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Lonnie Harp

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In a Daviess County elementary classroom outside of Owensboro, students are especially glued to a morning math lesson. What better way for a swarm of preschoolers to understand subtraction than tracking how many cookies remain as a plate empties? 5-3=2 is hitting home.

In the space of a half hour, the group of 11 three- and four-year-olds at Burns Elementary covers important basics: In the math problem, veteran preschool teacher Nikki Knott takes extra time to single out and explain the minus sign and the equal sign in the math equation. The class transitions to a foundational literacy lesson on the letter K. Students discuss and practice the sounds the letter makes in different words.

The teacher shows how lines are combined to create the letter when it is written; and, shortly after, each child pushes bars of construction paper together, then draws K’s themselves. Even that prompts an important reminder — the best way to hold a pencil, pen or marker is grasping it between the thumb and first two fingers. “Alligator pinch!” their teacher reminds them.

The preschool day is an active and playful journey through facts and routine that set a solid foundation for everyday action and knowledge. In this Kentucky community, expanding access and participation in high quality early childhood education will get a big boost in 2022 as an educational and economic development priority.

In January, the Greater Owensboro Partnership for Early Development launched a new plan for building a stronger and more accessible early education system over the next four years. The emphasis has been building steam as a major focus of the Public Life Foundation of Owensboro, which has committed $4 million to the cause. In 2021, the group partnered with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence to identify key issues and build the civic campaign.

“The research is clear — the path to opportunity for all begins with the start we provide to our youngest children,” the Partnership stated in a January report outlining its goals. “Investments in high-quality early childhood education result in higher rates of educational attainment, a reduction in health costs, a reduction in the incidence of crime, less demand for social welfare services, and a more competitive local economy for Greater Owensboro. All in the community stand to gain from this work.”

CHILDREN IN THE EARLY HEAD START program at Audubon Area Head Start on the east side of Owensboro play outside in dress-up vests.

Over the next four years, the Greater Owensboro Partnership report calls for:

  • A community awareness push to intensify support for expanded early learning;
  • A coordinated effort to develop and retain a talented pool of early childhood workers;
  • Expanded child care benefits for employees in local businesses including at small and mid-sized employers;
  • Greater awareness among eligible families of child care subsidies and free preschool;
  • A campaign for private child care providers to earn ratings above three stars on the state’s quality scale;
  • Expanded access to clear waiting lists for Head Start and other programs in the county; and
  • Better availability of school readiness and quality data to encourage continuous improvement.

In the last half of 2021, more than 40 community representatives met to draft the strategy after the Prichard Committee and the University of Kentucky Martin School of Public Policy and Administration pulled together an analysis of the current early childhood ecosystem in Daviess County, showing opportunities for significant improvement.

The research found that almost half of third graders in the county did not reach state reading proficiency targets in 2019, with economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English language learners facing even steeper proficiency gaps. At present, the analysis found, only about 20 percent of nearly 6,800 children under age five in the county had access to early childhood education services. Licensed providers had capacity to serve about 3,800 children, but enrollments lagged that number.

I’m looking forward to the day when we move the needle on kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading. … That means increased availability of quality, affordable childcare for low-income families.

— David Boeyink

COORDINATED RESPONSE TO A PATCHWORK SYSTEM

Reshaping early childhood care, improving quality, and focusing on improved school readiness can be key factors in improving quality of life, adult success, and economic conditions, members of the Greater Owensboro Partnership’s organizing group agreed.

“Ultimately, I’m looking forward to the day when we move the needle on kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading,” said David Boeyink, whose involvement with the Public Life Foundation over the past 25 years helped lead to the creation of the new Partnership. “But that will only happen when we get programs on the ground. That means increased availability of quality, affordable childcare for low-income families.”

Those who work in early childhood programs said that a coordinated, community approach may be the best way to address an area like early childhood that spreads across many agencies, including school districts, specialized programs like Head Start, public and home-based providers. The system also involves employers, social workers, specialized assistance aimed at first-time parents and newborns, churches, and requires attention to services offered before, during, and after typical work hours.

Chris Westerfield, preschool coordinator for the Daviess County Public Schools, said he is eager for more parents and community members to see the kind of preparation happening in schools across the county like Burns Elementary.

“It lays the foundation for everything else we do,” he said. Practicing basic skills and gaining experience with other children and adults is a big advantage for children moving into elementary school years, he said. “I hope the communication piece is going to push more people to see the value.”

Boeyink, a former journalist with the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, said that this community provides fertile ground for deeper work in early childhood improvements. Both local school districts have built strong preschool programs and other groups have eagerly embraced school readiness. Local pediatricians, he said, offer a literacy program that provides free books and information to families on reading and brain development.

“Community collaboration isn’t just talk; it’s a daily reality,” he said. “In the midst of a pandemic, we’ve been working with a large, diverse group of people who come to monthly in-person meetings ready to push this project forward.”

SUPPORTING CHILDREN BOOSTS PARENTS, COMMUNITY

At the Audubon Area Head Start program on the east side of Owensboro, a group of three- and four-year-olds move around a busy classroom offering games, puzzles, and areas where teachers have created stations. This day, students play with ice cubes to discuss how they melt into liquid when children handle them. Nearby, another adult is guiding children through a similar activity with a tall, clear container of water. Children take turns choosing items to drop in the container to see what will float, what will sink, and discuss why.

Outside, a group of younger children in the center’s Early Head Start program, run across a play area, trading dress-up vests made to look like the uniform of a chef, police officer, mail carrier, and more. They stop to tinker at play areas or to chat with their teachers.

Amanda Huff, who has worked with local Head Start efforts over the past 15 years from part-time teacher to local-area manager, said that planners here understand that challenges and opportunities extend beyond stronger early learning benefits for the children enrolled.

She said that the Partnership’s goals will also improve the abilities of parents. In many cases, Huff said, the lack of options for affordable child care keep able and talented young parents out of the workforce. “We are missing out on talent in the community because of what we can’t provide for people,” she said.

In addition, leaders of the Greater Owensboro Partnership have recognized the chance to examine their work and share their experiences.

Bruce Hager, chair of the Public Life Foundation, said the Prichard Committee’s involvement not only strengthens efforts locally but will allow lessons to spread in other Kentucky communities. Part of the Prichard Committee’s role is disseminating best practices.

“We are thrilled to support them in work that will have roots in Owensboro but will expand throughout the state to benefit early learners from Pikeville to Paducah,” Hager said last year in announcing the foundation’s long-term emphasis on quality early childhood programs.

Huff is optimistic about what can happen in Owensboro. Her involvement in developing the Partnership’s four-year plan, plus long experience working with a variety of partners, make her look forward to the wider community response.

“This community always comes through — anytime there is a need, you put it out there someone will pick it up,” Huff said. “Children really are put first here, and that’s huge.”

FOUR-YEAR-OLDS AT AUDUBON AREA HEAD START participate in a group discussion.

TOP PHOTO: PRESCHOOL TEACHER NIKKI KNOTT works with a student at Burns Elementary in Daviess County on recognizing and writing out the letters in his name.

MAY 2022 \\ KNOX COUNTY MIDDLE SCHOOL

Things get heavy in seventh-grade math. Knox County teacher Bethany Miracle explains: From the concrete fundamentals of arithmetic, students begin to tackle unknowns of algebra and principles of geometry and statistics as the subject launches into abstract ideas.

In a two-year middle school where seventh- and eighth-grade students are making transitions to more complicated ideas across several subjects, she said an important key for stronger student learning grew from providing more opportunities to understand classroom concepts and demonstrate mastery.

Miracle said that new opportunities to try again dramatically reduced the number of students falling behind.

“By becoming able to teach in different ways until students got it, we basically eliminated the possibility of failing,” Miracle said. The school worked to remove the stigma for trying again for both students and teachers by emphasizing improved performance. “We showed that we do whatever it takes to get them where they need to be,” she said.

