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Fayette schools have come a long way

When Fayette County Public Schools received the highest scores ever given to one of the state's school systems on a Kentucky Scholastic Audit early last week, few people seemed to notice and even fewer reacted.

Crickets, as one reality TV show cast member would say.

The silence was an indicator that the numerous squeaky wheels that had demanded academic and cultural turnarounds in Fayette County five short years ago have been oiled.

Examiners who conduct audits in districts with schools that have failed to meet goals under No Child Left Behind looked at 88 indicators in nine categories. Those include curriculum; classroom evaluation and assessment; instruction; school culture; family and community support; professional growth; and comprehensive planning.

Our school district earned either the highest or second-highest scores in 94 percent of the indicators. Fayette County schools received the highest, or "exemplary," rating in 61 percent of the categories.

Six years ago, when minority parents, leaders and area businesses publicly stated a lack of confidence in this system, the district received the highest score in only 9 percent of the categories.

What has changed and who did the changing?

Obviously credit must be given to Superintendent Stu Silberman for changing the culture of Central Office and therefore the district after his arrival five years ago. But credit must also be given to those activists who continually aired the dirty laundry of a district that had allowed children's education to fall well behind personal agendas.

Problems with our schools screamed from news pages nearly every day in the late 1990s and early part of this century. It was an "us" against "them" mentality, with "us" being nearly anyone outside Central Office.

The outcry had begun years earlier and resulted in the formation in 1993 of the Equity Task Force to examine our system's redistricting efforts that left northside schools and minority students out of the loop.

"I called it periodic civil war," said P.G. Peeples, president of the Lexington-Fayette Urban League and one of the soldiers in that battle that also included the Rev. Bob Brown, the Rev. C.B. Akins, and activists Arnold Gaither and Sam Jones.

Looking back on those tumultuous years, I was reminded of April 1963, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested on Good Friday in Birmingham, Ala., for protesting the choking segregation that not only existed but was nurtured there.

His fellow white clergymen wrote a published letter condemning the non-violent marches and demonstrations as unwise and untimely, spurring one of King's most eloquent pieces, "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

In it he wrote, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

Lukewarm acceptance was all the minority community could get from Fayette County school officials even after a "No Confidence, No Trust" rally in 2001 at Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Excellence. Inequities in achievement, in hirings and firings, and in redistricting were big issues.

"The reason it had gotten to the point of no confidence, no trust," Peeples said, "was that the issue had become a moral one. It was about doing right by our kids. But (school officials) dissed us, as the young people say. They ignored anything we brought to them. We decided to fight them in public."

Brown, one of the soldiers in the fight, provided data to prove how ineffective this district was in teaching minority children, which was enough to bring business leaders and much of the rest of the community on board. The numbers didn't lie.

Plus by the time Silberman was hired, in 2004, we had gone through five superintendents in three years, including two interims.

It was not pretty.

"It was a pretty tough place to come to," said Silberman, who said he sees his tenure here as his calling. "Overall, the culture of the district was pretty toxic."

He said communication was a serious problem then, but he has instituted a policy that all phone calls and e-mails must get a response within 24 hours.

Silberman, however, has not been seen walking on water. There are still a lot of problems the district must address, including, he said, closing the achievement gap. "That keeps me up at night," he said. "Our achievement numbers have been going up, but I want to tell you that we have a long way to go.

"We have to close these gaps in my lifetime," he said, "and I'm running out of time."

Silberman said the district is trying to attack the achievement gap before it starts by zeroing in on students in kindergarten, if not earlier. In doing so, significant improvements are showing up at the elementary levels. Middle and high school numbers aren't as impressive.

He was inspired by the comeback story of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird with jockey Calvin Borel onboard to show what he expects from teachers and staff in Fayette County.

"When they asked Calvin Borel how the win was possible," Silberman said, "he said, 'I just rode him like he was a good horse.'

"If our teachers and staff members are teaching our kids, every one of them, like they are good kids and smart kids, then we get a different result," he said. "Maybe it doesn't matter what horse we are riding; maybe it matters what we do with the horse."

Still, minority numbers in special education and the achievement gap haven't changed that much in his tenure. A report scheduled for release soon through the Equity Council isn't flattering and doesn't make him proud, Silberman said.

But, he said, the audit shows that the gears are all in place and well oiled.

"We are doing the right thing," he said. "More people are buying into the vision and truly believing that all kids can learn."

Words like that coming from the mouth of the superintendent — and backed up by the school board with funding — are indicators of the difference five years have made.

"The community was asking for it," said school district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall, a former Herald-Leader education reporter who covered Fayette County schools before Silberman's arrival. "Everybody wanted it, but it wasn't happening. Now everyone is talking to each other and moving forward. Everyone has the same goal, and our kids are at the center of that goal."

Silberman asked Deffendall to gather many of the news stories that were published before his arrival, and he shared them with members of the district's cabinet, many of whom didn't know the history.

"We went over them article by article, editorial by editorial," Silberman said. "I saw pictures of P.G. (Peeples) in those papers and it didn't look like him. He looked so angry. I asked him about it, and he said he was angry."

While the anger has subsided, the desire and need to have equity in the school system for all children, to have all children learning at a high level, has not.

"Culture is established from the top down," Peeples said, "and Stu has brought that. We've come a long way but we're not there yet."

Millions of miles, according to Silberman, but at least the ride from here on will be warmed by acceptance.