LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools has changed course on a plan that has allowed two of its lowest performing elementary schools to experiment with new ways of teaching and learning.
Atkinson and Maupin elementary schools are part of the “Districts of Innovation” program Kentucky lawmakers established in 2012, giving school districts the flexibility to redesign student learning and sidestep state rules that some argue holds back achievement.
But JCPS has quietly submitted a new Districts of Innovation plan that makes no mention of its existing plan involving the drastic program changes at the Louisville Reach Academy at Atkinson Elementary and the Catalpa School at Maupin Elementary.
The new plan – which has three components – was sent by JCPS to the Kentucky Department of Education earlier this month, seeking to replace the current plan on file, according to documents obtained by WDRB through the state's open records law.
And although JCPS’ application for a new approach requires the signature of both Superintendent Donna Hargens and the chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Education, the school board has not approved a new plan and board members were not briefed about the changes until WDRB told them about it on Thursday.
“This is the first time I’m hearing about it,” said Linda Duncan, a school board member who represents southern Jefferson County, adding that district officials sent them a copy of application on Thursday evening.
Board members Chris Brady, Lisa Willner, Stephanie Horne and Diane Porter also said they were unaware of any changes to the current plan or of any plans to submit a new application or proposal.
“In fact, we asked for a progress update a few months ago about Maupin and Atkinson during our budgeting process,” Brady said. “We are still waiting.”
Jennifer Brislin, a JCPS spokeswoman, said Thursday that the district submitted the new Districts of Innovation plan to the Kentucky Department of Education in order to align it with JCPS’ strategic plan.
“This is all preliminary, it’s a draft proposal,” she said. “We are still seeking feedback from the state.”
It’s not clear when JCPS submitted its new plan, although on Aug. 31, Superintendent Donna Hargens signed off on a document entitled “Districts of Innovation Plan Revisions” that was due to the state by Sept. 15. On that document, a box entitled “New Plan replacing current plan on file” was checked and JCPS uploaded its new plan by submitting a new application.
The application JCPS submitted to the state requires school districts to assure they have “obtained broad support for this application as evidenced by letters of support attached to this application from key stakeholder groups.”
However, JCPS did not attach any letters of support when it submitted its application, according to Nancy Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.
Brislin pointed out that Maupin and Atkinson were not included as part of JCPS’ original plan, which was submitted in 2013.
That’s because the district held a community-wide School of Innovation Design Competition after the Kentucky Department of Education designated JCPS as a District of Innovation and the JCPS school board didn’t approve the Catalpa School and the Louisville Reach Academy as the two winning concepts until 2014.
Following that approval, JCPS submitted detailed plans for both schools to the state.
In Maupin’s case, the district requested and was granted a waiver by the Kentucky Board of Education to deviate slightly in the sequence in which the way the state's academic standards are taught so that it would better align with the school’s Waldorf-inspired curriculum.
However, Rodriguez said the waiver for Maupin is "not a District of Innovation waiver."
"It's a waiver any district could apply for," she said. "It is in effect until the state board rescinds it."
Rodriguez said JCPS’ new Districts of Innovation application is currently under review by the state.
"If we need additional information, we will ask for it," she said. "In addition, the district would need to get approval from its board prior to it going before the state board for approval."
Brislin said JCPS “will continue to support the programs and initiatives at both Maupin and Atkinson,” but she couldn’t say how JCPS planned on supporting the two schools.
No additional money has been allotted in 2016-17 budget to expand programs at the schools and no details have not been shared publicly or with the school board.
Frustration at Maupin, Atkinson
Parents and teachers at both schools have been frustrated with the lack of progress delivered in what they say was promised to them.
“To me, it’s been a case of false advertisement,” said Sharon Lee, whose granddaughter attends Maupin. “We thought the kids would be getting this new innovative program and half way through the first year, it just stopped.”
Indeed, the 2015-16 year at Maupin had a rocky start – the school struggled with its new curriculum and managing student behavior that some teachers said disrupted learning to a point that they couldn’t teach.
By the time students returned from Thanksgiving break, the school’s third, fourth and fifth graders were moving back toward a more traditional curriculum so the school could get a better handle on academics and student behavior.
Patty Rundell, a longtime JCPS teacher, resigned her post at Maupin in September 2015. In her resignation letter, she cited a “lack of assistance that every teacher in this building needs, and has been crying out for, in order to maintain stability in the classroom.”
Rundell also noted a concern that the “now that administration is trying to change instruction, the Waldorf program that is the magnet for this school, will be diluted. I cannot watch that happen.”
This week, WDRB contacted two of the four teachers at Maupin who were behind the Catalpa School concept, asking them how the program was going.
