Q&A: Superintendent Donna Hargens Discusses The Challenges For the New JCPS School Year

Most Jefferson County Public Schools students return to class Wednesday, marking the third school year under Superintendent Donna Hargens. 

Hargens recently sat down with WFPL to discuss the school district’s successes and enduring challenges.

In our annual education news special, we heard from Hargens and also from students, teachers and principals across JCPS. We looked at the growth in English as a second language students, how JCPS schools attract students, the challenges teachers face and more.

You can read more here and hear the hour-long education news special below:WFPL's 2014 Annual Back-to-School Special

Here’s an edited version of what Hargens said about what’s ahead for public schools in Louisville. 

Listener James asks, “With the evidence of success of the J. Graham Brown School academically and with the incredible amount of interest in that format for a school, why is it that the Jefferson County Public Schools have not tried to duplicate this successful program in each of the divisions of the district?” 

Hargens: Well, one of the things that makes the Brown School successful is this ability to seamlessly go through K-12 without the transitions. So, that’s a great concept. We are doing grade-level configurations [in other schools] to see if we can minimize the impact on transitions. There are many characteristics that make [the Brown School] successful. One of which is the small size of it. Those are things to be looked at to replicate—but also we’re always looking at, cause we’re a system, what’s the impact of anything on the whole? Because we’re not individual schools competing, we’re a system of schools that has to work together for the benefit of all the students. 

If the School of Innovation competition successful, should JCPS either expand the things that worked or seek more waivers of state rules from the Kentucky Education Department?

Hargens: Absolutely. Again, you don’t want a handful of kids to benefit. Eventually you want lots of kids to benefit from the innovation. 

Would you like to see more flexibility with standardized testing?

Hargens: Our board’s legislative agenda actually talked about flexibility and alternative assessment. So we very much have been active in promoting different ways of assessing, but it’s really important for students to know where they are. Accountability is important as well. Students need to be able to read and do math well. 

We can say that standardized testing is bad, but when you really look at what it tells us, it does give us some indication of what our students can and can’t do. 

But you must cringe when you hear  about teachers teaching to a test—instead of feeling like they could teach the way people learn or what they feel like is most important.

Hargens: There’s a really important distinction. What you do is, you teach students so that they can master the standards. What they’re expected to learn. It really isn’t’ about the test. The test assesses, does the student know the standards? So teaching to the test is designing instruction that is test like. 

Instruction is supposed to teach students so that they can master the standards. The assessment is really only secondary to that.

Does JCPS have the type of participation that you would like to see with the Every 1 Reads program?

We’re trying to actually rebuild that. At its prime, it was 8,000 adults in buildings saying, “Reading is important; you’re important.” We know we need to build that number back up. Not only was it important for the student, but we had 8,000 adults that had firsthand information and they know the work that is going on in schools. 

So between Every 1 Reads rebuilding and then the Watchdog Program rebuilding—which is adults in cafeterias and classrooms—we know that we can build up the volunteer support. We have lots of mentor programs and lots of organizations that are pushing into schools. We know that the need is great in Jefferson County, so we know we have to scale up all of those programs if we’re going to move the needle for the district.

The change in the age students can dropout, from 16 to 18, means thousands more students are expected to be on the “watch list” and hundreds more that needs to be served. Is the district ready? 

Hargens: We have some schools that have alternative learning strategies, like Jefferson County High School and the Virtual School and also Liberty and Phoenix. We know that we need to continue to improve those schools because the schools need to adjust around the needs of that kind of learner. The students that dropout, it’s not that they’re not bright. It’s that school doesn’t make sense to them. So we know that we have to adjust around the needs of the students. 

Over the next year, is there going to be a plan to deal with the additional students? 

Hargens: Absolutely. We have a group going to the dropout conference to again share best practices and learn from the best practices at the conference. We know that we have to take what we currently have and build a system that really meets the needs of students and that adjusts around them. 

Following the release of a district-wide Equity Scorecard—which measures indicators like student achievement, suspensions and school climate—JCPS plans to release individual school equity scorecards.

When you visit schools, I’m sure you get a feel from some schools that feel very welcoming and maybe others that don’t. For those that don’t, how do you as a superintendent address that respectfully and address that in a way to maybe offer some ideas for improvement?

Hargens: Actually, it’s not only a visit to a school, but also survey data and data that you can refer to. Overall, parents are 91 percent satisfied with their school, but when you actually drill down into an individual school you’re going to see a wide range. That’s the point the conversation starts to happen between the areas superintendent and the principal, and the principal and the staff. Why do we rank so much lower in that satisfaction level than any other school? 

When you notice something in the data that needs to be improved you write it in your plan, which is visible to the public. Then what are the strategies to address that data point. For some schools it is an achievement—it might be reading, for some schools it may be something in the survey. 

We’ll have more on the start of the 2014-15 school year later this week.

Louisville Public Media’s Eleanor Hasken contributed to this story.

Devin Katayama

Devin Katayama host middays for WFPL and reports on education and other Louisville issues.

@DevinWFPL

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