SUNDAY EDITION | Stakes are high as JCPS overhauls two struggling middle schools
After months of debate, a $2 million overhaul involving two of Kentucky’s lowest performing middle schools will soon take center stage as JCPS opens two separate academies on the former site of Stuart Middle School.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – After months of debate and planning, a $2 million overhaul involving two of Kentucky’s lowest performing middle schools will soon take center stage as Jefferson County Public Schools opens two separate academies on the former site of Stuart Middle School.
The campus, located on Valley Station Road, will serve about 560 students attending the Robert Frost Sixth-Grade Academy and about 680 seventh and eighth graders attending Stuart Academy when classes resume on Aug. 10.
For years, Frost and Stuart have been plagued by low student achievement, dwindling enrollments and behavioral problems. JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens has said she hopes that by creating two separate academies and providing additional support staff to help, it will “create an optimal learning environment for middle school students and staff."
But Hargens’ plan to consolidate Stuart and Frost into one campus -- each with its own, independent leadership and staffing -- was not met with unanimous support from the community and the Jefferson County Board of Education when it was approved in March.
“We are going to watch this very carefully because there is a lot at stake here,” said Linda Duncan, a school board member who represents southern Jefferson County. “We’ve not had an arrangement like this where we’re actually creating two schools in one building, two separate programs in one building.”
Duncan and board member Lisa Willner voted against the move, saying it was too rushed, given the fact it had only been presented to the community a week earlier. They were also concerned that the district wasn’t doing anything more than closing one school and shifting its students to another location.
“We have to ensure that we don’t fail these students,” Duncan said in an interview with WDRB last week. “My main reservation is that I don’t think that you always close schools as a solution to low performance. It’s as if you’re blaming the building.”
At the time, school board chairman David Jones Jr. voted to support the plan, but only after he asked Superintendent Donna Hargens “who will be responsible to make sure this works?”
"We need one throat to choke," Jones said at the March meeting. "Who is going to be in charge of this project so that if it comes up, we don’t have everybody pointing their fingers?"
Hargens responded by hiring Debbie Powers, a former administrator with the Kentucky Department of Education, as a project manager who will oversee the consolidation of the two struggling middle schools.
“It will be my throat to choke,” Powers said in a recent interview with WDRB. “My job is to ensure that we deliver what we promised to the school board and this community. I am going to make sure it works.”
Two principals, one campus
Frost was first designated as a “priority school” in 2010, while Stuart was added to the list of low-performing schools in 2013.
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.
Recent test scores show that only 19 percent of Frost Sixth Grade Academy students were proficient in reading, 13 percent were proficient in math and 18 percent were proficient in writing.
At Stuart, 24 percent were proficient in reading, 14 percent were proficient in math, 19 percent were proficient in social studies and 8 percent were proficient in writing.
Powers, who started May 23 and makes $130,000 annually, reports directly to Hargens and will make sure the schools are staffed appropriately, help identify any potential problems or issues and fix them immediately.
JCPS is spending approximately $1.7 million to hire the extra staff and support district officials say the two schools need. In addition, nearly $500,000 was spent on renovations to the building, which included the creation of two separate cafeterias, reconfiguring classrooms and replacing floors.
Each school will have its own principal, with Faith Stroud continuing to lead the efforts at Frost, while former Dixie Elementary assistant principal Laura Dalton will oversee Stuart.
“The biggest challenge for me is to get the kids to believe in themselves and believe that they can achieve just like any other school in JCPS,” Dalton said. “Over the past 3 years, the scores have declined and are now in the low teens. We’re better than that…our kids are better than that.”
The Frost Sixth-Grade Academy – which is entering its third year this fall – was previously housed at Frost Middle School on Sandray Boulevard, until the school board voted to permanently close it at the end of the 2015-16 year.
"Frost has had some real success with how to run a sixth grade academy," Hargens said in a previous interview. "There's an experienced principal there, there's a staff and they've done amazing things. What we want to do is relocate that success and expand upon it.”
At the combined campus, Frost will have two assistant principals, while Stuart will have four. Typically, JCPS places assistant principals in schools based on enrollment, but in this case, the additional administrators were placed there on purpose.