One of the teachers emailed WDRB back on Thursday saying: “Although I would love nothing more than to speak with you, I've been ordered by my principal and strongly urged by the school district not to communicate with the media.”
Brislin said JCPS encourages all employees to go through the district's communications office on any media inquiries.
JCPS' new Districts of Innovation plan has three components: expanding the district’s high school career academies; implementing restorative practices – a structure the district says helps students learn how their actions affect others; and establishing the Hope Street Group Fellowship Program for training teachers.
When asked why the school board was not briefed about the new plan, Brislin said board members were told about two of its three components– restorative practices and the Hope Street Group Initiative – and will be briefed on the third one – expansion of the district’s career academies – at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
But Duncan said Hargens “never told us that restorative practices or that the Hope Street Group presentation that we just heard about at last week’s meeting were part of a new Districts of Innovation plan.”
Brady added: “If I had known the Hope Street Group presentation was part of a new Districts of Innovation plan, I would have asked questions, like how is it going to be innovative?”
State monitoring of current plan thwarted by a lack of communication
And because of their Districts of Innovation status, both Maupin and Atkinson are required by state regulations to be monitored by the Kentucky Department of Education.
However, efforts from state education officials to monitor the plan in its first year of implementation were thwarted by a lack of communication from JCPS, according to emails between JCPS and KDE obtained by WDRB in an open records request.
In November 2015, Pat Trotter with KDE’s Division of Innovation, sent Jonathan Lowe, the director of strategy for JCPS, an email stating that KDE was “expecting a letter from the district stating that the innovation plan as approved and subsequently amended by waivers pertaining to the Catalpa School, continues to be the plan followed by JCPS and thus is the plan that will be monitored for the 2015-16 school year.”
In her email, Trotter also says she requested “on numerous occasions to visit the Catalpa School and requested several dates, all of which have come and gone. Is it easier to contact the school directly?”
Lowe responded to Trotter a month later on Dec. 14, 2015, in which he told KDE that JCPS was not requesting any changes to their District of Innovation plan.
As part of that letter, Lowe stated implementation at both Atkinson and Maupin was ongoing, adding that in subsequent years the “full Catalpa/Waldorf approach will be implemented in a graduated fashion, with an additional grade being added each year.”
Lowe also mentioned he expected JCPS to “submit significant changes to the District of Innovation Plan” for the 2016-17 year.
In April 2016, David Cook, the director of innovation with the Kentucky Department of Education, sent Lowe an email stating that the two sides had agreed that JCPS would “send a draft of any revisions to your current plan by April 1 so that a final version could be submitted by April 8.”
“To date, we have received nothing,” Cook wrote. “Again, we need to make sure that our monitoring visit later this month is accurately measuring the elements of your DOI plan and not elements that have either been changed, added or are no longer being implemented.”
JCPS submitted a draft to the state later that month, a week before state officials arrived to monitor the two schools.
In the state monitoring report to the Kentucky Board of Education in June, KDE staff indicated that “staff by-in, consistency between classes in same grade level and agreement of instructional methods is still lacking at Maupin.”
“Monitoring team members expressed concern that there is a conflict among faculty, no parent feedback and new teachers coming and going mid-year,” the June 2016 report reads. “The reset and plans moving forward for Maupin should be documented and included in the DOI plan along with suspected outcomes and measureable objectives.”
In regards to Atkinson, state officials noted the school “appears to be moving ahead with implementation of the Reach Academy though much of the ‘wrap-around model’ revolves around projects and procedures that have been implemented across the state in a variety of schools and thus lack true innovative processes.”
“Staff recommends that Atkinson be provided additional freedom to experiment with new ideas and empower staff to explore additional innovative strategies to meet the needs of the school population.”
At some point after June 2016, JCPS officials decided to submit a new District of Innovation plan.
On Aug. 15, Cook send Hargens an email stating that “revision of the JCPS innovation plan has been discussed on numerous occasions.”
“It is imperative that the plan be submitted by the close of business on Sept. 15, 2016,” Cook wrote. “If revisions are not submitted by that date, the district’s subsequent monitoring will be based on the current plan.”
“Any discrepancy between the plan on file and what the district is actually doing will impact KDE’s ability to effectively monitor your plan in 2016-17,” Cook wrote.
Hargens responded to Cook the same day: “Thanks David. This is very clear.”
On Friday, Brislin said Hargens was not available for immediate comment on the new Districts of Innovation plan.
Brislin reiterated Friday that the JCPS school board will be presented with the final version of the new Districts of Innovation plan later this year and then resubmit it to the state.
Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.
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