This year — emerging from two school years dominated by pandemic closings, re-openings and modifications — the Knox County district embarked on a plan to significantly increase student learning by adding structure to how it covers and assesses academic standards. Last year, the principal who led the middle school turnaround was named superintendent.

Now, as some Kentucky districts scramble for paths to rebound from COVID learning gaps, Knox County is working to improve delivery of grade-level content and create new ways for students to catch up.

Superintendent Jeremy Ledford, a Knox County native, said that creating multiple chances to grasp academic concepts became an important change in how educators, students, and families defined academic success.

“We like to say that kids are held accountable by grades, but are they really?” he asked. Poor grades can be a sign that a school has bypassed an important opportunity to provide extra help as much as signaling a failure by students. “When you take a new approach with kids who might have fallen through the cracks, it’s amazing what you can move them to accomplish. They will run through a wall if you believe in them.”

GROUPS OF STUDENTS at Jesse D. Lay Elementary in Knox County built and recorded how high they could stack towers of cookies before they collapsed. The resulting set of data was used in math class to calculate concepts like median, mode, average and more.

At Knox County Middle, the more intentional effort to build student proficiency clearly showed in a 2020 report by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky. The analysis, funded by the Prichard Committee, used state school testing data filtered by local demographics to highlight schools that outperformed expected academic results over eight years of results. Of more than 400 middle schools statewide, only 4 emerged as “Bright Spot” schools.

SOURCE: Center for Business and Economic Research report “Kentucky Public Schools as Educational Bright Spots,” 2020.

Knox Middle, a 425-student school where 86 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged,  made the list for reading results, math results, and multi-year achievement. In each category, the school showed statistically significant over-performance by the entire student population (See charts, left.) as well as by students from low-income families and by students with disabilities. The report noted that the overall student population beat expectations by 20 percentage points. The school more than doubled proficiency rates in math from 2011-12 to 2018-19, according to the analysis.

Miracle, a Knox Middle math teacher, said that changes starting in 2015 improved the work of teachers while leading more students to master academic standards.

“I reflected a lot more on my teaching” after the school started re-teaching concepts to students when they couldn’t score better than 70 percent on quizzes or activities to gauge what they had learned. “As a teacher, we were taught strategies for instruction and how to implement them, but we were never really taught what to do if that didn’t work,” Miracle said. “We had been letting students who were already behind fall more behind.”

Teachers said that in addition to restructuring the school day and assessment strategies, they worked to build stronger relationships with students so that re-teaching was not seen as a punishment but a way to deliver something students needed. Similar outreach was used to build parent confidence in the move to a dedicated, 55-minute class period daily.

Students were assigned to the class day-by-day, as needed. What became known as “Panther Time,” named for the school’s mascot, was billed as something every student should expect at some point each year.

By becoming able to teach in different ways until students got it, we basically eliminated the possibility of failing.

— Teacher Bethany Miracle

“We saw it as just as important as a content-area class,” said Superintendent Ledford. “It had to be.” As the strategy took hold, the number in re-teaching classes grew smaller as students and teachers alike realized how to make better use of class time and gain more during the review time, he said. The school also added in-school tutoring time plus after-school tutoring to expand opportunities for students to surpass the 70 percent minimum competency mark.

As Knox Middle continues to refine academic supports, the district this year launched a new effort to adopt common curriculum pacing plans at its seven elementary schools — adding definition to when and for how long academic concepts will be covered. Panels of teachers created the plans for this school year and will revise them over the summer.

Ledford said that the clearer structure should not only set a foundation for meeting academic goals with younger students, but also better serve students who change schools within the district. The framework for covering academic content also aims to help a growing number of teachers pursuing an alternate pathway to certification.

Beyond a detailed plan, the district is providing feedback from regular classroom visits at each school about how standards are covered and met in classrooms.

“We talk about being a system that can take students where they are and move them where they need to be,” said Sheila Terrell, the director of elementary education who previously served as assistant principal at Knox Middle. “At the elementary level, every one of our schools needs to be that — providing teachers that you trust in place where people can say it doesn’t matter what school your child goes to.”

When you take a new approach with kids who might have fallen through the cracks, it’s amazing what you can move them to accomplish.

— Superintendent Jeremy Ledford

Frank Shelton, the district’s communication director, said the focus districtwide promotes intentional teaching and learning, monitoring outcomes, and building buy-in. Underlying all of those goals, he added, has been recognizing the strengths and needs of students and maintaining solid connections with families. “We want to know the background story behind our students and see beyond test scores — what matters to that actual student,” Shelton said.

“Being able to feel that sense of family,” he added, is essential to creating a culture where failure is not an option and success is the norm. “The student feels more supported and more likely to seek help and generally perform better knowing that they are in a safe learning environment that allows for overcoming initial mistakes.”

“I feel like we’re on the right track,” noted Tiffany Loveless, a Knox County native and 17-year teacher at Jesse D. Lay Elementary in Barbourville. “There’s a lot of people on board.”

Loveless said that the district’s improvement efforts are taking hold as the educators are grappling with major COVID upheaval, but the changes have brought systems and direction that make sense to teachers.

“I don’t feel like they’ve put anything on my plate that’s pointless,” Loveless said. “It’s very structured, and that’s what we like.”

She was part of the team that drafted the fifth grade curriculum pacing guide and explained that the process has opened new lines of communications among teachers in the county and inside schools. As the school year reached its end, she said that the return to normalcy as COVID subsided and ambitious steps by the district to boost teaching and learning feel “refreshing.”

“What’s happening here really does have what is in the best interest of kids at its heart, and that’s what we need,” said Loveless. “Teacher’s voices are heard and the communication is there. That’s what we need. People like to see that kind of change big time.”

STUDENTS AT JESSE D. LAY ELEMENTARY discuss their calculations from a data set during a sixth-grade math lesson.

TOP PHOTO: STUDENTS IN AN ENGLISH CLASS at Knox County Middle School discuss facts about invasive fish as part of a persuasive writing assignment. Teacher Shelley Jenkins answers questions from a group of students.

[wyde_heading style=”2″ title=”Spanish-Language Parent Institute Makes Deeper Connections” subheading=”November 17, 2021″]

By Lonnie Harp

For three years, Ana Reid, who grew up in Honduras, had tried to catch on to routines at the schools her children attend in Kenton County. Fluent only in Spanish, she strived to understand school procedures, events and expectations. Despite consistent effort, she said, she always felt far behind.

This year provided a turning point. Focused training about the structure of Kentucky’s education system and the basics of her local school system created a firm handle on how she can be involved with her children’s education — and elevated possibilities she sees in her own life. Education for families in northern Kentucky began when Learning Grove implemented the National Center for Families Learning’s Family Literacy Model. Families received instruction in engaging in their child’s learning and a parent education component focused on English language classes. The need for understanding how the local and state education system works came from conversations during this parent education time.

“The relationship before was very disconnected about how to do things. I had no idea who could help,” Reid said, describing her link to her children’s education.

Over the past year, Reid joined a pilot group of Spanish-speaking parents in a first-ever bilingual adaptation of the Prichard Committee’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership. Over more than two decades, the program has provided comprehensive free training for parents across the state to build understanding of fundamentals of Kentucky’s education system — from state testing and academic standards to improvement planning and school decision making.

The 2021 institute selected a group of parents whose children are identified as English Language Learners. Reid said that the immersive experience, held in the winter and spring, delivered a huge step forward.

“Things that I felt were impossible for me, now they are part of my life and my lifestyle,” Reid said in an interview. “Knowledge is power. Your learning experience gives you the power to take action, and it defines your opportunities as a mom and a part of your immediate community.”

PARENTS IN NORTHERN KENTUCKY work together during a session of the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership. In 2021, the institute was tailored for Spanish-language speakers for the first time.

