Chapter 13: Schools improving in Eastern Kentucky, but progress 'painfully slow'

lblackford@herald-leader.comDecember 14, 2013 

EOLIA — In Harry Collins' classroom at Arlie Boggs Elementary, the textbooks are 12 years old, tattered and worn and well beyond the statute of limitations for teaching modern math techniques.

That's why the sixth- and seventh-grade students turn to their iPads to surf algorithms formulated far from their remote mountain home.

Collins obtained a grant to buy the iPads, and he found the money to build a wetland up the steep hill behind the school that's shadowed by Pine Mountain. In those murky depths, students test water acidity, follow the life cycles of frogs, and occasionally, when Collins isn't looking, catch salamanders.

"We feel like we're able to offer students these very important experiences, even though we're in rural southeastern Kentucky," said Collins, who, like most other teachers at Arlie Boggs, grew up in Letcher County.

On the other side of Pine Mountain, science teacher Regina Donour starts the school year at Letcher County Central High School with a trip into the shallow water of Line Fork in Lilley Cornett Woods. Her ninth-graders don waders, splash into the green water and scrape invertebrates off the undersides of slimy rocks.

"Every year when I tell kids, 'You can do this for a living,' for a couple of them, the light bulb goes on," Donour said.

All across Eastern Kentucky, countless similar stories have played out in the 23 years since Kentucky lawmakers approved the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990. That law poured the proceeds of a $1 billion tax increase into the rickety, politicized schools that Harry Caudill bemoaned 50 years ago in his seminal book Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. The schools full of "disappointment, disillusionment and bitterness" that Caudill portrayed have morphed into places where, as kindergarten teacher Angie Miranda Holbrook described: "Teachers can't just sit and read a newspaper. Teachers have become accountable."

Progress is obvious — higher graduation rates, new buildings, tougher curriculum, better-trained teachers — but it has been painfully slow.

In 1960, 1.4 percent of people older than 24 in Letcher County had a four-year college degree. By 2011, that number had climbed to just 10.3 percent — exactly half the statewide rate of 20.6 percent.

"In the 1960s, the schools were all about jobs and what political control you had, so in that sense there has been a tremendous change," said Cindy Heine, associate director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. "I think we have made a lot of progress, and I think we're headed in the right direction, but we have many, many miles to go."

The schools of Eastern Kentucky continue to churn out a disproportionate number of students unprepared for college or unable to find a job.

In Letcher County, more than three-quarters of those graduating head off to college, but only 29 percent of them are considered ready for college-level math, according to the Council on Postsecondary Education. That rate is considerably below the lackluster statewide average of 40 percent.

Instead of aggressively tackling that problem, Letcher and most other school districts are reckoning with five years of declining state funding, coupled with new spending cuts from the federal government.

If state lawmakers don't find hundreds of millions of dollars in new money for education when they craft a two-year state budget next year, Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said, the growing funding gap between poor and rich school districts threatens to doom the Cumberland plateau's poverty-stricken children.

"This is going to be my Waterloo," Holliday said. "We've got to get funding back into education."

'Paragons of mediocrity'

Arlie Boggs grew up as the son of a hillside farmer on the east side of Pine Mountain. Boggs returned to Letcher after World War I and became principal of Eolia Elementary, as Arlie Boggs Elementary was then known. By the 1920s, he was the Letcher superintendent, and he rode horseback to 85 wooden, one-room schools in his district, said nephew Daryl Boggs, who later became assistant superintendent.

There were schools in every coal camp, populated by families who had flocked to mining jobs in Blackey, Carcassone, Fleming, Neon, Millstone and Whitaker. Letcher's population in 1920 was roughly the same as today, a little more than 24,000, with huge fluctuations in between. By 1940, 40,952 people were living in Letcher, the highest in its history.

The one- and two-room schools survived in the most remote areas well after World War II, and some people remember them and their intrepid teachers fondly. Angie Holbrook attended her grandmother's two-room school at Upper Gap, where four grades learned together under Ruby Caudill's stern but loving eyes. "She was one of the first people in the county to teach phonics," Holbrook recalled.

Ruby Caudill's distant relative, Harry, was not so nostalgic.

