Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

November 14, 2013

No longer failing

Greenup County High has shown rapid improvement

The Independent

ASHLAND — When Greenup County High School was designated as one of the state’s lowest performing schools in 2010, there is no question that it was a black mark not only on the high school but on the entire Greenup County School District.

But GCHS administrators, teachers and members of the Greenup County Board of Education did not respond too the low marks by making excuses. Instead, they immediately took steps to change the status quo.

To say that those efforts have worked would be an understatement. Just three years after Greenup County students scored in the bottom 10 percent on their state-mandated tests, students at the high school ranked at the 71st percentile among Kentucky schools based on the spring 2013 KPREP test, GCHS principal Jason Smith said.

No longer ranked near the bottom, the high school now is solidly in the top third of the state’s high schools on the test. It had to reach at least the 70 percent mark to qualify as proficient.

While there still is room for improvement in the test scores, to go from the 9th percentile to the 71st percentile in less than three years is nothing short of amazing.

It did not happen by accident. Administrators and teachers were embarrassed by the low scores, and for that matter, so were students. Everyone knew students could do much better and they collectively resolved to erase this black mark by doing much better in the classroom. Even students got involved by devising ways to encourage their fellow students to excel in the classroom.

As required by the state Department of Education, the school in 2011 enacted a turnaround plan that included replacing its principal and bringing in educational recovery specialists. It applied for and received a $1 million per year grant to pay for improvement efforts.

Among improvement initiatives were an innovative mathematics program developed by Eastern Kentucky University professor Robert Thomas and an alternative school for students with academic, social, attendance and behavioral problems.

Improvement required more basic changes, Superintendent Steve Hall said. “We had to do some soul-searching and evaluate ourselves in an honest manner without finger-pointing, and take responsibility to make the changes to improve education,” Hall said. “Expectations were raised and the cultural climate improved.”

The negative impact of GCHS’s designation as a failing school was tremendous. The Greenup County School District has struggled financially because so many students who live in the district attend school in other districts. For the families of some of those students going to an out-of-district school had more to do with athletics than academics.

However, there’s little doubt the failing school designation caused many Greenup County students to attend nearby high schools in Raceland and in Russell simply because their students had better test scores. After all, parents who care about the education their children are receiving are not going to send their children to a high school that is failing to do its job if they can afford to send them to a nearby high school with a better record of preparing students for success after graduation.

The low designation also could well have impacted economic development in Greenup County. Employers are not likely to invest in a community that has a high school that has a record for inadequately preparing students. After all companies are looking for employees with the academic skills necessary to do today’s increasingly complex jobs, not students who graduated from a subpar high school.

Learning that it had reached proficiency was cause for celebration at Greenup County High School. Within minutes of finding out, Hall and Smith brought students and staff to the gymnasium for an impromptu assembly. “People are ecstatic. It means a lot for morale,” Hall said.

They have a right to be proud of their accomplishment, but they also must be determined not to rest on the school’s achievements. The school still has work to do, Smith said. It must show improvement in graduation and dropout rates and other annual measurable objectives for three consecutive years to completely exit its recovery status.

“We’re pleased and excited but we’re not going to relax. We’re not going to be satisfied until we can reach the distinguished level,” Smith said.

Right now the high school is just average, but that’s a whole lot better than failing. To reach the “distinguished” level would be like making Greenup County students like the children in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon where all the kids are “above average.” Impossible? Maybe, but it is a goal worth striving to achieve.

We commend all those who are a part of GCHS’s amazing turnaround. They have turned something to be ashamed of into something to brag about.  In our book, winning in the classroom is far more important better than winning in athletics.