Reid was among 12 parents to complete the pilot class and officially become CIPL Fellows. This fall, she stayed involved, helping with a Parent Camp for other family members eager to learn more about schools. She is assisting a new cohort at 2022 Commonwealth Institute sessions aimed at Spanish-speaking parents.

Organizers said the Spanish-language CIPL made a strong impact on the participants and provided a unique opportunity to see the power of the program’s approach.

“It opened my eyes to all of the challenges that parents face,” said Laura Beard, senior coordinator for family engagement at the Prichard who helps lead CIPL. “A language barrier adds big challenges understanding schools’ routines and how learning issues are addressed, from drop-off procedures to requirements attached to specialized programs.”

Families from the 2021 ELL CIPL class focused their group project on clarifying background check policies at the state and local levels. Families met with Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass to discuss the barriers associated with obtaining a background check. KDE released a guidance document in response to families’ questions.

Adriana Ortiz, who attended school in Mexico, said that her four children, ages 11 to 18, are doing well in school in Boone County.

“They are learning more of the language every day and adapting to their environment,” she said through an interpreter. Still, CIPL gave her information and confidence to understand how she can help more and work more closely with teachers and school leaders.

“I’d like to support my children more,” Ortiz added. “I needed to get closer to the schools and learn more about how the system is. … I want to be involved in anything they allow me to that has to do with schools.”

CIPL FELLOWS HAVE BEEN ACTIVE IN PARENT CIRCLES. Ana Reid of Kenton County, far left above, and Adriana Ortiz of Boone County, far right, were speakers at the Ignite Institute at the Hispanic Parent Leadership Conference of Northern Kentucky in September. Photo courtesy of Learning Grove

Kathy Burkhardt, a former Northern Kentucky superintendent who observed this year’s CIPL session for parents of ELL students, said that while every district tries to work with families where language barriers exist, the comprehensive approach of the Commonwealth Institute went beyond a typical orientation session. She said that working with ELL families often reveals strong parent interest in schools. Building deep partnerships, however, can be a challenge.

“The best way for us to figure out what’s needed is to listen to our parents and our families, and we have lots of families who really want to help in positive ways in their children’s education,” said Burkhardt, who now works with Learning Grove, a Covington-based group involved in family engagement work and one partner in the CIPL ELL program.

Making families aware of who they can contact to ask questions is important. Burkhardt said that many parents from other cultures or who don’t speak English can be reluctant to seek help. “Sometimes they don’t ask questions out of fear of being disrespectful in some way,” she noted.

Reid of Kenton County, whose four children range from ages 2 to 9, said that all of the information that the Institute provided made a big difference for the parents involved.

“It is an inevitable growth,” Reid said. “It made me want to learn the language more and get more involved in English classes and get a degree for my growth and to help my children.”

She said that extra outreach from schools and education organizations, combined with interested parents, can help more students succeed in school and beyond.

“Both parties need to do their part for it to be successful,” she said. “First, the parents need to recognize the needs of their children, get involved, and leave excuses behind. Second, we need to take advantage of all the tools that are given to us through programs” that help families navigate schools and education systems.

The 2022 CIPL program for ELL parents in Boone County was launched on Nov. 17. In addition, a separate English-language CIPL cohort recently began with participants from Rowan, Jefferson, Madison, Oldham, Laurel, Gallatin, Fayette, Franklin, and Floyd counties. Both sessions will continue through spring 2022.

CIPL is sponsored by St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Toyota, the LG&E and KU Foundation, the R.C. Durr Foundation, Inc., and the Charles and Ruth Seligman Family Foundation.

TOP PHOTO: Jason Glass, the Kentucky education commissioner, spoke with members of a Spanish-language Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership held earlier this year.

[wyde_heading style=”2″ title=”Daviess Uses 2020 Teacher Letter to Design Professional Learning” subheading=”September 13, 2021″ heading_color=”#006699″]

By Lonnie Harp

The day before school began at College View Middle School south of Owensboro, everything was in order in Mike Riggs’ classroom. The work that remained was an important new facet of his teaching goals — finishing calls to the families of every student in his first class of the day. He takes time to introduce himself and learn about his soon-to-be students.

Riggs said the hours spent on calls make him feel more prepared to connect with the class.

“It’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it,” Riggs said on the cusp of his fifth year teaching. “Parents have shared with me how their kids learn best, which is useful. They’ve talked about their kids’ feelings about social studies — I know what they love to learn and that some are not big fans of history. It’s going to help me, because like I’ve told their parents, part of my goal is to make them like social studies and enjoy history.”

Through the calls, families learned that Riggs wants them involved. He shared his cell number and pledged quick replies. He is eager to see if the pro-active connection to families and new opening activities asking students to identify learning strengths and personal interests will spark a more productive environment.

Riggs’ experiment in forging a stronger connection with students and their families is among dozens of classroom-level improvement projects underway this fall in the Daviess County district. In February, the district introduced a set of professional learning collaboratives — local training sessions for teachers at all grade levels — built to connect and empower more than 100 educators with a self-defined learning plan to improve daily experiences for students.

“Our goal was to get down to the classroom level with this work,” said Jana Beth Francis, the Daviess assistant superintendent. The sessions combined individual and group work organized by district staff. Topics grew from a statewide call by teachers for school districts to put more of their peers in a position to design school improvements. Daviess County focused on developing family partnerships, quality teaching and learning, and culturally responsive teaching.

Francis said that the 2020 Letter from Kentucky Teachers — published in December by the Prichard Committee — made sense. The group of Prichard Committee Fellows was made up of 27 educators from 23 school districts across the state. Francis said the Daviess district has worked to build teacher leadership, and the letter from the Fellows inspired training built to inform and support teacher-led solutions.

MIKE RIGGS, A TEACHER at College View Middle School chose professional learning about building family engagement to create a strategy for better connecting with students and parents in his first-block history class.

At Daviess County High School, English teacher Alicia Wilson said the collaborative led to new strategies she will incorporate this year to build greater engagement among her 9th and 10th-grade students. That involved evaluating the kinds of questions that drive students’ work in class, the types of feedback used to shape assignments, and what steps can give classrooms the feel of a learning community.

“We’ve talked about steps that can lead to students asking deeper questions and not being passive in their learning,” said Wilson, starting her second year at Daviess County. “That will mean more active time working together, more discussion, and hands-on learning.”

The young teacher said she sees the new approaches as a way to tap the flexible, passionate energy she sees in teen students. She hopes to connect student energy with the discoveries possible from books and other reading material.

Teachers who participated in the professional learning collaboratives said the takeaways were identifying small changes to teaching practices that can reach more students or boost learning dynamics.

Celeste Lawson, a veteran teacher at Tamarack Elementary, said she recognized that allowing more “wait time” — pauses between when she poses a question in class or opens topics for discussion — can encourage more students to think and formulate responses and be ready to participate.

“As you are waiting, more hands go up and you can notice students more engaged in thinking,” said Lawson, who has come up with her own techniques she will use this fall to make sure students percolate on questions for at least five seconds before starting conversation.

“The goal is better, deeper answers,” Lawson said. “It’s not a big thing and involves no prep time but there are a lot of good things that can come from remembering to wait. It can build reflection, feedback and good discourse.”

Mike Riggs at College View Middle plans to use this school year to analyze how additional outreach to parents and students in his first block class affects outcomes. If the results produce the expected benefits, he said can imagine incorporating strategies that work for all of his students next year and begin sharing ideas to colleagues.

“It seems like a good approach to make sure I know the kids and am pulling in parents. There’s time for that before we jump into Jamestown and Plymouth,” he said.

ALICIA WILSON OF Daviess County High School, focused on instructional techniques for engaging more students during classwork as part of the district’s professional learning collaboratives in the spring and summer. Photo courtesy of Daviess County School District

Teachers involved in the Prichard Committee group that met last year said that 2020’s shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic and discussions about violence caused by racial profiling led many teachers to think deeply about the role they play and the opportunities that schooling provides.

