LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- More than a month after calling out Maupin Elementary's single-digit proficiency levels during a state meeting, Kentucky's Education and Workforce Development Secretary visited the west Louisville school on Monday and encouraged school leaders to "think bolder."

Jefferson County Pubic Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens said she invited Hal Heiner to visit Maupin in an effort to show him the work district officials have put into the west end school since it was allowed to experiment with new ways of teaching and learning under the state's Districts of Innovation program.

The school, located on Catalpa Street in the Parkland neighborhood, features a Waldorf-inspired curriculum that incorporates movement, visual art, storytelling or drama with an overall goal of boosting student performance, but test scores released by the state on Sept. 30 show dismal results at Maupin, placing it as among the lowest performing in the state and prompting the Kentucky Department of Education to step in.

"Maupin's scores are the lowest in the state," Heiner said to a group of top JCPS officials who gathered to meet with him at the school. "I encourage you all to think bolder. Short of a new framework, more instruction and a more holistic approach, it seems like it needs to be taken to another level. It seems like a bigger move is going to be necessary in order to meet the needs of the kids."

Heiner said Jefferson County is doing "bits and pieces of that but in order for them to be successful, I think they need to take it to the next level."

"If you look around the country on how school districts are making the biggest difference for children that have gaps in their lives, they are doing it with extended school days, extended weeks, extended years and wraparound holistic services - medical services, social services," he said.

At Maupin, the number of students scoring proficient or higher in reading dropped from 17.9 percent in 2015 to 12.8 percent in 2016, while math proficiency fell from 17 percent to 8.9 percent. 

Heiner added that adding that JCPS should look outside the box to help its most disadvantaged children. More than 90 percent of the students who attend Maupin come from poverty, according to district data.

"Whether it's six weeks of enrichment based summer school to eliminate that regression we often see with kids with gaps in their lives during the summer or strengthening ties with medical clinics or maybe offer three meals of day," Heiner said. "My hope is that JCPS would be bolder. Make these things available to all students."

Heiner asked those gathered to "help me understand" how Maupin ended up at the bottom of the state in terms of test scores.

Holmes said only one teacher from the 2014-15 year decided to return to teach last year, adding that she had a lot of new teachers and staff members who struggled with managing student behavior, as well as "not having a real clear curriculum."

By the time students returned from Thanksgiving break last year, 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.

Jennifer Nelson, a teacher at the school who helped create the idea behind the Catalpa School at Maupin, said the first year was "very challenging."

"We had a huge transition," Nelson told WDRB News on Monday. "Almost every teacher in the building was new but most of the students were not. So the students came in confused about who we were and what was going on. And we really had to earn their trust."

Nelson said "we also had to get our families to buy in to what we were doing because there was a lot of skepticism."

"I don't have the time to think about the big picture politics," she said. "I feel pressure to make it work here because I love the children and I believe in the model and I want to bring holistic education to these children that I love very much."

Holmes, who took over as principal of the school at the start of the 2015-16 year, added that while extended learning time was a specific intent in the Catalpa model, "that has not been fully implemented yet."

Hargens said cost and "finding the right way to implement" extended services for more students has not been easy.

"We want all students to learn at the same high levels," Hargens said. "More time, more support...but giving more time without the support doesn't work. We are working to find the right formula. We have to look at how we can create that structure of more time."

Maupin has been 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.

However, as WDRB reported in September, JCPS quietly changed course on that 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.

Hargens has maintained that the district will continue to support the plans at both schools.

Nelson said she hopes that Heiner and others who visit Maupin see that "those test scores are really not an accurate judge, or reflection of what's going on in our school."

"We've come along way from where were were last year with the difficulty in implementation and gaining the trust of the students," she said.

Because of Maupin's test scores and the fact the school entered "priority" status this year, officials with the Kentucky Department of Education will arrive at Maupin in January to conduct a leadership assessment and determine if Holmes has the ability to continue to lead turnaround efforts.

The reviews are completed by a team of current and former educators, parents and others trained in the process and are used to gauge school effectiveness, reviewing academic performance, learning environment and efficiency within each school.

As part of the review process, the review team will spend two or three days at each school where they will collect test data, interview faculty and staff, observe teachers and speak with parents and students.

Since 2010, 21 schools in Jefferson County have been placed in “priority” status. 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.

Those who were part of Monday's visit at Maupin included: Joe Leffert, assistant superintendent of academic support; Lisa Herring, chief academic officer; John Marshall, chief equity officer; director of strategy Jonathan Lowe; lobbyist Jeff Busick; Diane Porter, vice chairwoman of the JCPS school board; Sam Corbett, executive director of the Jefferson County Public Education Foundation and Maria Holmes, the school's principal.

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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