Despite progress, Fayette County Public Schools are five to seven years away from making the transformation it needs, Superintendent Manny Caulk said Thursday after he delivered the district’s first-ever State of the Schools Address.
In his speech to 400 people, including state, community and business leaders, Caulk talked about a challenging achievement gap in Fayette County schools that exists between children of color, those living in poverty, special needs students and others.
“Any time you make a transformational change it takes time. You have to integrate systems and make them sustainable,” Caulk told reporters after his address at Lexington’s Embassy Suites hotel. “We’re looking at closing both the opportunity and the achievement gap. No urban district of our size or larger has closed the achievement gap.”
Caulk said in working on improvements, every day he has read a strongly worded letter that former Education Commissioner Terry Holliday wrote in 2015 prior to Caulk’s hiring. It cited the district’s shortcomings, including low-performing schools. Caulk said he has kept in mind the state’s prior diagnostic reviews or audits of Fayette County that found significant problems and a lack of a systemic effort to improve academic achievement.
Caulk said it took Fayette County schools four years to show the Kentucky Department of Education that district officials had the capacity to lead and make needed changes. The more positive evaluation came just a few months ago.
“That’s the first step in our journey,” Caulk said.
Caulk said before longtime-school board chairman John Price died in 2016, he told Price that he would create comprehensive plans to make improvements and he would help the district get a positive review from the state. Caulk said he had accomplished those goals and has developed the district’s first strategic plan for longtime improvement with suggestions from 18,000 people and six external reviews.
Caulk cited dozens of improvements that the district has made, including;
▪ Having college and career coaches at every high school;
▪ Providing the PSAT test for ninth- and 10th-graders;
▪ Summer learning programs in 21 schools;
▪ New training programs for teachers and administrators, more teachers for special needs students and students who are learning the English language, and new emphasis on classroom instruction;
▪ Two new $15 million elementary schools have opened;
▪ A program has started to teach families how best to help their children learn and new initiatives have begun to engage community volunteers.
The next goal, Caulk said, is to close the opportunity and achievement gap. He said the community leaders who came to hear his speech Thursday should work together to close the disparities among students.
“We have students and families in crisis and neighborhoods in distress,” Caulk said. “We are fortunate in Fayette County to have Mayor (Jim) Gray and our Urban County Government but they can’t do it alone.”
State Rep. George Brown, D-Lexington, said he was surprised when Caulk said that 90 percent of school-age children in Fayette County are enrolled in public schools.
Brown said public schools “have given an excellent return on investment.” Now that a state law has passed allowing public charter schools in Kentucky, Brown is concerned about putting money there and finding out later that “they won’t work” as has happened in other parts of the nation.
Local school boards will approve charter school applications. Proponents of charter schools say they help increase academic achievement among low-performing students.
After his speech, Caulk was asked what role charters would have in the Fayette district. He said the district will aim for great schools, whether it’s a charter or traditional school. He told reporters that he had helped start charter schools and managed charters nationally in some of the most distressed communities in the country. But he said improving student achievement is not going to be accomplished just by using one model and it will take the school district, the community and students’ families to make the difference.
Urban County Council member Kathy Plomin said she was impressed by the improvements Caulk had made for the school district since he was hired in 2015, “especially the baseline of where it was and where it is today in a short amount of time.”
The event was sponsored by Lexington-Bluegrass Association of Realtors and the Mortgage Bankers Association.
Fayette County Public Schools By the Numbers
White: 52 percent
Black: 22 percent
Hispanic: 16 percent
Asian: 4 percent
Other: 5 percent
66 schools and special programs
High schools: Five, with a sixth opening in August
Middle schools: 12
Elementary schools: 36
Special programs: 13
Employees: 7, 584
Student support staff, office staff and administrators: 3,024
Substitutes and temporary employees: 1,720
2016-17 Budget: $481.5 million
Source: Fayette County Public Schools