“As a result of this stretching, we have grown,” the teachers stated in the letter they produced. “We have emerged as better teachers and stronger leaders.”

“Public school teachers have always needed the trust and support of their personal and professional communities to create engaging, high-quality learning experiences that align with student needs, interests, and aspirations, let alone during a time of constant change and unforeseen challenges around the corner,” said Brad Clark, who convened the group for the Prichard Committee in September 2020.

Gabi Martinez, who leads migrant education programs in Daviess County, said that the collaboratives there picked up on the connection between classroom success, family involvement, and cultural awareness.

“People in schools want to know more. The conversations about engaging families and being culturally responsive were eye openers for teachers,” said Martinez, who added that the self-study and group discussions of the collaboratives were a good atmosphere for building teacher-led projects.

Martinez expects noticeable change and improvement across the district on classroom and family involvement. “The more inviting you are, the more you’ll get from people,” she said.

The teacher leaders’ group closed by noting that its call for teachers to work together to develop higher quality learning experiences and a school climate that encourages all students needs support from the ranks of educators and the wider school community.

“We ask for your encouragement to continue learning, and the space and grace to test new approaches and ideas,” the December letter noted. “With your help, we can obtain sufficient resources, and pursue a learner-centered mission and vision in every public school in Kentucky.”

Francis said the Daviess sessions were a hit. “We designed the collaboratives as experiences of learning together, which was a style that teachers liked,” she said. “We planted a seed and they were ready to dig deeper.”

TOP PHOTO: Teachers gathered for a High Quality Curriculum training session during the summer break. The session was held at Deer Park Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Daviess County School District

APRIL 2021 \\ VOICES FROM KENTUCKY HIGH SCHOOLS

Glimmers of a return to normal school operations after a year of remote learning are bringing relief across the state. A wave of vaccines offer an end of difficult days. For high school seniors, however, the welcome landscape of progress in the battle with the coronavirus pandemic does not diminish their new mindset of bracing for change and adaptation.

Over the past year, the Class of 2021 experienced stinging sacrifices, potentially life-changing insights and a range of hardships and new options they describe as certain to shape their entry into the adult world.

As spring arrived, five-day-a-week learning returned at places like Russellville High School. Senior Chaun Cheaney will complete his online school work completely from home. Track team practice and events offer a final reconnection with school norms. Navigating the future, he said, will continue to be a challenge.

“I feel that education will become more and more digital as time passes, and remote learning has taught students how to navigate online classes for future academic situations. On the other hand, from my perspective, it is harder to learn online than in person, so I had a hard time obtaining and retaining information this school year,” Cheaney explained. “I plan to go to college after high school, and I feel like I could have learned a lot more if we were in person. If college goes back to normal in the fall, I believe I’ll have to catch up.”

Ben Bruni, the Russellville High principal, said that this year’s high school seniors endured a jolting transition to an unpredictable world.

“We are going to see a very unique student come out of all this — adept and malleable when it comes to handling adversity; adaptable to systems,” he said. This year’s seniors have also experienced social struggles with isolation and facing a major life transition without many of the usual supports.

“They know that in life, we have to face realities of hard truths,” Bruni said.

Russellville High was one of 15 high schools across Kentucky identified last year in research by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky for producing student outcomes that exceeded expectations based on the school’s demographics. In math, reading, and composite scores, Russellville High, a school of 300, stood out for scores on the ACT college-entrance exam.

RUSSELLVILLE HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR CHAUN CHEANEY is back working with the track team after last season was cancelled. He looks forward to an in-person college experience after a year of remote learning and a largely online college search.

Principals at other Kentucky high schools identified as “public school bright spots” agreed that the pandemic has constrained resources at a critical time for many students and families.

Sandy Holbrook, the principal at Elliott County High School — noted for its in-state college-going rate in the UK research — said that the lack of in-person meetings and college visits and reduced social interactions have been a big challenge for seniors.

“We have used social media, automated calling, virtual platforms with Google Classroom and Google Meets to prepare our students for future endeavors,” she said. Those efforts had to replace in-person meetings to discuss future college plans, the application process and scholarships at the 300-student school.

For seniors like those in Elliott County who have applied and been accepted to colleges and universities and already notified about athletic and academic scholarships, it was not just high school supports that changed. At many colleges, access to admissions offices and information was hard to find and answering questions took persistence and navigation skills.

Atherton High School in Louisville — recognized in the UK report for its ACT results — usually connects its students with college recruiters visiting the city. This school year, face-to-face visits were replaced by video conferences. For many students, those sessions came after a day of online classes for school, said Thomas Aberli, principal of the 1,400-student school.

DECLINES IN COLLEGE ENROLLMENT RAISE CONCERNS

Statewide, concerns have mounted about the toll of the pandemic on students’ plans beyond high school. In February, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education reported a significant drop in college enrollment, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. The trend calls for attention from leaders in the postsecondary and K-12 system to avoid declines in economic and education outcomes, CPE said.

Fall undergraduate enrollment at four-year public universities slipped 2 percent between 2019 and 2020, reflecting a 7.3 percent decline from 2015. The one-year drop in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System was over 10 percent. Prior to the pandemic, the in-state college-going rate among new high school graduates had fallen from 54 percent in 2015 to 50.5 percent in 2019.

“Our progress as a state depends greatly on our success and recovery at the campus level,” said CPE President Aaron Thompson in response to a resolution calling for action that the council adopted at its February meeting.

We are going to see a very unique student come out of all this — adept and malleable when it comes to handling adversity; adaptable to systems.

— Russellville High Principal Ben Bruni

The pandemic disrupted college enrollments in almost every state. Total fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment, including all sectors, dropped 4.4 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Kentucky officials said it was too early to know the state’s trend in college admissions applications for fall 2021.

School leaders have worked to pull together assistance for students.

Aberli, the Atherton principal, said that proactive, creative counselors offered help on student-aid forms and admissions issues, but the pandemic shook up the school year in many ways, with seniors experiencing the biggest upheaval. He said more students took on jobs, with work time taking up a larger percentage of students’ days that usual. More juniors planned for early graduation. Many more Class of 2021 seniors sought to use the option for a December graduation.

Aberli said that while the number of seniors struggling academically has increased, about 90 percent are on track to continue the postsecondary path they had envisioned before the pandemic. “But they are experiencing it in a different way,” he said.

“I had to become more self-reliant on projects and have gotten better at conducting more research as well,” said Ajsia Redden, an Atherton senior interested in a career in graphic design. Extra time to consider future options during the pandemic pushed her to explore a wider range of schools, leading her to choose a college in Indiana. “There was a sudden urge to branch out,” she said.

Remote learning has created challenges when it comes to managing mental health, she said.

“Covid regulations heavily restricted the socialization I had with not only my friends but my family as well,” Redden said. “It saddens me to know that I will never have the proper senior experience other people wish they could go back to.”

Redden moved frequently in her elementary and middle school years. The landmarks capping four years of high school were something she had highly anticipated. “I am proud to say that for the first time ever I had spent four years within the same school and had made so many great memories here,” Redden said.

I had to become more self-reliant on projects and have gotten better at conducting more research.

— Atherton High senior Ajsia Redden

George Sackie, another Atherton senior, said that remote learning led him to evaluate what he wants to get out of his education experience.

“It’s actually increased my desire to be in a classroom,” said Sackie, an aspiring computer science major. “I think the social climate created by a school setting helps to foster growth as an individual. With college on the horizon, face-to-face encounters seem even more important.”

Sackie said that he spent extra time puzzling over college options and applied to more places than he had imagined. He is still awaiting options and a final decision.

