Retired state education commissioner prods Lexington mayor, council to help Fayette schools

Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday.
Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday. Kentucky Department of Education

As Terry Holliday retired from his post as Kentucky Education Commissioner last week, he talked about his desire to see Fayette County's achievement gap close.

The achievement gap is directly linked to whether students have quality early childhood education, Holliday said, and participation from Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council could be crucial.

In the final months of his tenure, Holliday told Fayette County Public Schools officials to give more support to low-achieving students and put more focus on the gap between minority, disabled or poor students and others — or face state action.

As the two largest school districts in the state, Jefferson and Fayette counties represent 60 percent of the minority children in the state, Holliday said in an interview.

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"We're never going to close the achievement gap in Kentucky if we don't address the performance of minority children in those school districts," he said.

Holliday said he made a push a few years ago in Jefferson County to close the achievement gap and that district had made progress.

He said while Jefferson County still has work to do, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, the school board and the superintendent have made a priority of closing the achievement gap.

Fischer has said that city government plays a major role in making sure that young people are learning, and that's why he launched the Cradle to Career Initiative, which convenes many groups.

One component of that initiative involves early childhood education. Another involves Jefferson County Public Schools putting a focus on kindergarten through 12th grade, said Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter.

Holliday said he hoped Lexington's mayor and the Urban County Council would also make the achievement gap a priority, along with Fayette school officials.

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Gray spokeswoman Susan Straub said addressing the achievement gap is very important to the mayor.

He supports the "Big Bold Goal," the United Way's goal that 10,000 more families will be self-sufficient by 2020. That program includes school readiness initiatives to improve the quality of childcare, family support and early intervention; and to equip parents to make positive choices for their families.

Another part is Student Success, which focuses on education.

Fischer's staff recently gave United Way of the Bluegrass officials and mayors in the region a presentation on Cradle to Career and how Louisville is working with the Jefferson County school district.

Straub said Lexington also has "a variety of long-standing initiatives — most prominently Partners for Youth, which offers a variety of educational programming. And we support schools in a variety of other ways."

Holliday said historically in Fayette County, closing the achievement gap was a priority among some people in the community. But he said a state education department audit showed the district lacked support for low-performing schools where the achievement gap persists.

As a result, Holliday said, the state education department had been working with new superintendent Manny Caulk and interim superintendent Marlene Helm on a comprehensive plan.

"It won't make a big difference overnight. This is a long-term issue, not a short-term fix," said Holliday.

He said the plan focuses on closing the gaps early and focusing resources.

Helm has said that work on closing the achievement gap involves daily meetings and a focus on the progress of individual children.

The state's plan is to decrease the number of students performing at the novice level in the state's accountability system, and raising the achievement among minorities, disabled students and students living in poverty.

Holliday said Fayette County's school board, Central Office and principals all responded well to the state's intervention.

"I do believe the state's influence and push may have focused the school board there in Fayette County on hiring someone with a track record on working to close the achievement gap," he said.

Holliday, who had been commissioner since 2009, said whoever the state school board hires to replace him has other challenges. Stephen Pruitt, senior vice president at Achieve Inc., a Washington, D.C., education reform organization, is Holliday's likely successor.

In his final blog post, Holliday said that while Kentucky had excellent teacher preparation programs, "we must review the certification requirements for our upper elementary and middle school teachers who focus on mathematics."

Also, the Governor's Bullying Task Force recommendations need to be fully implemented in schools, he said. Holliday said a task force was set to present recommendations to Beshear in October.

It's key to make sure Kentucky has a comprehensive definition of bullying and that bullying is seen as a community issue, not just a school issue, since it often happens outside of school hours. There could also be a state office that's focused on helping parents find the resources they need when a child is bullied, he said.

Additionally, Holliday said funding for critical support systems such as school transportation and career and technical education must be increased.

"Our school districts will tell you that transportation challenges are huge," Holliday said, because the General Assembly is only funding half of districts' transportation cost.

Holliday said his decision to retire two years before his contract ended was motivated by factors that included a throat condition that is not life-threatening, but that requires injections to help him speak normally.

Holliday said he directly attributed the successes he had as commissioner to help from Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife Jane Beshear, and the General Assembly.

Kentucky is getting a new governor, Holliday said, and he thought it would be "a good time" for the state education board and a new commissioner to develop relationships with that governor.