SUNDAY EDITION | JCPS principal inspires 'complete turnaround' at Highland Middle School

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It was a bold idea: Temporarily re-assign a popular principal from a high-performing high school and place him at its largest feeder middle school, one that has struggled for years with behavior problems, low academics and weak morale among staff.

And in the course of about 36 hours – just a week before the 2016-17 school year began – that is exactly what happened at Atherton High and Highland Middle, two schools located just over a mile apart in the Highlands.

Thomas Aberli, who had been the principal at Atherton since 2010, approached Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens with the idea of a temporary two-year reassignment after Highland’s long-time principal, Steve Heckman, announced he was leaving for another job in the district on Aug. 2.

“For several years, I've been trying to establish a stronger connection and build a common culture and expectations between the two schools,” Aberli told WDRB during an interview and visit at Highland last week. “I saw it as a win-win situation for both Highland and Atherton.”

In less than a day, the move was official – Aberli was in at Highland, while Atherton’s assistant principal, Richard Guetig, was named interim principal at Atherton until Aberli returns at the start of the 2018-19 year.

The move sent shockwaves throughout the community with students, parents and teachers at each school caught completely off guard.

"Up until school started, I was trying to pull my kid out of this school," says Susan Bruner, whose son, Thomas, is a seventh grader at Highland Middle. “It was chaos last year. Half of the time, he didn’t have a teacher – it was all substitutes. And the behavior was out of control.”

Thomas, 13, agreed: “Kids jumping over tables, climbing, cussing, yelling, punching,” he said. “I had a hard time concentrating.”

But after Bruner heard that Aberli was coming, she decided to give Highland another chance.

“And let me tell you, it's just been a world of difference,” she said. “The principal has made ungodly, I mean I wouldn't even say strides, I'd say a leap. It's just been a complete turnaround."

Other parents and teachers at Highland – one of the district’s oldest schools – agree.

Laura Frost's two daughters attend Highland and says she feels more informed about their progress and that they feel more connected to the school.

"One of the best things about this school year has been the increase in communication from both the administration and from individual teachers," she said. "This year, neither of my daughters have mentioned fights in the hallways or in class; this year, things are being organized ahead of time with a clear discussion of goals and plans."

Winsbert Ansine, a sixth grade science teacher who has been at Highland for 11 years, says after years of challenges, "things have really started turning around."

"The climate is positive and conducive to learning," he said. "We have a family atmosphere now with a lot of teamwork and collaboration.”

District officials say a turnaround effort was much needed at Highland, a school that for years had a great reputation.

Recent test scores show that 47 percent of students were proficient in reading, which is two points higher than the district average, but below the state’s average of 55 percent. In math, 29 percent of student scored proficient, which is well below the district and state averages.

Highland was also suffering from high teacher turnover and behavior problems.

“We needed someone new (to come in) and (say) we need to fix this, we are not happy with the school, we not happy with the performance…what are the issues that need to be addressed?” the district’s chief business officer, Tom Hudson, told school board members during a Sept. 13 work session.

Hudson said shortly after Aberli arrived at Highland, he identified several deficiencies that needed to be addressed immediately and “figured out what we needed to do.”

The school board ultimately approved a last minute $362,000 request by Aberli to “bring that school up to where it should have been,” Hudson said.

The majority of that expense -- $300,000 – was to purchase new textbooks.

“We needed to invest in some textbooks for new math and English curriculum in order to replace old and damaged textbooks,” Aberli said. “It was part of the bigger picture to support student achievement.”

Fostering relationships

Highland Middle was built in 1928. It offers the international studies magnet program featuring the International Baccalaureate middle years program – a challenging curriculum that encourages students to make practical connections between their studies and the real world.

It’s the same curriculum offered at Atherton that has attracted a record number of applicants – and success – at that school. But over the past several years, students coming into Atherton from Highland were not prepared for the higher-level curriculum, Aberli and Guetig said.

“One of our biggest goals with this is to have his students at Highland come to us as freshmen and already be in the mindset and already have the tools they need to handle the curriculum that's offered in all of our courses,” said Guetig, who has spent his entire career at Atherton.

Aberli, who was named the 2016 Kentucky Administrator of the Year for the work he has done at Atherton, said has spent countless hours working with teachers and staff at Highland, while also working with Guetig and teachers at Atherton.

“I want the student experience at Highland to mirror what they'll experience at Atherton, and honestly at any high school that they will attend,” Aberli said. “Half of the students who attend Atherton come from Highland, so I really see this as an opportunity to better prepare them and so the transition will be easier.”

Aberli has worked to foster a closer relationship between the teachers at the two schools.

Highland Middle teacher Tua Gravatte says having a better partnership with Atherton teachers has proven to be very beneficial.

“As middle school teachers, we try to prepare them as best we can, but we don't know what skills they are lacking when they get to high school,” she said. “By being able to talk and work with high school teachers, they can inform us what the students are missing and hopefully we can address that before they move on to the next level.”

Gravatte says there has been a “huge shift in the school’s mentality.”

“For all the employees…we all feel like we are part of it now,” Gravatte said. “We are part of a team that is making this place better.”

Aberli says he’s happy with what he has seen take place in a short period of time.

“We have a lot of work we still need to do, but I'm very excited about what I see with student engagement in the classroom and the direction the school is going academically,” he said.

'Overwhelmed with excitement'

Aside from improving the atmosphere and academics inside Highland Middle, Aberli is also working feverishly to improve the school’s reputation on the outside.

For years, Atherton High School has been a desirable place for students to choose and Aberli wants Highland to become a top pick, too.

“We just finished our open house last week, it had a phenomenal turnout with over 100 families,” he said. “My understanding is that’s a lot more than in previous years. We have a lot of positive talk out in the community.”

Among those buzzing about the school include Marian Smith, whose granddaughter is in fifth grade and is searching for a middle school to attend next year.

“We live in the Highlands and the past couple of years, Highland was never really an option – it wasn’t something we were even considering,” Smith said. “Suddenly, it’s back on our radar and she’s talking about going there instead of applying for a different school.”

Thomas Bruner, who last year was begging his mother to transfer him out of Highland, says now he wants to stay.

“I feel better,” he says. “There are some new teachers, we have textbooks and I’m getting better grades.”

Gravatte says teacher morale has “done a complete 180” which has helped make students happier.

“The kids feed off of what the teachers feel,” she said. “So if they see that the teachers are working together and they have the support from the counselors and everyone in the building...they feel happy and safe…like they belong as well."

Ansine says it’s a great feeling.

“I feel excited, I am overwhelmed,” he says with a big smile. “I am overwhelmed with excitement.”

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

Copyright 2016 WDRB News. All rights reserved.