“In the past and in other schools, assistant principals are the ones who deal primarily with student discipline and behavior,” Powers said. “At these two schools, one assistant principal will focus solely on teachers and instruction; whereas the other will help support students.”
Each school will also have four instructional coaches, two guidance counselors, one behavior coach, one mental health counselor, one school resource officer and one librarian.
“Having two librarians – one for each academy – is huge,” said Stroud, who started the Sixth-Grade Academy when it was created at Frost Middle School two years ago. “The library media center is almost the core of a school because your librarian also provides instructional support to help your teachers find resources to support the instruction going on in the classroom. For me, that was just a crucial fundamental need.”
Stroud also believes the addition of mental health counselors is critical.
“With the amount of shootings and things like that that’s been happening over the past year…those are kids living in those neighborhoods who are impacted and it shapes the way they see world,” she said. “And these are kids who are expected to come to school each and every day.”
Stroud said having a mental health counselor stationed at the school every day who can be “on the spot and really triage as needed and then provide ongoing support throughout the school year will be a game changer.”
Dalton says the district has been “phenomenal in terms of the support they have given us.”
“They are spending a lot of money to ensure that these kids are successful,” Dalton said. “Everybody is kind of stepping up to the plate and they’re putting their money where their mouth is.”
‘This is a huge challenge’
Although the old Frost campus and the Stuart campus are only seven miles apart and both located in southwestern Jefferson County, it has not been easy to convince parents and the community that combining the schools is a good thing.
Louisville Metro Councilwoman Cindi Fowler told board members that many students and parents at Frost are "concerned about bullying if they move to Stuart" campus.
Angela Owens, whose granddaughter will be in the 8th grade at Stuart, says she hopes officials will do more to address student behavior.
“I am optimistic that things will change,” Owens said. “But I worry that in the middle of all this change, my granddaughter will be lost and she won’t be prepared for high school.”
Dalton acknowledges that “for many years, Stuart has gotten a bad rap.”
“This is a huge challenge,” she says.” It’s going to be really hard for everybody to change the way that they’re looking at things and the way that they’ve doing things in the past. And we’re all going to feel a little discomfort.”
Dalton added: “I think it’s just really important that we rally around the school and that the teachers and students feel supported.”
Stroud, who spent two years trying to change the image of the old Frost Middle School, says she has worked hard to assure parents that “we are going to be the same school, we are just moving our address.”
“The blessing about moving locations is that we’re going to be able to serve more scholars,” she said.
“The past two years on average we would have anywhere between 169 and 175 scholars on any given day,” Stroud said. “Right now, it appears we’ll have 560 scholars this year. Last year, I had 22 staff members. This year, I’m going up to 39 total teachers.”
Over the past five years, 21 schools in JCPS have been identified as priority schools for having chronically low test scores.
During that time, the district has received more than $38 million in federal grant money to help revamp the schools. Only two -- Waggener High and Fern Creek High -- have exited priority school status.
Powers, who spent several years as an educational recovery director for the state, has spent a lot of time working with JCPS’ priority schools.
“Middle school is tough teachingwithout all of the complicating factors an urban school setting such as JCPS entails,” she said. “The essential component of school turnaround work is establishing systems to support teaching and learning."
In her new role, Powers said she will spend a lot of time watching, observing and “making sure the supports are there.” She will also help coach the school’s administrative teams.
“This is a complex system and we are essentially re-inventing the way we do middle school for students at these two schools,” Powers said.
Duncan says the challenge in all of JCPS’ lowest performing schools is that they have high concentrations of students who come from poor families.
At Frost, nearly 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, while 80 percent qualify for subsidized meals at Stuart.
“I think what you have to do is double the resources in those kinds of situations,” Duncan said. “Adding more adults is helpful, but if you’re not breaking down your class sizes then you’ve got one arm tied behind your back. That’s my reservation here.”
“This is going to be very interesting endeavor,” Duncan said. “I hope we will stay on top of it from the very beginning so that when there are needs that arise we can be there immediately to support those needs.”
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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