional support to implement detailed improvement plans.

Darden has been the principal at Byck since 2007, while Marshall arrived at Roosevelt Perry in July 2014.

“Coming into the school, I was aware of some of the challenges, but not the extent of them until that first school year started,” Marshall told WDRB News in an interview. “There was a lack of systems that should have been in place that weren’t. Student behavior was escalated. The culture of the building felt quite toxic in the beginning.”

Kathryn Wallace, chairwoman of the Louisville NAACP education committee, said parents, the community and JCPS must do more to support principals and teachers.

“These schools were in trouble nine years ago and my concern is that west end schools are a dumping ground for children with behavioral issues,” Wallace said. “Our teachers and principals need support. To turn around schools with as many issues that these schools are facing is almost an impossible task.”

“I'm not saying they are not capable of being turned around,” she said. “But the district has to give sufficient support, not just talk – we need actual people in place to solve the issues.”

Priority schools in JCPS

Over the past five years, 21 schools in Jefferson County have been placed in “priority” status as a result of a 2010 state 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.

During that time, the district has received more than $38 million in federal grant money to help turn them around. Only two schools -- Waggener High and Fern Creek High -- have exited priority school status.

Byck and Roosevelt Perry were the first two elementary schools in the state to enter priority school status in 2015.

Five other JCPS elementary schools – Maupin, Atkinson, Watterson, Wellington and Coleridge Taylor – could enter priority status this year, depending on how students perform on tests given in May.

Priority schools are those that haven’t met annual goals for three consecutive years and whose overall performance – as measured mostly by test scores -- places them in the bottom 5 percent of the state. To shed the label, they must show three consecutive years of meeting goals and climb out from the bottom 5 percent.

The key factor that leads schools into priority status is a high-poverty student population, Marco Munoz, JCPS’ director of priority schools, told the school board in February.

At Byck and Roosevelt Perry, about 95 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch – significantly higher than the 70 percent average across the district’s elementary schools.

In addition, Byck and Roosevelt also have a higher student mobility index and truancy rate than non-priority schools.

Roughly 15 percent of students at the two schools move around a lot during the year, compared to 10 percent at non-priority schools. Byck and Roosevelt Perry are also plagued by high truancy rates, with 14 percent of students having six or more unexcused absences, compared to 5 percent at non-priority schools.

Munoz said poverty, truancy and student mobility are all “negatively related” with academic achievement, making schools like Byck and Roosevelt Perry “not an easy problem to solve.”

The two elementary schools also face another hurdle – both are slipping back into stark racial divisions, according to JCPS statistics reviewed by WDRB News.

For four decades, JCPS has prided itself – and earned a national reputation – for racially integrated public schools, even in the face of the historic 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision forbidding the district from using race as the only factor in assigning students to schools.

But as WDRB’s December report showed, recent changes approved by the school board have watered down the district’s school integration standards and helped lead to greater concentrations of minority students and poverty in west Louisville schools.

Black students now account for 86 percent of the student body at Byck, up from 64 percent in 2011-12. At Roosevelt-Perry, the proportion of black students rose from 57 percent to 79 percent during the same five-year time period.

Roosevelt Perry’s free and reduced rate has remained about 95 percent since at least 2005.

But Byck was not always such a high-poverty school. From 2005 to 2011, about 80 percent of its students qualified for subsidized lunch. But today, 94 percent do.

 “We keep talking about equity, but how are you ever going to have equity if your school assignment is inequitable to begin with?” said Linda Duncan, who has represented south Louisville on the Jefferson County Board of Education since 2006.

‘Shifting’ the mindset at Roosevelt Perry

Roosevelt Perry has long been a staple in the Russell neighborhood. The building at 16th and Broadway was constructed in 1958, but it wasn’t until 1979 that the current school was created as a result of a merger between the Roosevelt School and Perry Elementary school.

The schools were named for President Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Perry, Sr., the longtime principal of the Western Colored School.

Wallace says she has watched the school’s progress decline over the past decade.

“It is sickening to me to see that essentially nothing has been done to improve the education of our children at Roosevelt Perry,” she said.

Marshall said immediately after her arrival at the school in July 2014, she had to “switch gears.”

“The plan I thought I was going to implement changed as soon as that school year began,” she said. “We had kids fighting, refusing to do work…they would walk out of the classroom.”

Similar observations were noted in the state’s diagnostic review, in which auditors interviewed 103 people – administrators, staff, students and parents – and observed 18 classrooms.

The state review found teachers frustrated with discipline issues at the school and the perception among both and that disruptive students were being rewarded instead of held accountable or taught how to correct their behaviors.

The state review said Marshall and her administrative team “focused on stabilizing the behavioral and discipline issues during her first year at the school” and implemented changes “to reduce the number of disciplinary referrals and students' combative behaviors toward teachers.”

Among the new programs is a Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support System, in which teachers take the most positive approach to addressing behavior problems. Marshall also boosted professional development to help teachers learn how to deal with disruptive students.

