Once the scourge of Kentucky education reform, Floyd County schools now the star

Principal Greta Thornsberry helped kindergarten student Vincent Osborne with his shoelaces at May Valley Elementary.
Principal Greta Thornsberry helped kindergarten student Vincent Osborne with his shoelaces at May Valley Elementary. Herald-Leader

PRESTONSBURG — For more than two decades, Floyd County Public Schools and the state of Kentucky were at war.

A state audit in 1988 blasted the system for having students raise money to pay for such items as phone bills and heat, and it criticized administrators for running the district without a plan.

The money brought in by students supplemented funds raised from the county's slim property tax base.

"Floyd County is a school system in name only," the 1988 state audit of the school district observed.

The state attempted to take over the district in 1989, only to have its action struck down by the courts. Floyd County then ranked 169th out of 178 Kentucky districts on testing.

In 1998, the state took it over; it didn't turn it loose until 2005.

Ten years after its time in state custody ended, Floyd County has not only survived but thrived. When statewide standardized test results were released recently, they validated Floyd County's status as a district to watch: 12th in the state, with three elementary schools in the state's top 10 and the state's top middle school.

Floyd County is not a huge district or a particularly wealthy one. It includes the county seat of Prestonsburg (with about 3,300 people) and hamlets such as Martin, Maytown, Allen, Wheelwright, McDowell and Betsy Layne.

The Floyd County schools' policy: No excuses. The stakes, as defined by Superintendent Henry Webb: The economic future of the county. The method: Not only saying that all children can learn at high levels, but proving it every day in the classroom.

Consider May Valley Elementary School, the second-highest scoring elementary school in Kentucky. It is extremely rural, and more than 70 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.

The school is rigorous nonetheless.

May Valley Elementary principal Greta Thornsberry said about her school's teachers: "You come to May Valley, you hit the ground running, you give 110 percent every day, bell to bell."

A community celebration of the school district's success last week drew 1,500 to 2,000 people, Webb said.

"As we become more successful, our parents and our guardians and our community members have become more proud of our school system. Right now, we are all pulling in the same direction," Webb said.

Samantha Kay Howard, a parent on the site-based council at May Valley Elementary, echoed Webb's sentiments.

"As the schools and staff succeed here, as a parent it makes us feel like we succeeded," she said. "The teachers here, inside of May Valley, we have a great relationship with them, and they are positive and encouraging. It makes us want to do the same thing at home."

Floyd County is now showing more affluent, more urban districts how increased achievement is done — and it's doing it with modest resources in an area with a great deal of poverty. The district provides computers to 2,000 students and hopes to add thousands more. About 40 Floyd high school students are busy getting associate degrees in a partnership between the Floyd school system and Big Sandy Community & Technical College — at no cost to the students.

The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence has taken notice: It will spotlight Floyd County at its annual meeting in Louisville in November.

Brigitte Blom Ramsay, director of the Prichard Committee, said Floyd was one of five districts of distinction and an example of how a district could focus on achievement in the face of numerous obstacles.

"The things that we've been talking about for years in Kentucky, about leadership and a commitment to strategies for learning, are true in Floyd County," Ramsay said. "It's clear that the entire district is committed to working together to achieve high academic outcomes for their students regardless of background.

"Our best education leaders in the state of Kentucky are those who have no excuses. No excuses for themselves and no excuses for their students not achieving at high levels."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader