Education

‘Tough changes.’ Superintendent removing some teachers at Lexington’s low-performing schools

Superintendent Manny Caulk responding to low performing schools

FCPS superintendent Manny Caulk gives his response to Fayette county schools' low performances.
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FCPS superintendent Manny Caulk gives his response to Fayette county schools' low performances.

As a proposal was announced to extend the academic day and year at a second low-performing Lexington elementary, Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk acknowledged that he has also removed some teachers from struggling schools.

Under a new state law, “the superintendent has the authority to remove teachers, certified staff, and I exercised that authority. There’s going to be some staff changes,” Caulk told the Herald-Leader after a special-called school board meeting.

On Wednesday, district officials announced a proposal that called for William Wells Brown Elementary to join Harrison Elementary in extending school hours on four days each week and adding more days to the academic year, from 177 to 190.

Fayette County Public Schools has not in recent memory experienced such bold change in low performing schools and that’s leading to questions from some parents and educators.

“I’m not too happy. I just think ...longer days will wear the teacher out and the children out,” said William Wells Brown parent Melissa Lairson. She said that since school officials are always seeking more parent involvement, more efforts should be made to include parents in the decisions about low performing schools.

Lairson said she wants the school to improve and she and her children participate in after school enrichment activities. But she said she went to the board meeting and shared her misgivings about the proposal with board member Tyler Murphy.

Murphy said he abstained on Wednesday from voting on proposed changes at another school, Harrison Elementary, that include longer school days and an academic year. He is not against the proposal, but he said “people say that there are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Teachers want to know how it’s going to impact their jobs, he said. Murphy said he has received at least two dozen messages from parents, teachers, and others who don’t necessarily oppose the proposed new changes, but are expressing uncertainty. He said if the schools are going to be successful, the changes are going to have to have “buy in” from families and educators.

“I just wanted some more information,” Murphy said.

William Wells Brown Principal Jay Jones Jr. said in addition to the extended hours during the week at school, William Wells Brown could also possibly open on Saturdays. And the school might embrace an equine science theme. Specifics are still being worked out.

Under the new law, the Kentucky Department of Education determined that seven Fayette elementary schools with low statewide test scores should be designated as CSI — in need of comprehensive support and improvement. The law requires a Kentucky school district superintendent to take over the governance of such schools and turn them around. Under the law, school-based councils of teachers and parents no longer have decision-making powers.

Caulk said by law, he could have removed all state-certified employees in the seven low-performing schools.

“We did not do that. But I will tell you that we made changes and I believe we made the right changes,” he said. Caulk expects to hire additional staff that can help make improvements. He said that educators who came to a recent job fair in search of positions in the district told him they had a deep commitment to social justice and equity and to work with vulnerable students.

No actions have been taken against principals, Caulk said, though at least one told the school board Wednesday that she was receiving more training,

The seven so-called CSI elementary schools requiring turnaround plans that have to be approved by the state are Harrison, William Wells Brown, Mary Todd, Coventry Oak, Yates, Arlington and Millcreek. Caulk said Wednesday night that he didn’t have immediate numbers of teachers who were moved from schools.

Like Harrison, a proposal to the school board recommends that William Wells Brown become a “promise academy.”

Schuronda Morton, the district’s Interim Chief of Staff and Senior Director of School Leadership, and other officials said that means that the district promises that they will have excellent schools. Staff will offer no excuses and students will get opportunities and meet goals. She said parents who helped the district formulate a portrait of a successful student want their children to spend extra time at school.

The promise academy model calls for extended days and a longer academic year. In addition to lunch, recess, enrichment activities and movement breaks, there could be more mentoring of students, longer basic academic classes such as math and reading, and increased focuses on social studies, science, world languages, arts, robotics, computer lab, and physical education.

If William Wells Brown had received just one-tenth of a point higher in the state’s accountability system, it would not have been a CSI school, Caulk said. The school has made significant improvements, said board chair Stephanie Spires, and some services are already offered to students after school and on the weekends. But district officials say they are still making bold changes.

Eleven teachers from William Wells Brown, who sat together in the audience at Wednesday’s meeting, declined to comment. But Jones acknowledged that his staff has had concerns about the proposed additional hours and his philosophy of limiting out-of-school suspensions. Instead of being suspended, more children are staying in the classroom and getting more intervention.

Before he became principal six years ago, William Wells Brown had the highest out-of-school suspension rate of all elementary schools in the district, Jones said. The next year, he said he cut that by 50 percent and still had the highest rate.

Jones said this year, all students combined only received a total of two hours of out-of-school suspension.

“That has been a shift for the staff. It’s been a rocky road here and there,” said Jones. “We are there to educate children. We are going to rebuild, we are going to restore. We are not going to fix a kid overnight that has had a long history of trauma.”

“It doesn’t look good for us to be low performing and kids are missing a lot of instructional time. We want to keep them in class as much as we can,” he said. Jones said research is clear that out-of-school suspensions in elementary schools create a pipeline to prison and “I’m not going to be part of that.”

Faith Thompson, Interim Chief of Elementary Schools, said teachers are getting more training on de-escalating problem behaviors.

Jones said his school is among those in Fayette that received audits from educational consultants. Caulk said the district will not get students to a level of proficiency using the same approach that its used in the past. He said before the new law, superintendents in urban districts in Kentucky did not have the tools they needed to intervene effectively. But he said he is now exercising his authority in the best interest of students.

“This is new for the community. Obviously not everybody is going to be on board,” Caulk said. “We know that if we are going to show the tremendous growth, we know we need more time” in the school day.

Jones said the way educators at his school go about their work has to change. Caulk said he is hiring a minority recruiter to find talented educators of color as part of the efforts to improve achievement in the district.

Thompson said parents at William Wells Brown and other CSI schools genuinely have high expectations for their students. Caulk said he wanted students to meet and exceed their families’ expectations and that is requiring “tough changes.”

“We will make sure that our children achieve at high levels and graduate prepared to excel in a global society,” Caulk said. “That’s our promise.”

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