When a team of state officials showed up to Breckinridge Metropolitan High School in March, they discovered a handful of students sitting in a small, dark room in the school’s basement.
Students in the in-school suspension room, no larger than a mid-size storage unit and staffed by one teacher, were sleeping, rocking in their chairs or “appeared to be in distress,” officials said.
Now that small room of the Jefferson County alternative school could have a big impact on the future of the entire 101,000-student district.
Kentucky’s interim education commissioner — who has made a forceful push for a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools — said Tuesday that he was “shocked” by the room’s existence as detailed in a monitoring report obtained this month by the Courier Journal through the state’s public records law.
“It’s one more piece of evidence in that pattern that the district believes some children are worthy of a high-quality education and others you can just cast in a dungeon,” Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis told the Courier Journal in an interview.
The findings in this and seven other recent monitoring reports of JCPS alternative schools were not part of the recent state management audit that triggered the takeover recommendation. But Kentucky Department of Education officials are expected to cite the reports during a multi-day hearing this fall that will determine the district’s fate.
JCPS spokeswoman Allison Martin said the district “thoroughly and immediately investigated the concerns raised upon receipt of the (state) reports in late April” and made “prompt corrections” where appropriate. That included immediately abandoning the in-school-suspension room detailed in the Breckinridge Metro report, she said.
Martin acknowledged the room was “not an appropriate space for students to serve an in-school suspension.”
She refuted a concern in the report that Breckinridge Metro staff said other district schools “also send students who have been involved in a high-level offense” to the basement room.
Martin said that is “absolutely not the practice nor the policy of JCPS.”
JCPS refused a Courier Journal request to visit the room.
The Breckinridge Metro report listed several other problems in the school, which last year served about 300 students with behavioral issues, including those who have been involved in the juvenile justice system.
Among the findings: students who were not engaged in their work; students walking off campus; and teens who had no hope of graduation and who were receiving no career training. It also noted an “over-representation” of black male students. District data provided to the Courier Journal said that 249 of the 308 students who spent time at Breckinridge Metro last school year were black. Roughly half of the school’s population were special-needs students or had received special education services at some point.
The report also noted strengths. All students interviewed said there was at least one caring adult in the program, and the state found that the school had an effective counselor.
Some of the concerns covered in the report were echoed in assessments of several other JCPS alternative schools, including lack of staff training, confusion around student placement decisions and inconsistent teaching quality.
“This is exactly why JCPS convened a task force — we were not happy with the results we were seeing from our alternative schools,” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said in a statement, referring to a group he commissioned to help revamp the district’s alternative school system. That group has held one meeting, with another set for next month.
School board chair Diane Porter said the JCPS board is watching the work of that committee and seeing what resources and staff it can provide to help the alternative schools. If the state takes over the district, the elected board would likely serve in an advisory capacity only, with decision-making left to the state.
JCPS was one of seven school districts to receive monitoring visits from the state this year. The annual visits are meant to ensure districts have effective state and federal programs.
The one-day visits were done in late March but the findings were not included in the state audit released April 30. Lewis said he only recently learned of the reports, which exemplify broader issues that were part of the audit.
“Even with the intense scrutiny (JCPS) was under, that these types of things continue to happen,’‘ Lewis said. “That shocked me.”
Some of the eight JCPS alternative schools visited by the state had more flattering reports. For instance, state staff highlighted ESL Newcomer Academy’s first-week student “welcome team” and its diverse staff that spoke multiple languages.
Lewis said JCPS does know how to provide a “world-class education,” pointing to high-performing schools like duPont Manual High. But he called for greater focus on JCPS’ most at-risk or vulnerable students, who are sometimes “thrown away.”
Rita Ward, a Louisville attorney and advocate for alternative school students, said she’s not surprised by the Breckinridge Metro report.
Ward said one of her clients, a former Breckinridge Metro student, was for years shuffled between alternative schools. He dropped out last fall at age 18 without a single credit on his transcript, she said.
“What they need to be working on are programs in the regular schools so kids don’t have to go to alternative schools,” she said.
This article is provided via the Kentucky Press News Service.