Schools reject state aid and improve

When Frankfort Independent Schools Superintendent Rich Crowe wanted help in boosting his district's performance, he bypassed the nearby state Department of Education and headed for Union County, a small school district in Western Kentucky.

"I want to talk to their superintendent, Josh Powell, about the things he's doing, and see if we can replicate some of those things at Frankfort Independent," Crowe said before traveling to Union County earlier this week. "I'm interested in the results he's gotten."

Crowe isn't the only one suddenly interested in Powell and the Union County Public Schools, which has a total of about 2,300 students.

Powell started getting attention late last year, after Union County turned down an offer of assistance from the state education department, and instead launched its own, in-house program to attack its serious education problems.

Now, Powell says that program is working so well that Union County expects to be one of Kentucky's highest-scoring districts in statewide student testing next month.

"Our district has been rated 161 in the state, but we think we'll be better than top 50 this year," Powell said. "I'd say we're already there, based on our own in-house assessments. But we'll see how we fare at the end of the year."

(State education department spokeswoman Lisa Gross cautions that statewide rankings of schools might not be available this year under proposed changes in the state CATS student testing system. She also notes that the department doesn't encourage school rankings like those Powell cites.)

The Union County district is rated Tier 3 under the No Child Left Behind Act, and it has a middle school rated at Tier 5. Those scores essentially mean the county has been badly missing its educational goals.

Because of that, the Kentucky Department of Education last year offered to send in an ASSIST (Assistance and Support for Student Success) team to help Union County boost student performance. But Powell, who became superintendent last summer, said no. The district would fix its problem internally, he said.

"I think there are 57 districts in the state that are in tier status which have teams that the state sent in," Powell said. "I'm the only one that has ever declined one."

Powell says the district has instituted a number of changes, including: replacing some principals; naming curriculum coaches to work with teachers; developing its own assessment system for tracking students' progress; and generally placing an emphasis on excellence and accountability.

He says most of that has been done by promoting "the best and brightest" from within to take over key positions.

"We've tried to pick programs and people that are proven and can make an immediate impact on student achievement," Powell said. "If you choose high-caliber teachers, and promote high-performing people to work in the trenches with those teachers, it's beneficial at a faster pace."

Still, experts caution that there is no magic bullet for raising student achievement. But Lisa Stone, an education leader with the Kentucky Association of School Councils who has worked with Union County schools, says recent improvements have been impressive, particularly over a recent five-week period.

"We saw students that were far more engaged than they were before," she said. "Students were telling us that their teachers were expecting a lot more from them and that they were not allowed to sleep in class anymore."

Powell says many of the changes he instituted at Union County were learned while he was superintendent of the Cloverport Independent Schools in Breckinridge. According to Powell, Cloverport was ranked 165th in the state in 2005 and climbed into the top 10 by last year.

Powell says that Union County's own "formative assessments" — tests to gauge progress during learning — indicate that its students are rapidly improving their academic performance.

He said high school math scores have improved by 29 points since the beginning of the school year, while elementary reading is up by 26 points and middle school practical living scores have jumped 33 points.

Gross, the state education department spokeswoman, says it's hard to judge such scores without knowing details about the tests that were used.

Nevertheless, Powell says he's confident the Union district's performance will improve dramatically in this year's testing.

"We're not fixing problems just to get out of tier status. That's not good enough," he said. "We have the mind set that we're going to do what it takes to be No. 1."