Sackie sees some positive outcomes from the trying circumstances. “I think the pandemic has improved my chances of success in future endeavors. It has taught me to be versatile and adapt to unfamiliar realities. The ability to network, especially in a virtual setting, is a skill I would’ve otherwise not gained had it not been for the pandemic.”

Restrictions in 2020 dashed his senior wrestling season, which Sackie expected to be his most successful. This year, wrestling resumed while the virus was still spreading. Sackie decided conditions were not safe enough to return and sat out. Service projects and volunteering that he had expected for his senior year were also impossible.

In class, he continued Atherton’s Advanced Placement Computer Science course online. That work, Sackie said, “has truly confirmed my love for the field.”

AS LIMITATIONS EASE, NEW FRONTIERS AWAIT

Russellville Principal Bruni said that students, teachers, and families have responded positively to school leaders’ efforts to promote positive momentum and create opportunities despite formidable limits.

Bruni said that the past year has required educators to develop new sensitivities to students’ and parents’ needs for help and communication. Technology — and students’ ability to utilize it — has been a major force in making sure that plans and programs moved forward amid restrictions.

“Students are incredibly flexible,” Bruni said. “This generation’s ability with social media and technology makes them so knowledgeable and ahead of the curve.”

Karlee Elrod, a senior at Russellville, said she sees online learning in a new light.

“This past year of remote learning has altered the way I defined a classroom,” she said. “Before the pandemic, I wouldn’t have ever considered taking more online classes after the dual enrollment one I completed during high school. However, after mostly adjusting to online learning, I can see it being a valid option for some courses.”

RUSSELLVILLE HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR KARLEE ELROD said that while learning remotely was a challenge, it also built new strengths as a student that will help in college.

The pandemic cost Elrod her senior season in marching band. It dashed the school musical and dramatically cut short the 2020 Governor’s Scholars Program she was selected to attend. It complicated her college exploration, but she is optimistic about the future.

“My family and I took the pandemic very seriously, and we still wound up getting the coronavirus in December. On top of being frustrated by being stuck at home, it was difficult for us to sit down and have a conversation about the next steps in my path because of all the uncertainty surrounding us,” Elrod said.

“I did feel like it was a lot harder to learn outside of the classroom, and I struggled to reach out for help with what I didn’t know. At home, it is easy to get distracted. I would say that despite all of the things the pandemic caused me to miss out on, I am now a more adaptable person. I hope this will be a useful skill as I move forward.”

Many students said they have worked to remain upbeat.

“Staying positive is honestly the only way for me,” added Katresha Hickman, a senior at Atherton in Louisville. In addition to online school challenges, she missed out on practice and performance with the high school step team, which had been a favorite activity.

“I’ve learned to stay open minded in certain situations dealing with school and without,” said Hickman, who plans to focus on biology in college. “I mean, I’m doing all of this work in my comfort zone and it’s actually quite hard to do when you do your own thing at home. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I don’t think my mind would have opened to many options and opportunities that it’s had.”

Chaun Cheaney of Russellville said seniors recognize the pandemic and remote learning as a defining experience. The circumstances have not only shaped his learning but his plans beyond high school.

“Before the shutdown, I didn’t really have a clear direction on what I wanted to do after high school. Although the shutdown didn’t necessarily change any of my plans, it did inspire me to become a healthcare professional after seeing all the help that was needed during the peak of the pandemic,” Cheaney said. “Being at home during the shutdown, the seniors at my high school didn’t have a lot of guidance in regard to applying for colleges and scholarships, so in that sense we had to figure things out on our own.”

The experience led to a new view of learning. “Since the pandemic has negatively affected my friends mentally in different ways, I noticed that it has become difficult for all of us to find the motivation to complete school work,” he said. “A lot of us need an academic environment and socialization to stay motivated and focused.”

A member of the track team since seventh grade, Cheaney hated seeing his junior track season cancelled last spring. “I feel like I lost a lot of valuable and unforgettable experiences that I unfortunately won’t be able to get back,” he said.

This year, he opted not to play basketball after he an his family decided it wasn’t worth the risk during the pandemic.

Cheaney, like thousands of other Kentucky seniors facing decisions about options beyond high school, feels well versed in the job of navigating a new frontier. He said he knows there will be ground to make up, but he can also use a year’s worth of experience to get through adversity.

There’s no one answer to what the past year will mean, he said. “Remote learning will make it easier and harder at the same time.”

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TOP PHOTO: RUSSELLVILLE HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER TANYA MULLEN works with students during a dual-credit biology class in March.

MARCH 2021 \\ KENTUCKY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL VOICES

On the anniversary of the coronavirus abruptly upending in-person learning across Kentucky, leaders at some elementary schools making the strongest progress in creating student proficiency see a new landscape ahead as vaccines offer promise for a return to normalcy.

Principals said it will take significant time and concentrated interventions to help many students catch up once five-day-a-week, in-person school resumes. They foresee that pandemic-mode education will also promote new productivity from technology advances; an increased emphasis on student and family engagement; extra options for learning and connection beyond traditional school days and hours, and a deeper appreciation for the power of collaborative work.

“Schools will never look the same, now or when we return; and that’s not a bad thing,” said Jill Handley, principal of Kenwood Elementary in Louisville. Hybrid in-person learning resumed for the first time in mid-March for elementary students in the state’s largest school district and is scheduled to begin the first week of April for middle and high school students.

Handley said that at her school, the year of remote learning has led to fundamental re-examination of schools’ connections with families, the importance of student engagement, teaching and learning fundamentals, support for teachers, and more. “We have much stronger relationships with families — we’ve been in their living rooms and they’ve been in teachers’ kitchens — which has helped us uncover needs we never knew and go beyond superficial connections.”

Between the scramble to maintain links between schools and students that dominated the final weeks of last school year and the long planning for multiple scenarios in the current school year, Kenwood created a “family liaison teacher” position to support families and bridge the home-school connection. Continuing to navigate barriers to learning will be a long-term priority once normal routines can return and the school seeks to rebuild a stronger learning environment, Handley said.

Kenwood has a track record for producing better-than-expected results. A study released late last year by the The Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky and the Prichard Committee identified 47 such schools after examining eight years of recent academic results to find schools where outcomes significantly outpaced expected levels based on demographic factors. Math results got Kenwood on the list.

At Glenn O. Swing Elementary in Covington, where three years of reading scores put it on the list, principal Sherry Lindberg said that connections with families and the community will be a greater asset after the pandemic, as will teachers’ new skills. “Our teachers have been phenomenal — and they’ve had to learn an entirely new way to teach.”

A FOURTH GRADER AT GLENN O. SWING ELEMENTARY in Covington listens during teacher Karissa Storey’s reading class.

The school had focused heavily on daily reading and writing work. (Read our 2018 Bright Spots profile.) The pandemic required a quick pivot to equipping students and families with technology that would allow learning to continue. Ensuring connections required months of work by the school, district, and city. That process also required teachers to change their approach and build new skills.

“This is the hardest work we’ve ever done,” Lindberg said.

At Hampton Elementary in Barbourville, principal Brian Frederick said that the mindset of “take the positives and roll,” has been a common theme for educators since the crisis disrupted schools last year. “When it comes to continuing to teach the academic standards, being responsive and being flexible, I have to say that my teachers are going to score off the charts,” he said. Hampton Elementary was recognized by the UK report because of reading achievement.

Keeping students and families connected has been a huge challenge in rural areas like Knox County. Only two of Hampton’s 300 students are now unable to connect to the Internet from home because of their remote location, and the school has made arrangements to deliver video lessons and regularly pick up work from those families. Hampton returned to five-day-a-week instruction on March 8 after weeks on a hybrid calendar, which provided two days of in-school classes and online sessions the rest of the week.

Looking toward a return to normal routines, Frederick agreed that schools will be poised to offer new ways for students and families to be connected to learning. Improved technology will drive improvements, he said. “The mindset now is that there’s more to a regular school day than just 8 to 3,” he said. “For some, the best time might be 7 at night.”

