Education and community leaders say the public school system needs local solutions to improve student achievement—but those solutions may vary depending on who you ask.
A crowd packed into St. Stephen Family Life Center Thursday to listen to Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, Jefferson County Public Schools superintendent Donna Hargens and other guest speakers who shared their thoughts on the challenges facing the district’s lowest performing students.
The conversation was sparked by comments made by Holliday earlier this year when he referred to some of the district’s lowest performing schools as “academic genocide.” The comments, Holliday has said, were purposeful and made to engage the community.
Hargens began by speaking about the importance of early learning, which included the decision to screen kindergarten students entering school for the first time this year. Several districts joined JCPS in the pilot program, which is expected to extend to all schools next school year.
Further she said extended learning time—which may include out-of-school-time partnerships with community based organizations—and having high expectations are important. Hargens also reaffirmed her commitment to data.
“It really isn’t about being nice and those of you who know me know, know that I’m really not that nice, because it’s really about student achievement,” she said.
Other guest speakers, including Hal Heiner of Kentuckians Advocating Reform in Education and Jerry Stephenson, director for the Black Alliance for Educational Options , talked about the importance of school choice. That, they said, includes creating charter schools.
JCPS has been an opponent of charter schools. Hargens said JCPS needs to instead strengthen magnet programs in the district.
Further, JCPS plans to submit an application to become a “district of innovation” under a new law recently passed, which would allow JCPS freedom from certain state regulations, she said.
JCPS cannot improve student achievement without the support of the city’s faith-based organizations, which have already partnered with the district to provide Learning Places and other programs offered to students out of school, she said.
Holliday was critical of the teacher’s union after being asked what he would implement if he were to trade places with Hargens. He said the American Federation of Teachers has negotiated contracts in Hartford, Conn., which provides more incentives to place higher performing teachers in lower performing schools.
Holliday would not say whether the union was a direct barrier to improving student achievement, but he said it’s a perception of a barrier and that reaching a new agreement that included some incentives might clear up that perception.
Jefferson County Teachers Association president Brent McKim told WFPL state law does not allow the union’s contract to override a priority school’s—former called persistently low-achieving—improvement plan.
The union represents about 95 percent of JCPS teachers. McKim said it’s premature to talk about what compromises might be discussed between the union and the district when contract negotiations come up later this year.
McKim said he’s open to talking about changing incentives or compensation in the contract for teachers at struggling schools, or those schools that have been traditionally hard to staff. But he also says incentives might not be just about money—it could include more support or smaller class sizes. The union, he said, is “open to looking at all of that.”
Hargens says if there are obstacles to providing good education in the union’s contract, those would need to be talked about, but she wouldn’t say what those obstacles may be.
“I think everybody is fired up, and if you go schools and to a principal’s meeting you’ll see principals fired up. So what we need to do is sustain this energy and this momentum,” she said.
The largest crowd response came during comments made by Dr. C.B. Akins, who has run a successful community program in Fayette County called BMW Academy. Akins spoke about the need for community to support the students, and said the city should not wait for answers to come from the district.
Further, Akins says the Louisville community has not made enough noise to rally around education.
“You don’t get more because you don’t demand more,” he says.