Jefferson County Public Schools has shown overall improvement in the latest Kentucky accountability test scores—and many of its struggling schools are making significant gains. But despite meeting its annual objectives, JCPS still trails behind its peers in some key measurements.
That’s according to new annual accountability results that were released by the Kentucky Department of Education Friday.
(Curious how a Kentucky school performed? Go to our searchable, sortable database with 2013 results for every school in Kentucky.)
The results show that JCPS moved from the 23rd to the 32nd percentile (meaning 68 percent of schools performed better than JCPS). In the data, familiar trends pop up, but many schools are getting behind the district’s new initiatives. Superintendent Donna Hargens says she’ll continue to push what’s working.
A large question mark last year was whether the district could improve its lowest performing schools, called “priority schools.” The new data shows 13 of 18 JCPS priority schools have met their objectives for the year.
Seneca High School is among those with priority status in JCPS. Principal Michelle Dillard says when she arrived at Seneca, she did what many new JCPS leaders are saying needs to be done: She started changing the school’s culture.
“It wasn’t easy, but I told them that we can’t keep doing things the same way or we’ll get the same results. They have placed me here to turn the school around,” she says.
Last year, only a third of Seneca students graduated as what the state considers college- or career-ready, which is the basis of the state’s new accountability system. This year, 45 percent of Seneca’s students met college exam benchmarks or earned certain certificates that puts them in that category.
And the graduation rate is 83 percent, which is better than the district average.
Seneca’s success should also be attributed to some JCPS initiatives like “professional learning communities,” Dillard says. These are groups of teachers who look over data and discuss what’s best for each student. At Seneca, teachers meet weekly; elsewhere they might meet once a month.
Now, Hargens says her office will use the test results to consider which schools are doing well, and then have them share those best practices.
“The schools that did well need to share and help the schools that didn’t do well,” she says.
Next month, JCPS officials will host a “school improvement academy” for those principals whose schools did not post positive scores, Hargens says.
She also says the No. 1 focus going forward will be, “reading, reading, reading.”
In JCPS, reading proficiency went up across the board, but less than half of elementary school students are reading at grade level. Hargens says there needs to be more focus on getting to kids earlier. This includes initiatives such as the Every1Reads volunteer program reintroduced this school year.
“That [also] means we’re going to have to reach into pre-K and early childhood education because we have so many of our kids that don’t come ready for kindergarten,” she says.
But state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday says JCPS should also consider changes at the middle school level.
Of the all the grade levels in JCPS, middle schools have the greatest gaps with state averages, Holliday says.
Plus, the only five low-performing priority schools that didn’t meet their objectives were middle schools.
Holliday says the state is supportive of JCPS. The district has caught his eye.
“There are a lot of good things happening in Jefferson County right now under Dr. Hargens leadership, the school board’s very supportive and innovative to help kids there,” he says.
Across the state, test scores remain lower than previous years, in part because Kentucky raised its standards to a higher level last year. Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core standards and now most states have followed.
Breckenridge-Franklin Elementary School principal Allyson Vitato says now teachers are warming up to the standards and figuring out to teach them.
“Now that we know what exactly is expected we can absolutely reach to that target and make sure that our students are pushed to that level or across that level,” she says.
Vitato says she blew past her annual objectives and credits the improvement at her school to more focused work. She also agrees that the effort is part district-driven and part of it is borne within the school.