STRATEGIZING TO FILL GAPS

Beyond offering classes for students, Hampton teachers have continually met to go over student data and participation logs. Follow-ups and home visits helped to maintain involvement and progress, and the school continued to mail grades to spark a home focus on progress. Sessions for families at the school explained ways to monitor student progress and understand how online classrooms work.

After the pandemic forced students and educators home last March, students were able to return for a part-time, hybrid classes at the school in October, but that was cut short as coronavirus cases escalated in the fall. The part-time classes resumed this spring followed by the current plan for everyday sessions.

Frederick said he hopes that summer sessions, weekend classes, and other alternatives can help students catch-up as needed. He said that the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, first passed by Congress last spring as part of the CARES Act stimulus program then added to a follow-up December stimulus appropriation has helped schools cope on many fronts. Kentucky received $193 million in the first round and then $928 million more, with 90 percent flowing to school districts.

Everyone else is going to be in the same shape we are — there are going to be deficits and we will have to find ways to get back on track.

— Hampton Elementary Principal Brian Frederick 

At Hampton, the funds, along with local partnership with Internet providers, assured computers and online access for the 300 students at the P-6 school. “Technology really changed things,” Frederick said, adding that it should provide extra punch for interventions the school will put in place when regular routines are permanent and work can more fully turn to addressing areas where students are behind. “Everyone else is going to be in the same shape we are — there are going to be deficits and we will have to find ways to get back on track.”

Frederick hopes that catch-up can largely be accomplished in one academic year. He said that interventions tailored to students’ needs helped Hampton succeed in the years before the virus and will be a priority moving forward. “For those willing to work with us, we can fill in most of the gaps,” he said.

MEETING SPECIALIZED NEEDS

In Covington, Lindberg said that while the district has made connections that allowed learning to continue, it has been difficult to deliver the supports and attention designed to help students overcome extra barriers. As Glenn O. Swing returns to in-person learning and close attention to individual progress for all students, it will especially focus on English language learners and special needs students.

More than 87 percent of Swing Elementary’s K-5 students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch based on family income. In the state’s most recent data, 79 of 450 students were English learners.

During remote learning, the school scheduled small group sessions for students needing or wanting extra help. Private “Google Meets” allowed teachers to provide individual help where needs were identified and connections could be made.

“We see patterns in English language learners hit hard by this,” Lindberg said, noting that translation help has been an issue for some language students. In a similar way, limited access to aides who offer accommodations or specialized help to special needs students are harder to provide outside of a regular classroom. Child care has also been a complicating issue for many families.

As on-site school resumes, Swing will push to identify individual learning needs and provide “every support imaginable to get them there,” Lindberg said. During recent hybrid sessions, a combination of student teachers, aides, and school staff have worked closely with students to answer questions and assist with class activities.

We see an opportunity to really rethink and re-imagine what school could be like to better engage kids and remove barriers to create more equal access to curriculum.

— Kenwood Elementary Principal Jill Handley

“Many of the things we had in place before — strong core reading instruction, a system of interventions, as well as social and emotional supports — will catch us up,” Lindberg said. “It’s not magically going to be fixed, but we are positive.”

Covington worked throughout 2020 to provide devices and connections for students. When the pandemic hit, nearly 60 percent of families lacked regular Internet access. The city government moved quickly to budget $2.5 million from federal pandemic aid to expand internet access across Covington and initiate partnerships to provide 1,900 free computers to families with young children.

The Covington Connect program involved the school district, local housing authority, Cincinnati Bell, and a Texas charity assuring free connections to reach 80 percent of students and families as well as the free computers. With additional hotspots, Lindberg said that all students had consistent connections by December.

“We believe Internet access is as much of an infrastructure issue as water and sewer,” said Covington Mayor Joe Meyer. “We’ve helped the schools and students, but we’ve also helped the broader community.”

EXPLORING NEW WAYS TO ENGAGE

The challenges of the past year have led many educators to explore new ways to reach students and families.

Educators at Kenwood Elementary in Louisville’s South End find themselves discussing major changes based on their pandemic experiences. The past year has involved absorbing shock of the school’s sudden closing, working to equip and reach students at the end of last school year, planning for a new remote reality, dealing with online fatigue and frustrations, and an array of adjustments.

New approaches have raised fundamental questions about supporting teachers, addressing student needs and interests, and helping families cope, she said. Now, the school — where 85 percent of the school’s 600 students come from families with incomes that qualify for free- or reduced-price meals and 45 percent of K-5 pupils are English learners — is discussing major changes beyond the pandemic.

Steady attention to an “engagement percentage” tracking how many students are actively involved in remote learning and efforts to move closer to full engagement sparked greater attention on personalizing learning in the future. Deeper relationships with families will become a priority, as will expanded use of technology.

Handley, in her 14th year as a principal, said that while educators are aware of public concerns about the consequences of students falling behind during the pandemic, moving students forward requires seeing progress as an urgent and positive challenge. “Looking at it through a deficit lens gets very daunting,” she said. In that vein, connections and efforts of recent months can be a springboard. “We recognize that we have been able to personalize more. Many kids have gone deeper in areas than they would have. We have kindergarten students who can log onto a remote classroom by themselves. Young digital natives have gained skills and resilience and relationships with us that will help when we are back together.”

“We see an opportunity to really rethink and re-imagine what school could be like to better engage kids and remove barriers to create more equal access to curriculum,” the principal said. The current toward resuming in-person learning is overlapping with budget planning for next school year. Within that frame, a committee of Kenwood teachers and leaders is discussing plans for changes that could stretch years after regular school schedules resume.

“When it comes to family and community engagement, we are all on the same page,” Handley said. “We miss our kids so much, and while we can do this virtually, it’s not the same, but we can’t dwell on that. We’ve looked for the opportunities to move forward.”

WILLIAM PINER, A MEMBER OF THE FIFTH GRADE INSTRUCTIONAL TEAM at Glenn O. Swing Elementary in Covington, works with students. A student in the same class is pictured at the top of this story. 

The City of Covington worked throughout 2020 to provide devices and connections for students in the Covington Independent School District. When the pandemic hit, nearly 60 percent of families lacked regular internet access. The city government moved quickly to budget $2.5 million from federal pandemic aid to expand internet access across Covington and initiate partnerships to provide 1,900 free computers to families with young children.

“We believe Internet access is as much of an infrastructure issue as water and sewer,” said Covington Mayor Joe Meyer. “We’ve helped the schools and students, but we’ve also helped the broader community.”

The Covington Connect program involved the school district, local housing authority, Cincinnati Bell, and a Texas charity assuring free connections to reach 80 percent of students and families as well as the free computers. With additional hotspots, Glenn O. Swing Elementary Principal Sherry Lindberg said that all students had computers and consistent connections by December.

Lindberg said that these online connections with families and the community will be a greater asset after the pandemic, as will teachers’ new technology skills.

“Our teachers have been phenomenal — and they’ve had to learn an entirely new way to teach,” she said. “This is the hardest work we’ve ever done.”

The challenges of the past year have led many educators to explore new ways to reach students and families.

Educators at Kenwood Elementary in Louisville’s South End find themselves discussing major changes based on their pandemic experiences. The past year has involved absorbing shock of the school’s sudden closing, working to equip and reach students at the end of last school year, planning for a new remote reality, dealing with online fatigue and frustrations, and an array of adjustments.

New approaches have raised fundamental questions about supporting teachers, addressing student needs and interests, and helping families cope, she said. Now, the school — where 85 percent of the school’s 600 students come from families with incomes that qualify for free- or reduced-price meals and 45 percent of K-5 pupils are English learners — is discussing major changes beyond the pandemic.

Steady attention to an “engagement percentage” tracking how many students are actively involved in remote learning and efforts to move closer to full engagement sparked greater attention on personalizing learning in the future. Deeper relationships with families will become a priority, as will expanded use of technology.

Handley, in her 14th year as a principal, said that while educators are aware of public concerns about the consequences of students falling behind during the pandemic, moving students forward requires seeing progress as an urgent and positive challenge.

“Looking at it through a deficit lens gets very daunting,” she said. In that vein, connections and efforts of recent months can be a springboard. “We recognize that we have been able to personalize more. Many kids have gone deeper in areas than they would have. We have kindergarten students who can log onto a remote classroom by themselves. Young digital natives have gained skills and resilience and relationships with us that will help when we are back together.”

“We see an opportunity to really rethink and re-imagine what school could be like to better engage kids and remove barriers to create more equal access to curriculum,” the principal said. The current toward resuming in-person learning is overlapping with budget planning for next school year. Within that frame, a committee of Kenwood teachers and leaders is discussing plans for changes that could stretch years after regular school schedules resume.

“When it comes to family and community engagement, we are all on the same page,” Handley said. “We miss our kids so much, and while we can do this virtually, it’s not the same, but we can’t dwell on that. We’ve looked for the opportunities to move forward.”

NOVEMBER 2020 \\ CERTIFIED FAMILY CHILD CARE

For Kelsey Lee of Morgantown, locking in quality child care was such a priority that she put her name on a top local provider’s waiting list while she was pregnant. More than five years later, she said that decision has helped her son be more than ready to thrive in kindergarten next year and in the school years ahead.

“He knows how to write his first and last name, and he can recognize every letter,” Lee said of her son, Walker. “He knows what letter everybody’s name in the family starts with — I can put down a letter and he knows who it goes with.”

Kelsey credits certified child care provider Lisa Lee (no relation to Kelsey) with instilling basic academic skills, interesting conversation, and strong social habits for the six children who buzz around the center created in Lee’s converted basement and sprawling backyard.

Kentucky officials are working to expand the ranks of providers like Lisa Lee, who opted for extra training to boost the learning experiences she can provide youngsters she cares for in her home. Across Kentucky, the need to increase access to quality child care is deep.

The state’s goal is to increase the ranks of certified family child care providers — adults who care for 10 or fewer children in a home setting — to assure child safety, build students’ school readiness, and raise the professionalism of providers to see themselves as accomplished small business owners.

State officials and early care advocates are promoting the benefits of becoming certified among small-scale child care providers currently operating outside of state regulations. They also aim to make more families and parents aware of the benefits of seeking providers certified or licensed by the state.

“Because of limited awareness of what certified family child care is, these providers are a hidden gem in a lot of communities,” said Jessica Cain, program coordinator for Expanding High Quality Family Child Care in Kentucky through the state’s Division of Child Care. “If parents knew what to look for, this could be utilized a lot more.”

LISA LEE OF MORGANTOWN operates Lee’s Family Childcare from her rural home. She has become state certified and worked to achieve top quality rankings.

Currently in Kentucky, child care is often delivered by unregulated providers — typically family members, neighbors, or friends watching a few children in their homes. Adults caring for young children whose families receive child care assistance are expected to be registered as early childhood professionals. Becoming “registered” requires basic criminal background checks and an inspection to assure safety and health conditions.

The next step for providers — moving from registered status to becoming certified or licensed — permits home-based care for larger numbers of children while also offering providers coaching in quality learning experiences, awareness of school readiness skills, and resources that can range from access to federal food programs to ways to sharpen organizational and business skills.

Increasing the skills of local, small-scale child care providers is a practical strategy for increasing the quality of early childhood learning and school readiness in Kentucky, proponents of family child care programs say. They point to providers who opted to become certified or licensed to show how the steps connect with improved results for providers and children alike.

Lisa Lee of Morgantown, who serves six children from her home at the end of quiet country road, said the state assistance for certified providers marked a big step forward for her ability and what she can help children accomplish. She first got involved in child care as a picky young mother looking for a strong preschool experience for her young son.

“I couldn’t find a daycare that suited me. I knew what I wanted for my child and couldn’t find it,” she explained. Over time, and working through the certified family child care program, she has increased her own knowledge to the point where she can track the development of the two-year-olds who start in her home as become five-year-old learners eager to keep learning at home and ready to thrive at school.

Because of limited awareness of what certified family child care is, these providers are a hidden gem in a lot of communities.

 

— Jessica Cain, program coordinator for Expanding High Quality Family Child Care in Kentucky

“We focus on how they get involved in group play — that’s how we all learn,” Lee said. “I want every child who leaves here to be someone who enjoys learning and believes there is nothing they can’t learn. I find what they are interested in and tap into that.” A typical day at her center may provide time for playing instruments, marching, painting, working with measuring cups in the sandbox, telling stories, learning new words, or trying to find answers to others’ questions.

“Kentucky has the best resources — we get so much help,” Lee added, pointing to collaboration with state early childhood program staff as a major force in building the reputation of her center, Lee’s Family Childcare.

In the quiet backyard of a closely packed Northern Kentucky subdivision, Francie Allison leads a group of up to 10 children. Days at her home-based center move from learning in a basement classroom to time for snacks and naps to activity in the family’s backyard where plastic cars, sidewalk chalk, and tee-ball await.

Jodie’s House Daycare is the product of 14 years of training and improvement since Allison decided to stay home to care for her own child and watch another child or two.

“It took me a while to get established and be certified,” she said. Her path included attending community college courses, partnering with state officials to learn how the bigger system worked, and studying how to meet young children’s needs.

“I love, love, love what I do,” Allison said. “It was built within me to be a teacher.”

“In the beginning, I was able to stay home with my child and make sure she’s succeeding,” Allison added. “I decided bring others in for socialization, but I got to see them all succeed. I gave them a place that was safe and loving.”

Some people may feel like they don’t want the state checking on them, but I look at it that it makes me a better, safer provider.

 

— Francie Allison, state licensed child care provider

Allison’s center has become a place where she continues learn and grow professionally while creating a stimulating atmosphere for children. By becoming certified and eventually licensed by the state, Allison mastered areas like assessing student progress toward school readiness. She can show parents how children are learning academic and social-emotions fundamentals and explain what areas can be worked on at home.

“I like being my own boss,” Allison said. “There is a great support system out there that will help you step by step. Everything you join benefits you.”

“Some people may feel like they don’t want the state checking on them, but I look at it that it makes me a better, safer provider,” she added.

Rachel Battaglia, a young parent in Carrollton, said that finding quality child care is a big challenge. She found a certified provider for her son — now almost two years old — who knows how to work with his speech delay in addition to providing a homey, playful environment where development as a learner is a priority.

“The home environment is a huge advantage,” said Battaglia, a third-grade teacher. She is impressed by the skills that Robin Fremin, her provider, demonstrates. “I see her working with them on reading and prompting and so many developmentally appropriate activities with kids. There’s so much she does that’s educational.”

Battaglia said that parents are often unaware of how to evaluate child care options. Limited options and tight family budgets can be more pressing factors.

Parent Jennifer Malicoat of Cincinnati said that her positive experience with a skilled family child care provider led to her current work in Northern Kentucky encouraging more providers to work toward becoming certified.

CHILDREN AT JODIE’S HOUSE DAYCARE, which Francie Allison of Independence named for her daughter, play in the suburban backyard.

“We found quality care in a great community space that felt like another family,” Malicoat said of her own experience finding quality child care for her two sons.

In a field that often operates as an underground enterprise, the chance to join an organized network can be a major step forward for providers, Malicoat said. Access to curriculum, screening tools, participation in government assistance and programs can help people who might think of themselves as small-time babysitters see a bigger future as early education professionals and small business owners.

Optimizing providers’ skills helps lift options for children and families at a pivotal stage. “Those years are so crucial,” Malicoat said.

