Education

Drop in test scores is an issue as critics, supporters focus on Meadowthorpe Elementary

Alex Losch, 10, portrayed George Washington for visitors in a wax museum setting at Meadowthorpe Elementary.
Alex Losch, 10, portrayed George Washington for visitors in a wax museum setting at Meadowthorpe Elementary. Herald-Leader

It's not unusual to see parents concerned about improving their child's school, said Fayette County Superintendent Tom Shelton.

But some critics of Lexington's Meadowthorpe Elementary School made public their concerns about teacher turnover, communication with the principal and declining student achievement at a recent school board meeting. There is a petition on the website Change.org.

"What's unusual about this situation," said Shelton, "is that a group of parents wanted to see the district more involved." Shelton met privately with parents Oct. 29. Two parents, a grandparent, a teacher and a former staff member were among those who told the school board Oct. 27 that there were problems at Meadowthorpe.

"We do hear your concerns," school board chairman John Price told them. "We do expect to see change."

Over the last several weeks, people have contacted the Herald-Leader to express praise for principal Joel Katte and for the school and to say that they thought only a handful of parents and teachers were critical of Meadowthorpe. Katte told the school board that most parents and teachers had only positive things to say about the school.

Shelton told the Herald-Leader that the principal, with the support of a trained facilitator, invited teachers and parents to participate in "focused conversations over the summer, affording participants the opportunity to air concerns, clarify misunderstandings, and seek resolutions."

The Rev. Canon Johnnie E. Ross, the facilitator, said the school administration had admitted to making some mistakes but was working hard. Ross said there was a faction of critics "that for whatever reason want their pound of flesh."

One issue raised by some parents is that Meadowthorpe dropped in state proficiency testing in 2013-14 — from a classification of "distinguished" to "needs improvement."

In addition, the school's school-based decision making council is reviewing the effectiveness of a program called "The Leader in Me" that drives the school's learning.

With permission from the district, Katte had a private contract as a consultant for the company that offers "The Leader in Me," but he ended the contract "to ensure that there is no appearance of a conflict of interest," said Shelton.

At the school board meeting, Price reminded critics that state law says school board members cannot become involved in personnel matters involving a principal. He said only the superintendent and the school-based council could make personnel decisions.

Katte, meanwhile, told the school board on Oct. 27 that the "test scores are very concerning" and he was looking at them closely. He said he was also concerned about Meadowthorpe's achievement gap for minority, poor and disabled children.

But Katte said two years ago Meadowthorpe had the greatest growth in the district in terms of test scores and the results were still strong in 2013-14. He said third-grade reading scores for black children are 31 percent higher than the state average in terms of proficient and distinguished scores.

Katte said third-grade math scores for black children were 17 percent higher than the state average and fifth-grade scores were 19 percent higher than the state average.

"I am proud of our school. We continue to score high on achievement" he said.

Michele Richie, who said her child attended Meadowthorpe for three years under Katte, said in an email: "My student flourished under his leadership and I've had nothing but positive experiences with Mr. Katte."

However, parent Traci Letcher told the board she was on the school-based council that hired the principal in 2010 but now had several concerns. She told board members she and other parents had been emailing the board for months, and had participated in meetings in an attempt to make things better. She said more than 150 people signed the Change.org petition seeking a resolution.

A petition on Change.org cites teacher turnover, a drop in statewide rankings, a decline in the number of gifted students and a negative work environment.

Erica Snow, a member of Meadowthorpe's school-based council, told school board members that there should be an action plan to make corrections with benchmarks.

"What is the plan to help any teacher in a negative environment?" she asked.

In an email to the Herald-leader, Snow said the school-based council was conducting a review of the Leader in Me program.

The Franklin Covey Leader in Me program, based on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, equips students with the skills they need to thrive in the 21st-century economy, according to its website.

The website said 1,984 schools worldwide were implementing the program.

Katte said the school-based council that hired him had already committed to Meadowthorpe becoming one of the first Leader in Me schools in Kentucky.

"I had never even heard of the Leader in Me before I was hired. When the opportunity to apply for the consulting work on my personal time arose," he said he sought approval from Shelton and from his district supervisor.

"This August, when it became apparent that a few people raised questions about this work potentially being a conflict of interest, I decided I would no longer consult for Franklin Covey because I am fully committed to Meadowthorpe Elementary and did not want this to be a distraction within our school community," Katte said in a statement.

He said Franklin Covey had billed the school $21,000 for the program, but that the school collected $19,600 from educators who attended professional development programs for Leader in Me.

Katte said the sessions the school had this summer to try to iron out problems were successful for those who wanted to collaborate.

"Many positive leaders on our staff came forward with a good-faith effort to work with those who were upset. People who wanted to find solutions and move forward have done so," he said.

Fifth-grade teacher Natasha Al-Suud told the school board that concerns expressed at the Oct. 27 meeting were not universal.

She said that at Meadowthorpe, there is a "building full of people fighting the good fight."

At a visit to the school on Oct. 31, a fourth-grader and a fifth-grader greeted a reporter at the door and, on their own, conducted a tour of the school. Confident and articulate, they explained how the Leader in Me program was implemented.

The school was buzzing with activity. A third-grade class was having a carnival in which they showcased what they had learned about economics. Fifth-graders dressed up like someone who had contributed to history and stood frozen as if they were in a wax museum. As visitors approached, the students came to life to give biographical information about their characters.

Shelton, meanwhile, said the district is working on a plan to improve communication and collaboration at the school.

District officials are also analyzing test scores to develop an improvement plan.

"Everyone wants to see the school improve," said Shelton. "We are all working toward the same goal."

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