State will intervene at two JCPS elementary schools facing 'dire academic issues'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Two JCPS elementary schools facing "dire academic issues" are in need of drastic overhauls, the state's top education official said Tuesday.

Test scores released by the state on Sept. 30 show dismal results at Maupin and Wellington elementary schools, placing them among the lowest performing in the state and prompting the Kentucky Department of Education to step in.

"This is an extremely serious situation at these schools, they face dire academic issues...I cannot sit around and let it continue," Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt told WDRB News in an interview.

Maupin and Wellington would have been the only two schools in Kentucky identified as “priority schools” when test scores were released this year, but were not because of the state's transition to a new accountability system next year.

"At that time, I said while we would not be providing a list of new priority schools, we would send in the troops if we need to and we have two schools in Jefferson County where the achievement is such that we need to send people in," Pruitt said. 

Pruitt said "it is imperative I act to ensure the students at these schools are receiving high-quality instruction and learning opportunities that will set them on the right educational path for their futures."

"Therefore, I have directed my staff to employ intervention efforts at both schools, including undertaking comprehensive leadership assessments/diagnostic reviews aimed at identifying areas for improvement at each school," he said. "I expect these reviews to begin taking place within the coming weeks."

Superintendent Donna Hargens told WDRB on Tuesday she was informed about Pruitt's decision on Friday.

"We certainly are aware of where our schools are and we consider this to be (additional) support for our schools to have a team of people come in and identify areas for improvement," Hargens said in an interview. "Everyone is working to support all of our schools...we are aware of our data and where we are and are identifying priorities of our own. The diagnostic reviews is anther layer of helping us do that."

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 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. Its overall accountability score dropped from 45.2 to 35. 7 -- making Maupin the lowest performing school in Kentucky.

The number of Wellington students scoring proficient or higher in reading dropped from 37.7 percent last year to 35.4 percent this year, while math proficiency fell from 42.5 percent to 30.4 percent.

For the past five years, schools have been 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.

The interventions 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 external management of a private or nonprofit operator.

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.

Pruitt had previously said the state would not be identifying priority schools this year because he felt it wasn't fair for schools to be identified as low-performing under one system and then held accountable under a different system. States have been working to implement new accountability systems after an overhaul of No Child Left Behind last year. Kentucky's new system, which has not yet been finalized, will roll out in time for the 2017-18 year.

"We will be treating both of these schools as priority schools," Pruitt said. "It's disheartening anytime you have drops when you are supposed to be having a greater focus on instruction. We have a role to play in helping the district come up with a plan to help student achievement. We have to make sure we take care of those kids."

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.

The leadership assessments will focus on the principals at each school -- Maria Clemons at Maupin and Brandi Carney at Wellington -- and determine if they have the ability to continue to lead turnaround efforts.

Diagnostic 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, Pruitt said.

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.

Hargens said JCPS will "welcome the support and welcome the help" of the state as they work in partnership to help both schools.

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 last month, JCPS has 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.

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.

Parents and teachers at Maupin have been frustrated with the lack of progress delivered in what they say was promised to them.

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.

Hargens said Tuesday she is not sure which intervention model would work best at Maupin and Wellington.

David Jones Jr., the chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Education, has said he thinks the district should explore the "external management organization" option when it comes to helping its priority schools.

"The number of priority schools has gone up, rather than down," Jones said during a December 2015 meeting. "I think that suggests that the board should at least look at this question and whether others have achieved better results than what we are achieving."

If JCPS were to choose the external management option, the district would have to choose from a list of EMO providers that have been approved by the Kentucky Board of Education.

None of Kentucky's priority schools have chosen the external management option as the way to overhaul their schools, said Nancy Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

Jones told WDRB on Tuesday that he would still like the district to explore this option.

"JCPS management reported to the board that only two EMOs have been authorized under Kentucky law, that neither of these organizations had a proven track record of success with schools similar to JCPS priority schools and that both were expensive," Jones said. "I would like to see KDE review and approve additional EMOs with track records of turning around schools similar to JCPS priority schools, and (for) JCPS consider using these EMOs to manage one or more priority schools."

Jefferson County Board of Education members Diane Porter, whose district includes Maupin, and Chuck Haddaway, whose district includes Wellington, could not be reached for immediate comment on Tuesday. 

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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