In the forward to Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Caudill said he was moved to write the book after he was asked to speak in 1960 at the eighth-grade graduation of a coal camp school on Millstone Creek. The school was a "dilapidated two-room building which had sheltered two generations of their forebears." Rain dripped through the roof onto desks as the children sang America the Beautiful. "The irony of the words, sung so lustily in such a setting, inspired the writing of this book," Caudill wrote.

What Caudill did not mention is that he'd spent the previous two years investigating the worst of Kentucky education as the chairman of a legislative committee. The task force was sparked by a series in The Courier-Journal that detailed a political fiefdom in Carter County's schools that was little interested in education. Teachers kept their jobs through patronage payments to the superintendent, who used the money to buy votes in local elections.

When the committee's report was issued in March 1960, the report foreshadowed the robust prose that Caudill used to such devastating effect in Night. The report, written mostly by Caudill, spoke of "the internal cancer that is killing public education," and urged change that would "strike at the evil in the system that produced these sharp men of short vision and long grasp."

"Honest educators of dedicated competence do not need laws to tell them what is right or wrong," he wrote, "but self-serving paragons of mediocrity can twist to their ungodly advantage the best laws ever written."

Caudill's goal was an overthrow of Kentucky's education system, from the way schools were governed to the colleges that educated teachers. But that didn't start happening until 1988, when 66 county school districts formed the Council for Better Education and hired former Gov. Bert Combs to sue the state, alleging unequal funding. The group won not just more money but an entirely new state school system. The 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act changed just about everything, from school finances to teaching standards. It banned rampant nepotism and held schools accountable for student learning. New funding came from a $1 billion tax increase supported by the state's business leaders.

Although the new law addressed nearly every problem Harry Caudill had ever illustrated or complained about, he didn't like it, saying you couldn't just throw more money at the problem. Not long after KERA was passed, Al Smith, a journalist and the former director of the Appalachian Regional Commission, and his wife, Martha Helen, were staying at Natural Bridge State Park when Combs came for dinner.

"Combs was furious, livid. He spent the whole dinner hour cussing Harry about being so dismissive about the reform act," Smith recalled recently. "He cited all the things in KERA, including the money and the rules, and kept going on about how Caudill had missed the point."

Progress and possibility

With new teaching standards and a new testing system that rewarded or punished schools for their results, KERA was greeted by many people with skepticism and hostility. But for Letcher and other poor schools, it produced one overwhelmingly important result: money. The law created a school funding formula that helped erase the spending gap between poor and rich districts.

Daryl Boggs said that when he started as finance director in 1979, Letcher had a budget of about $8 million. By 2006, the district spent about $27 million, which included hefty raises for teachers.

"We were able to do things we had never been able to do before," Boggs said. "We put in art and music and PE teachers. We used the money not only to pay teachers what they should be paid, but we also expanded programs."

More money from KERA also meant new schools. With declining enrollment, the county's three high schools — Letcher, Whitesburg and Fleming Neon — had become tiny, with diminished offerings for students. In 2005, the district built Letcher County Central High School, a gleaming behemoth of red brick and white columns perched on the side of a small mountain just outside Whitesburg. To soothe the irate sports fans from three former rivals, the campus included a $2 million football stadium. The district also built a vocational school next door.

Since then, the school's graduation rate has steadily improved, going from 69 percent in 2009 to 77 percent last year. Although test scores linger near 60 out of 100, they've improved enough that Letcher Central is now considered a "proficient" school that is "progressing."

Long-term progress as measured by Kentucky's testing system, however, is somewhat elusive. Thanks to changes both educational and political, lawmakers have overhauled the entire testing system three times in the past two decades, and they have made numerous other smaller changes.

Steve Boggs, the principal of Letcher Central, said the school's growth has been slow but steady.

"It would not have been unrealistic to say 20 to 25 years ago, the graduation rate was around 50 percent," he said. "Most of the time, I would think that decisions were made in the best interest of adults versus those of children. I think KERA provided the structure to change that."

Boggs credited recent improvements for programs that target students most at risk of dropping out.

The freshman studies program, for example, assigns teachers to help nearly 40 percent of the freshman class develop better study skills as they transition from middle school to high school. Those teachers monitor students' grades, and they even make home visits to ensure that parents understand what their children need to succeed in school.