Certified family child care providers can build expertise for helping children with special needs or guiding families coping with individual challenges, added Cain of the state child care agency.

As Kelsey Lee of Morgantown reflects on how a certified family child care provider boosted her oldest son’s progress, she shares her eagerness for her twin sons, now two years old, to have the same opportunity. They remain on Lisa Lee’s waiting list but are assured spots when older children, including their brother, start school in the fall.

“Availability is the hardest thing,” said Kelsey, who operates a convenience store that she owns with her family. “It’s great to find someone who can get them where they need to be.”

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TOP PHOTO: Francie Allison, a licensed provider and owner of Jodie’s House Daycare in Independence, talks to children in her backyard play space.

BRIGHT SPOTS EXTRA \\ MORE ABOUT CERTIFIED FAMILY CHILD CARE

The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services operates the Division of Child Care. Its Department for Community-Based Services works with individuals building home-based child care businesses.

Their materials explain the system’s three basic levels:

REGISTERED EARLY CHILDHOOD PROFESSIONAL — Typically a family member, friend or neighbor who cares for children in his or her own home or the child’s home. A registered early childhood provider may not care for more than three children unrelated to the caregiver or more than six children if they are a sibling group.

CERTIFIED FAMILY CHILD CARE — Care provided in a caregiver’s own home for no more than six unrelated and no more than four related children at any time (total of 10 children).

LICENSED CHILD CARE Type I (for centers) and Type II (for home-based providers) — A licensed Type I child care facility is a facility that regularly provides child care services for four or more children in a non-residential setting; or 13 or more children in a residential setting. A licensed Type II child care facility is the primary residence where child care is regularly provided for at least seven, but no more than 12 children, including no more than 12 children related to the licensee.

Find out more about the state’s child care system and quality measures.

Parents or the public can use the state’s Public Child Care Search to see certified or licensed providers. That system shows inspection reports, hours of operation and quality levels under the Kentucky All STARS system.

[wyde_heading style=”2″ title=”Kentucky Public Schools as Educational Bright Spots” subheading=”By Michael Childress, Center for Business and Economic Research, Gatton College of Business and Eco-nomics, University of Kentucky”]

Each academic year a select group of Kentucky’s public schools perform better than expected on measures of educational achievement. These measures include things like the percentage of elementary students who achieve proficiency or distinguished in reading, or the proportion of less-advantaged middle school students who show a similar level of competency on the math assessment. Understanding the reasons for better-than-expected performance is fundamentally important. While our analysis does not fully address the question of why students perform better than expected, our results can be used to inform further inquiry on that question. Our work is best viewed as a statistical sieve designed to narrow the list of candidate schools worthy of closer examination. By subjecting a school to closer scrutiny, one can gain a sense of confidence about identifying the constellation of factors facilitating exceptional performance—and hopefully facilitate the adoption of these practices to other schools.

Organized within 173 school districts, there are wide differences in the learning environments, sizes, finances, and student outcomes among and within Kentucky’s 1,466 schools. Since schools are likely to reflect the underlying economic conditions of their surrounding communities, the socioeconomic characteristics of Kentucky’s schools are as diverse as the state itself.

Student outcomes, of course, are the bottom lines for schools and districts, and there is a wide distribution of outcomes across the state’s public schools. From a broad range of student outcomes, family and community backgrounds, and school characteristics, we identify schools that have performed better than expected—which we refer to as “bright spots.” For example, Knox County Middle School and South Laurel Middle School in Laurel County performed similarly on the 2018-2019 K-PREP middle school mathematics assessment, demonstrated by 50.9 and 51.1 percent of their students scoring proficient or distinguished, respectively. Yet, once we consider student, school, district, and community factors, only one of these schools performs “better than expect”—Knox County Middle School. While South Laurel Middle School performs at a level we expect, Knox County Middle School performs much better than we expect; in fact, it performs 20 percentage points higher than we expect.

METHOD

Using a school-level database that includes, but is not limited to, data from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), the Kentucky Center for Statistics (KYstats), and the U.S. Census Bureau, we analyze data covering eight academic years—2011-12 to 2018-19. We estimate an expected level of school-level performance using district-level fixed effects panel regression analysis—a statistical method for estimating, expressing, and understanding the relationships between variables—and then compare it to the actual performance. The difference between actual performance and model-based expected performance is the residual. If the size of the residual is sufficiently large and positive, we consider it a “bright spot candidate.” The development and creation of our statistical models is informed by Prichard Committee personnel, the scholarly literature on factors affecting student outcomes, data availability, and technical considerations regarding variable selection and model construction.

Our 35 educational outcome variables include K-PREP reading and mathematics proficiency scores at the elementary and middle school levels, ACT scores for 11th graders, and college going rates for graduating seniors. There are two conditions that a school must meet in order to satisfy our definition as a “bright spot.” First, we evaluate all students on an outcome measure, such as K-PREP elementary mathematics outcomes, to assess whether a school exhibits better-than-expected performance at least once from 2011 to 2018; in other words, we are looking for significant positive residuals. Second, while focusing on the same educational outcome measure, but for at-risk students (e.g., low-income or disabled students), we analyze the model residuals to assess whether a school exhibits a significant improvement in performance relative to expectations over the time period; in this case, we regress the residuals on year, and if year is positive and statistically significant, then it is improving relative to expectations over the time period. Any school that satisfies both of these conditions on an educational outcome is deemed a “bright spot.”

Bright Spots Results

The information provided below in Table 1 shows the 47 “bright spot” schools meeting our two conditions. There are 28 elementary schools, 4 middle schools, and 15 high schools that can be viewed as bright spots by virtue of student performance on K-PREP or ACT assessments, or successfully transitioning to college; and some schools qualify as bright spots in more than one category. Since we do not have data on college going for at-risk students—only the total graduating class—we used different criteria. For these two outcome measures, we assess the change over time for the total group instead of at-risk groups.

From left to right, the columns in Table 1 show the district and school identifier assigned to a school by the Kentucky Department of Education (Sch_Cd), the school district where the school is located, the school name, the educational outcome category, and the number of years from 2011 to 2018 where all students performed better than expected. The three columns on the right indicate whether groups of students exhibited significant improvement relative to expectations over the time period, either all students (TST), those qualifying for the National School Lunch Program (LUP), and those with an individualized educational plan (ACD); the numbers shown are the t-values of the bivariate regression slope, where residuals are regressed on year. For example, the first row shows Oakview Elementary School is a bright spot for 3rd grade reading. It demonstrated better-than-expected performance for all students in one year, and students participating in the NSLP (LUP residual) evidenced significant improvement during the time period with a t-value of 3.3; IEP students (ACD residual) did not show significant positive improvement, which is reflected by the “not sig.”

Conclusions

The 47 “bright spot” schools that performed better than expected from 2011 to 2018 are located in all regions of the state and 30 different counties, as illustrated in the county-level map below; these are diverse settings—urban-rural, east-west, distressed areas as well as prosperous ones.

Our analysis confirms what research has long revealed—that less-advantaged and minority students can face difficult obstacles in the pursuit of academic success. Of the 35 educational outcome models we tested, the predictor variables of less-advantaged students (i.e., % NSLP participants) and minority students (i.e., % nonwhite) were statistically significant and negative in 34 and 30 models, respectively. Additionally, teacher experience—the average number of years teaching—was statistically significant and positive in 20 of the 35 models; the impact of experienced teachers was mostly concentrated in the elementary level KPREP reading, 8th grade KREP reading, and in each of the nine ACT models.

Understanding the reasons for better-than-expected performance is fundamentally important. These results of this analysis can be combined with other pieces of information, if desired, to identify educational bright spots worthy of closer examination. With closer qualitative examination, it is possible to identify the critical factors leading to better-than-expected educational outcomes. Given the wide geographic distribution of educational bright spots, there are many candidates available across the Commonwealth for further study and examination.