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Once among the state's lowest-performing school districts, Floyd County now teaches other districts a lesson

Kimberly Reed discussed a post-World War II refugee crisis with fifth-grade students at May Valley Elementary School last week. Reed also teaches fourth-graders.
Kimberly Reed discussed a post-World War II refugee crisis with fifth-grade students at May Valley Elementary School last week. Reed also teaches fourth-graders. Herald-Leader

PRESTONSBURG — The fourth-graders in Kimberly Reed's class at May Valley Elementary near Martin are learning how to structure a logical argument by making gestures that signify the components, in addition to saying them aloud.

"Textual evidence," says one.

"Visualization," says another.

"Schema," says a third student.

For those of you who don't know, a schema is a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and their relationships.

The education system in this mountain district, where most students receive free and reduced-price lunch — an indicator of low income and households in poverty — has obstacles. Students are spread out in hamlets across the county. Twisty roads are treacherous, even more so in winter. The property tax base reflects coal industry struggles and, despite some jaw-dropping mansions, a generally modest housing stock.

Yet Floyd County had three of the top 10 public elementary schools in the state as measured on standardized test scores that were released this month, and they are all schools in which more than half the students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Floyd County had four of the top 20 elementary schools. Floyd County's John M. Stumbo Middle School is the top school in its category.

Floyd County schools, which once brought up the bottom of the state districts in performance, are now 12th.

Students in fifth, sixth, ninth and 10th grades all have laptops. It's a district-funded commitment to technology that is necessary, according to Superintendent Henry Webb, so he found money in the district budget to buy them. That's 2,000 laptops, and Webb expects the number to more than double over the next two years.

Having a successful school system might mean that some public school-educated students will move away eventually for big career opportunities, Webb said. But some will stay, and those, he said, will be the entrepreneurs of Eastern Kentucky's future.

The light has not always shone so brightly on the school system.

A state audit in 1988 called Floyd County schools "a school system in name only." In 1999, the state made good on its threats to take over Floyd County and appointed Woodrow Carter, a retired Army colonel and a Floyd County schools alumnus, to take over as superintendent.

Carter had a unique perspective.

"I know better than anybody that I didn't get much of an education until I went to college," he said in 1999.

"The system was in chaos," said Carol Stumbo, who was school board chairwoman when state control ended in 2005. "Every piece of it was broken, and every piece had to be put back together."

But few people outside of Floyd County thought the district would soar so high, so fast.

Webb's management style is: Take 30 seconds to get whatever complaints you have off your chest, then move forward with no excuses.

Webb, 43, is the child of high school dropouts who attended Martin Elementary and McDowell High School, both now closed. He went to Alice Lloyd College on a basketball scholarship and later attended Morehead State University and the University of Louisville.

Webb got into education to show younger people what education can mean in each individual life, he said.

"People in my life — teachers, coaches, principals — I always wanted to be like them," Webb said. "Every position I've taken, I could help move kids' lives."

He started in Floyd County as a teacher of vision-impaired students, then became a high school social studies teacher. Webb was principal of South Floyd High School before becoming superintendent in late 2007.

Students deserve academic rigor in the classroom, Webb said. He set a goal for Floyd County to be a top 50 school district in Kentucky.

"We saw it was achievable," Webb said. "But all the demographics told us we shouldn't be where we are."

Webb took it as a challenge: "What we've embraced here are the brutal facts."

He has little patience for those who blame students' poor performance on their parents and on the poverty of the community.

"You get students where they are and you move them up," Webb said. "You take them as far as you can take them."

Gifted and talented students in high school get special attention. At two of the high schools, they can take Advanced Placement classes. At two others, they can go to Big Sandy Community & Technical College and can earn an associate's degree while still technically in high school. Forty students are now in the program.

The school district provides supplies, such as calculators. It even ships in lunch. The student's family pays nothing.

Not all of Floyd County's 2015 test results were universally encouraging. At James A. Duff Elementary, scores fell from 77.6 to 70.6, although the school retained its "proficient" standing. For comparison, the 2015 score puts Duff just a shade behind Lexington's Garden Springs Elementary.

At May Valley, the Floyd County district's goals are posted in the lobby. They include: making Floyd County a top 10 school district, with college and career readiness at 90 percent; remaining fiscally solvent and efficient; averaging ACT scores of 19.5 (an average for all students taking the test, usually the college-bound); and having a district test score of 76 on the KPREP (Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress), the test on which the state's public schools are evaluated).

"We don't accept excuses," May Valley principal Greta Thornsberry said. "We get what we expect out of our students. It's our job as educators to find out what makes these kids learn."

Assistant principal Kathy Shepherd said the school serves three nearby housing projects, yet, "We have the same expectations for all kids. We start instilling college and career readiness ... at a very early age.

"Once the students know that you really care about them, they will do anything."

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