In 2008, Boggs said, 31 freshmen had to repeat their first year of high school; that number dropped to 12 in 2012.

Donour, the science teacher, is one of the freshman studies teachers; she and others started a ninth-grade enrichment series, taking the entire ninth grade to one of Letcher's gems, Lilley Cornett Woods. They examine water quality, study trees and listen to biologists talk about reptiles and raptors.


Donour, who has the straight-talking natural charisma of a born teacher, said she started the Lillley Cornett classes to show students the practical applications of biology and chemistry. "I try to emphasize to kids that we have some of the most beautiful areas in Letcher County, but many of them never get outside," she said. "I want them to take ownership of their community because I believe it has to be the people who live here who have to take ownership and improve things."

'Very hard to function'

Financial woes now endanger the school district's momentum, Letcher Superintendent Tony Sergent warned.

"We're facing a really hard time financially right now," to the point of probably reducing spending by $600,000, Sergent said. "There's no doubt we'll have to cut programs and positions."

After the national financial crisis of 2008, legislators froze the state's main funding formula for schools, even as costs rose for utilities, transportation and health insurance. Money for supplemental programs — textbooks, teacher training, and family resource centers that help disadvantaged families — was cut a cumulative $304 million since 2008. A fund for school technology lost $33.1 million in the same time span, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.

In Letcher, that means three art teachers now serve eight schools. There are two librarians for the whole county, and schools must share counselors. At Arlie Boggs Elementary, where 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, counselor Karen Caudill visits once a week. Teachers, such as Harry Collins, who want updated technology must cross their fingers that nonprofit groups will approve their grant applications.

Principal Freddie Terry scours the region for community partners who can help provide what the state won't.

Recently, he met with a group from Southeast Community College's Cumberland campus, who agreed to spend $3,000 on a greenhouse and green-roof project. The local extension office just gave the school a $500 incubator for chicken eggs. Another community group will help build some chicken coops so the students can learn to raise chickens, part of a new emphasis on sustainability. But that goes only so far. Thanks to federal budget cuts under the so-called sequestration, Arlie Boggs lost a teacher last year whose salary was paid with federal Title I money.

"I can go out and work with partners and secure finances for projects, but the funding from the state level that funds my staff — I'm at the point that it's going to be very hard to function if we lose another teacher," Terry said. "I'm working on a bare minimum right now. It could very well hurt our progress."

Statewide, dwindling education money threatens to undercut KERA's fundamental promise of equal funding for poor and rich districts.

When the law was passed in 1990, the spending gap between the wealthiest 20 percent of school districts and the poorest 20 percent of school districts was $1,558 per student. That gap had dwindled to $580 by 1997, but it was back up to $1,206 in 2010, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

As state funding stagnated, many school districts asked local taxpayers to help make up the difference. But raising property taxes generates much more money in a wealthy area than in most Eastern Kentucky counties, where there's not as much developed property to tax.

For example, a 4 percent increase in property taxes — the maximum districts can impose without risking a voter recall — would generate an estimated $57 per student in Letcher County, compared to $188 per student in Fayette County, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. "I'm extremely worried about the inequities," said Holliday, the education commissioner.

Holliday, along with the state's superintendents, plans to lobby the General Assembly for an additional $336 million over the next two years. That would return school funding to 2008 and 2009 levels. He has identified two possible revenue sources: Overhauling the state's tax code and expanding gambling. So far, neither has proven popular with legislators.

David Karem, a member of the Kentucky Board of Education and a former legislator who helped pass KERA, said the public seems to have lost interest in financing public schools.

"I don't believe that we, members of the General Assembly, or the larger public community, or the business community, have kept faith to the funding promises we made at one point," Karem said.

Without more money, Holliday said earlier this month, the state could lose between 1,500 and 2,000 teachers or teacher's aides next year. About 1,800 positions already have been lost in the last three years, he said.

As many as 10 districts could be shut down because they can no longer function financially, he said. Already, the state school board voted this month to provide emergency financial assistance to Fleming County Schools. It also oversaw the closing of Monticello Independent Schools earlier this year after the tiny district warned that it wouldn't have enough money to pay teachers.

