GRAYSON There is a reason educators from across Kentucky visit Carter County schools to study the district’s methods and strategies.

They go there because Carter County, which a few years ago was struggling with low academic achievement, is now known as a district of distinction, a designation conferred by the Kentucky Board of Education two years ago when the district rose to the top 5 percent in overall accountability scores.

And now there is another reason for other schools to model their own practices on Carter County’s.

Two of its elementaries received five stars in the state’s new accountability rating system, and three more schools received four stars.

Carter City and Heritage elementaries each got five stars; Olive Hill Elementary, West Carter Middle and West Carter High all got four; the district’s other schools got three stars each.

The ratings are based on 2018-2019 academic performance testing scores and other indicators.

“I wasn’t surprised. For the last several years we have been very high performing. It’s because we do things so differently here. Last year we had over 400 visitors come to see what we do here,” said Superintendent Ronnie Dotson.

If there was any cause for surprise, it might be because of the district’s demographics: Its two main towns, Grayson and Olive Hill, are small — populations 4,000 and 1,600 respectively.

Most of the schools are in rural areas. Heritage is six miles south of Grayson in the unincorporated community of Hitchins. Carter City is 13 miles northeast of Grayson, also in an unincorporated rural community.

Both schools have high proportions of students from low-income families — 66.1 percent at Carter City and 74.3 percent at Heritage. Other schools in the district have similar percentages.

However, both schools showed exceptionally high proficiency rates — 90.5 percent for Carter City and 84.5 percent for Heritage.

“Our high-poverty students perform as well as other students. There’s no big gap at all there,” Carter City principal Jo Ashworth said.

Carter City faculty get students on track early and keep them there with individual attention, she said. “(Success) happens over time. We’re a small school and when we have one or two students who don’t hit the mark, it’s going to bring our scores down quick. So we have to keep up with each student’s needs and address them quickly,” she said.

At Heritage, teachers and instructional assistants spend class time focusing on students rather than secondary duties such as grading papers and setting up bulletin boards, Dotson said. Rather, while teachers are in the classroom they are working directly with children, and so are instructional assistants.

Assistants work with kids in reading sessions, math review and other academic areas, he said. “You can often go into the classroom and not know which is the teacher and which is the aide,” he said.

“We make certain everybody’s primary focus is students, not busy work and clerical tasks,” Heritage principal J.C. Perkins said.

Also essential is focus on each child. “We need commitment to every kid regardless of ability,” he said.

The result has been a pattern of steady improvement for the last four or five years, and a rise from low-ranking to proficiency, he said.

Schools talk a lot about school culture, the blend of beliefs, values and relationships essential to making classroom instruction effective. Heritage and Carter City take it seriously.

“We work on it all the time. We try to do things together to celebrate our successes, Ashworth said. “We’re like a family there. We depend on each other. It starts in pre-kindergarten,” she said.

Each year, sixth-graders who have gone on to one of the two middle schools return to Carter City to be recognized for their contributions to the school’s accountability success. The practice cements their status as part of the Carter City community and motivates younger children to emulate their success, Ashworth said.

Both schools depend on community support and have large contingents of volunteers.

“Community support at our school is huge. We have an active parent-volunteer program. We log 10,000 parent-volunteer hours per year,” Perkins said. Heritage also has a partnership with Kentucky Christian University, whose education students log clinical hours at the school. That provides children even more math drills, reading practice and the like.

Teachers communicate well with parents, said Carter City PTO president Leah Hall. Her own sun was having some difficulties and when his teacher noticed it she contacted Hall for a conference, Hall said. “If it hadn’t been for his teacher reaching out to me I would never have known,” she said.

“The teachers talk to kids all the time about doing good on their test scores and what it can do for them. The push kids to do their best every day,” she said.

The district as a whole conducts meetings of all teachers several times each year to strategize based on proven research, Dotson said.

The schools use uses common assessments, he said. That means if elementaries are studying Native Americans, for instance, they will take the same test at the end of the study unit. The middle and high schools do the same.

It works by putting the best teachers to the task of determining what kids need to know and showing them what kids are learning.

New teachers are more effective because they get immediate and continued guidance on what and how to teach, he said.

For complete accountability data on all schools and districts in Kentucky go to the Kentucky School Report Card website,

(606) 326-2652 |

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