“We have spent a lot of time on de-escalation strategies in the classroom,” she said. “We are constantly making adjustments so we can have more success, but we have kids who are staying in the classroom now.”

Marshall also hired a mental health counselor and Seven Counties Services now has a counselor come to the school five days a week, as opposed to two days a week.

“It makes it easier for our parents to come to the school and meet with counselors instead of going to Seven Counties,” Marshall said. “The counselors have a direct link to child’s teacher and we always include Seven Counties in the meeting when there is a problem with a student. We come out and have a plan for what we are going to do.”

The state review said the school has implemented a robust behavioral plan and program, but further refinement is needed.

The school’s website boasts that Roosevelt Perry is the only JCPS elementary school to offer a Technology Magnet Program.

But the state review team found that student use of technology was “primarily superficial or non-existent…Data collected in this environment strongly suggested the absence of digital tools being used to enhance the teaching and learning process.”

As for Marshall, the principal, the state found she “has the passion, instructional astuteness, work ethic, fortitude and capacity to move the school forward academically.”

Marshall acknowledged that it was difficult to see her school get the dreaded “priority” label.

“We have such a hard working staff who would give the shirt off their backs for their kids. It was hard to swallow, but we’ve taken it in stride,” she said.

She appealed for “time and patience” to turn Roosevelt Perry around.

“I feel like right now, we are in a good place – my teachers are more confident,” she said. “I know in time, we won’t be there (in priority status) long. We know that we are here for three years, and we are going to come out of this fast. That is what is driving us right now.”

Marshall said she is adding a literacy coach to help with reading.

“And my goal clarity coach will still be here and can work with math interventions,” she said. “And we have been doing a lot of writing this year, across all subject areas. We are having our kids write letters to parents or family members….for those whose families that didn’t respond, we have staff members who have adopted students.”

Marshall says her biggest goal is to improve parental involvement.

“We have to find new ways to get parents into our building,” she said. “And getting our kids to believe they can do it has been a struggle too. To know they can do the work, we have to shift the mindset.”

Small snapshot of Byck Elementary

Byck Elementary, located on 23rd and Cedar streets, was built in 1961. The school was named after Dann C. Byck, a prominent city leader.

Knight, who lives in Russell, said her son has attended the school since pre-kindergarten. Her older son attends Waggener High.

“I have not been happy with the education my children have received,” Knight said.

At Byck, the district had implemented a partial Waldorf-inspired magnet program, which features the approach of art, music, drama, movement and experiences in nature as part of instruction.

As a result, Byck lost a “string of teachers who were Waldorf trained; they went to Maupin,” said Darden, Byck’s principal since 2007.

“I have 12 new teachers this year,” Darden said in an interview.

The state’s review praised the school's community partnerships that "expand student learning and extended school services for after-school learning opportunities."

However, the state also said many programs and activities Byck has implemented to support student learning and broaden opportunities for student participation often “distracted from ensuring that effective teaching occurred.”

Therefore, the school will need to “align its instructional, supervisory and evaluation processes” to provide additional support to its staff, the report said.

Some other observations outlined in the report:

Wrap-around services that include social and mental health were established but have not been implemented consistently, monitored with fidelity and evaluated for effectiveness.

Students often did not follow established procedures and classroom routines had either not been taught or teacher expectations were low.

Evidence of academic rigor was not observed in 77 percent of classrooms. Most students were completing the same low level tasks, auditors observed.

Darden says the review “outlined some things we already knew” as well as identified some areas of improvement.

“It’s a very small snapshot of our school,” Darden said. “We have some students who come with more needs than others. But this report will help us. We now know what to do in order to get better.”

Like Roosevelt Perry, Byck has also implemented the PBIS behavioral program, and Darden expects that will help.

“We want to make sure that those students who might need more help are helped in a way that is not disruptive to other student,” she said.

The review team also determined that Byck’s Site Based Decision Making Council – a group of parents and school employees that support the school -- does not have the ability to continue its current roles and responsibilities.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt will appoint an advisory council to work with the principal on the school’s turnaround efforts.

Map for improvement

Now, JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens and her staff must decide which of a few drastic moves – called “interventions” --  will be used to turn around Byck and Roosevelt Perry. Officials are expected to present a plan to the school board within the next month.

The options – set by state law – 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.

“It's not just an instant, wave a magic wand and fix the issues,” said JCPS spokeswoman Allison Martin. “You have to create a plan, work a plan and work that plan for three years.”

Wallace says she and other community leaders realize that turning around schools like Roosevelt Perry and Byck are the “beginning of a long and arduous journey.”

But she also noted the high turnover in JCPS’ central office the last two years, saying “there has been a loss of leadership in JCPS schools.”

“Teachers become teachers because it’s a calling; it's almost like a ministry,” she said. “It hurts me when I see and hear from teachers who feel like they aren't doing what they've been called to do because they aren't getting the support they need.”


Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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