In Bell County, Superintendent Yvonne Gilliam cut $1.6 million out of the district's budget last year, eliminating 37 positions, including six teachers at the high school.

"We're just holding our heads above water," she said.

'Not much going on'

One of the major ideas behind KERA was that better schools would provide an educated work force to strengthen Kentucky's economy. But as Eastern Kentucky's schools struggle financially, its graduates must reckon with the region's bleak economic picture.

At Letcher Central, chemistry teacher Regina Donour said she always has a few students who blossom in science studies, but she is constantly frustrated by how few of the brightest ones can find jobs near their beloved Pine Mountain that are commensurate with their education level.

Overall, about 3 percent more people left Letcher County than moved there during the 2000s. But among people ages 20 to 29, that number jumps to about 20 percent, according to data compiled by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Antonio Acevedo knows he probably won't come back. Now a junior at Letcher Central, he hopes to get enough student aid to attend the University of Kentucky and maybe become an anesthesiologist.

"I'd really like to go somewhere else," he said. "There's not much going on here."

Even vocational students are worried. It used to be that most anyone with a technical degree in industrial maintenance or diesel mechanics could find a job in the coal industry. That's what senior Dylan Burton had always planned. He walks daily between the high school and the vocational school, and he loves Tom Dollarhide's industrial maintenance class, where he learned to weld.

"When I was growing up, coal was always something we could fall back on," he said. "It'd be nice if someone would come in and open a factory. I thought about Toyota (in Georgetown), but I don't want to leave."

Emily Allen understands the pull of her native mountains. She's a Letcher Central graduate who, in eighth grade, earned a coveted Robinson Scholarship: a full ride to UK for students who are the first in their families to go to college. One recipient is chosen each year from every county in Eastern Kentucky. Although Allen visited UK numerous times during high school and received lots of support from UK's First Generation program, she said the first year was lonely and difficult.

"I still felt like I didn't belong here," she said. "I felt completely different from everyone else on campus."

Now a junior, she pushed on, majoring in history and political science, and she plans to attend law school. After law school? "I want to come back there, even though I know economically it's not a good spot to live," she said. "That is why more people need to come back there. If you do manage to break the statistics and go to college and get a degree, then those people aren't coming back. I would like to come back and show you can prosper even though you're from a county that seems to be at a disadvantage."

'Fight of the underdog'

Unlike most of the teachers in Letcher County, who grew up nearby, Regina Donour was born and raised in Alabama. She moved to Letcher after getting married.

Donour raised her two sons in Harry Caudill's old house in Mayking, and she has thought a lot about his frustrations. For her, the best way to help is to teach her students the intricacies of the world of science, and something of the world outside of Letcher.

Every other summer, she takes small groups of students to Europe. She took Emily Allen a few years back.

"It really changed what I wanted to do with my life, my education and my career path," Allen said.

There's no doubt the education system in Letcher County has improved over the past quarter-century, Donour said, but it's not enough.

"A majority of students are not getting pushed at the level they need to be pushed," she said.

Often times, that push is made more difficult by the complicating factors of widespread poverty, a dying coal industry and rampant drug abuse. "We have so many kids with issues who need help," said Arlie Boggs Elementary kindergarten teacher Angie Miranda Holbrook.

Her colleague, Suzette Sturgill, who teaches a split second- third-grade class across the hall, calls it "the fight of the underdog."

"Just when they get going, something knocks them down again," Sturgill said. "The breakdown of the family has caused such a strain on us every day — a lot of these kids don't know who will be there when they get off the bus."

Earlier this fall, Arlie Boggs principal Freddie Terry sat near the school's outdoor classroom, contemplating his school's future and that of his home county as mist floated through the green valley below and a bird's call punctuated the near-silence.

Terry's parents attended Arlie Boggs, as did his brothers and sisters and his two sons. He thinks schools like Arlie Boggs — which saw a 15-point jump on state test scores this year — can make a difference in Eastern Kentucky, even if it takes a long time. "We are always looking for new ways to reach every child, and as time goes on and we try new things, more research comes available," he said. "We are working hard. But if we believe in this school, we have to buckle down and work even harder."

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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