Education

This spring, the Kentucky Department of Education released its audit results for 21 low-performing Jefferson County schools. Those results came with a recommendation — that JCPS reassign four principals because the audit found they do not have the capacity to lead their schools’ turnaround efforts. 

Kathy Schremp-Dean says she was blindsided when she heard her daughter’s elementary school principal might be removed from Shelby Traditional Academy. The family got a letter from Principal Kim Goff, and Schremp-Dean sat seven year-old Briley down to talk about it.

“She cried. She got very teary-eyed and very upset, because she loves Ms. Goff,” Schremp-Dean said.

“Mmhmm,” Briley chimed in, describing how her principal greets her every day in the hallway.

That might sound small, but to them, it was a big deal that on Briley’s first day of school at Shelby Traditional Academy, Goff greeted them personally. Goff also helped their family form a plan when Briley started having stomach issues and needed special accommodations at school.

Briley’s parents felt Goff showed an “extra-ordinary” amount of care. That’s why they were so surprised to hear that state officials were recommending that JCPS remove Goff after she had led the school for seven years. This was also the first time Shelby Traditional Academy fell into the state’s definition of a low-performing school, just after Kentucky adopted new standards for school accountability in 2018.

“It was very confusing, and it still is confusing,” Schremp-Dean said. “I think the parents should be more well-informed.”

Parents from other affected schools echoed her concerns. This year, the principals of Olmsted Academy South, Valley High and Johnsontown Road Elementary were also recommended for removal or reassignment.

Schremp-Dean doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen next. Goff was one of seven principals across the state that the Kentucky Department of Education recommended for removal or reassignment this year. JCPS received that information from state officials in April, but the decision isn’t official yet.

Expectations For Principals Have Changed

In 2017, students at Briley’s school scored in the lowest 5 percent in the state based on several measures from statewide K-PREP tests. That triggered a review of the school this year, led by officials from the Kentucky Department of Education. The Department performed diagnostic reviews at 51 low-performing schools across the state.

At Shelby Traditional Academy, reviewers found few parents or staff could describe the school’s plan to improve curriculum or instruction. Forming and communicating that plan was part of Goff’s responsibility as principal.

Schremp-Dean said she and her husband were surprised that Goff would be judged heavily for that aspect of her job, when they considered her such a dedicated leader of the school.

“Going back, I don’t remember our principal ever being as involved at our school,” Schremp-Dean said, speaking of her childhood.

The expectations on principals have certainly changed, according to Rosie Young, an education professor at Bellarmine University who helps train prospective principals. Young was also a principal at JCPS for 28 years.

“In the past, depending upon the level, a principal was much more of a manager, and they kept things running, they kept things operating, but now you’ve got principals that are front in center with instruction,” Young said.

“You have to be it all. You have to be a welcoming, student-centered school, where you really care deeply about each and every student, but at the same time, there is that very high expectation that schools reach the targets and goals set for them.”

At low-performing schools especially, school accountability reforms put an expectation on principals to pay attention to data from student test scores and use that as a guide to help teachers tailor how they teach.  

“The focus is that every student is going to be successful, and every school … that wasn’t necessarily the case in the past,” Young said. “And that’s a good thing — we want all students to be successful.”

Kentucky’s School Accountability Systems Are Still Evolving

That idea — that all students should be successful — is at the heart of school accountability reforms. You can hear it in the names of the federal school accountability laws: the No Child Left Behind Act, followed by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Federal and state education guidelines require schools to come up with a plan when students aren’t showing proficiency — or at least improvement — on state tests. Under Kentucky law, when a school’s test scores drop to a critical level, the state flags that school for additional help, known as Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI).

CSI is a new term; it’s being used in Kentucky and across the country for new state-led accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“That law required states to revise the way they hold schools and districts accountable,” said Kentucky Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis.

CSI schools get additional support, which — according to Lewis — could include access to grant money and having educators from the Kentucky Department of Education embedded in the school. Lewis says the process starts with a review of the school’s leadership. A team of Kentucky educators, led by KDE officials, go into the struggling schools to assess the situation.

“[They] do some really difficult work collecting data, talking with students, staff, administrators, parents, community stakeholders to come up with some really solid recommendations for moving forward and improvement for the schools,” Lewis said.

Those diagnostic reviews are what led to KDE’s recommendation to remove Goff and the principals of Johnsontown Road Elementary, Olmsted Academy South and Valley High School. Kentucky just started using a new accountability system this year — but the principal reviews are not new.

Origins of Kentucky’s Practice Of Principal Removal

Kentucky’s practice of recommending whether or not a principal “has the capacity to lead” their school’s turnaround started about 10 years ago, after the state designed an accountability system to qualify for federal school improvement grants.

“I’m not horribly surprised to hear that,” said Kerstin Carlson Le Floch, of the American Institutes for Research.

Carlson Le Floch has studied that federal grant program, known as SIG, which laid the groundwork for school turnaround efforts across the country. She explains the SIG program gave states and school districts several options about how to approach school improvement. One of these models was called the turnaround model, in which education officials were expected to consider replacing a low-performing school’s principal and up to fifty percent of its teachers.

That is the model Kentucky adopted when it first applied for the grant. Since 2019, state officials have determined at least 16 JCPS principals were not capable of leading their schools’ turnaround efforts. In the past, many of those principals who were deemed unqualified to lead their school’s improvement efforts were reassigned to be assistant principals at other schools.

A 2017 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found that, overall, the SIG grant program had no significant effect on student outcomes; although Carlson Le Floch notes it was successful in some schools.

Carlson Le Floch says she is a little surprised to hear that Kentucky considers whether to remove principals annually.

“And there are a lot of reasons that that might not be a great idea,” Carlson Le Floch said. “By building this annual review of the principal and potentially replacing him or her, you’re building in leadership churn, which is actually a really common problem among low-performing schools.”  

New Recommendations Have ‘Less Teeth’

Commissioner Lewis says the state’s new accountability system isn’t held to those old standards. Starting this year, Kentucky and other states have new guidelines to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Many states perform similar audits of struggling schools. Of all seven states that border Kentucky — only the Missouri Department of Education also directly recommends the removal of principals, but not annually. In general, state officials responded that they consider personnel matters a local decision.

In Kentucky, Lewis says his department’s recommendations have “less teeth” than they used to when it comes to principal reassignment.

“In this version of the accountability system, it is in fact just feedback,” Lewis said.

That means JCPS can decide whether or not to replace the four principals that KDE recommended. JCPS officials say that decision is actually up to the superintendent and his staff — it doesn’t require a vote by the school board.

Kathy Schremp-Dean says she wrote an email to Superintendent Marty Pollio, urging him to reconsider keeping Goff at her daughter’s school.

“I just think that there may be another way than just immediately taking her out and bringing somebody else in, after one review,” Schremp-Dean said.

Schremp-Dean compares the situation to when a football coach has a bad season.

“Maybe that’s the way that they’re looking at it, that she had one or two bad seasons, and now they’ve got to get her out to get somebody else in there to reorganize,” Schremp-Dean said.

But she worries that change will affect students like her daughter, maybe to the point that it would affect her learning.

“She does not handle stress and she does not handle change well,” she said. “I know a lot of kids don’t.”

Goff could not be reached for comment, while she is currently on medical leave. JCPS Chief of Communications Renee Murphy said Pollio is expected to decide by the end of the month how to respond to the state’s recommendation, but did not comment further.

As a parent, Schremp-Dean said she wants more information about that decision. She said she has not received any communication about the review since she received the original letter sent home by Goff.

Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.