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Education Commissioner: Covington Schools Should Reduce Initiatives

"There's not a school district, including Covington, that couldn't improve their numbers," Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said. "It takes a focused effort rather than a shotgun approach and that's what I am pushing your superintendent to do. Look carefully at all the initiatives going on, reduce them, and focus on a few."

Holliday and former Northern Kentucky University President James Votruba sat down for an interview at The River City News office in Roebling Point this week. Votruba appeared as chair of the Northern Kentucky CEO Roundtable which recently endorsed the Common Core standards adopted for education in Kentucky.

"We did the same thing in Jefferson County. They had an audit done and they reduced the number of initiatives and they are now having another audit done of their magnet programs to make sure they are ensuring equity of access for the most impoverished children," Holliday said. "It may be a different structure for Covington and I'm working closely with the superintendent and the school board chair."

Holliday said he is sending Covington Superintendent Alvin Garrison, who is in his first year on the job after arriving from Hardin County where he was a high school principal, and School Board Chairman Jerry Avery to Houston to study another possible model for the district.

"We are very focused on getting better results here. Parents will not locate if we don't get better results," Holliday said.

Votruba shared that concern. "Young people are moving back to the city, on both sides of the river," Votruba said. "When they have children, one of the key ingredients is high expectations of a child in an adult's life. If these young people start having babies, if they stay they are going to be concerned about schools."

Holliday points to Washington, DC where the school district struggled as one of the worst in the nation ten to fifteen years ago but is now, as Holliday said, "a whole lot better". 

"They have made a lot of progress," he said. Competition in the form of charter schools may be part of that improvement. "Young married couples with children and great jobs, when looking at the school district they've got more options."

"I'm not a big proponent of charters but I am supportive if the local school board oversees them," Holliday said.

The commissioner envisions a scenario in which a charter school would get a contract from the local school board with certain performance targets required to be met. "The entity that awards the contract should be the local school board," he said.

He is sending Garrison and Avery to Houston to study what he described as a new concept called Portfolio Management. According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education: 

Many districts see themselves as portfolio managers, operating some schools in the traditional way, hiring independent groups to run other schools, and holding all schools accountable under the same performance standards.

Portfolio management requires school districts to do three things they were not designed to do: judge the performance of individual schools, decide which are effective enough to continue supporting, and decide whether to shore up struggling schools or create new ones. Districts currently adopting a portfolio strategy, partially or fully, include New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Denver, Philadelphia, Hartford, and the District of Columbia. Many other districts are considering the strategy.

"I don't know if it's a viable option. I'm just asking them to go look at it," Holliday said. "It'll be their call. We're not influencing the decision, just giving them some options to be considered that haven't been tried anywhere (in Kentucky)."
 
Covington challenged by remnants of urban decay
 
"If you look at any urban decay, which decayed first, the school system of the community?," Holliday asked. "One hundred percent of the time it was the community."
 
"So when jobs and businesses began to leave Covington it was a natural follow that housing would have an impact, rental housing would draw a less prosperous community, and then poverty became the cycle." 
 
How do you reverse it? "Education is a key driver to reverse that trend," Holliday said.
 
The work has to begin early, too, Holliday said. "Northern Kentucky has done good work with preschool programs," the commissioner said. "What we've got to do is make sure that kids are getting help from birth to five (years of age). That's where the achievement gap closes or gets wider. Once they hit five, it gets harder and harder every year."
 
"If we can close that gap through quality preschool then it's essential that our schools make certain we don't lose ground between Kindergarten and third grade."
 
Research shows that students close their education gap or begin to go backwards by the end of third grade, he said.
 
It may take a long time to see results, though. "Politicians want things to happen in one election cycle. This is a generational period of time," Holliday said.
 
He expects Northern Kentucky to start to see the benefits of its preschool efforts in the next five to ten years.
 
Covington and its neighboring river cities of Newport, Bellevue, and Dayton, which claim some of the worst-performing districts in the state, are also dealing with poverty levels that can also affect educational performance, Votruba said.
 
"We're grading schools and we probably ought to grade communities as well," the former NKU president said, "based on the extent to which they support children and their support for learning. We blame so much on schools when in fact so much of what goes on in schools is influenced in communities."
 
Votruba said stable family environments are key. "Poverty is so insidious when it comes to school performance, it churns cities so much."
 
Votruba said that as the Northern Kentucky urban cities find themselves at the early stages of a renaissance, organizations like The Catalytic Fund, which aims to facilitate the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in new residential developments here, are so important.
 
As for the school districts themselves, more money thrown their way may not be the answer, Holliday said. "It's critical for leadership of school districts, the superintendent, the school board, that they be committed to improving results and with money comes great responsibility."
 
Improvements in a city's overall health and higher achievement at schools must happen together, Holliday said.
 
"You have to have both coming," he said. "The pressure is on your new superintendent and your new school board for new results." He said similar pressure was on Dayton Schools recently and that the new superintendent Jay Brewer is making progress there.
 
Common Core is working in Kentucky
 
Holliday and Votruba met with local media this week to tout progress made in Kentucky schools since the adoption of the Common Core standards, an initiative adopted in forty-five states written by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. The standards clearly communicate what is expected of students at each grade level, according to its website.
 
The initiative has its vocal critics but Holliday and Votruba say the program is working in Kentucky.
 
"Thank God for Mississippi (used to be a refrain in Kentucky)," Votruba said of academic achievement in the Commonwealth. "Every time we talked about Kentucky schools. (But) if you look at the numbers, we've gone from forty-ninth fifteen years ago to thirtieth or thirty-fifth depending on the measures. Some have us in the top ten."
 
"It's an unbelievable story."
 
Since Kentucky approved the Common Core Standards in 2010, the state's students have gone from thirty percent career readiness to fifty-four percent.
 
"I'm not a P-12 educator, I'm a P-12 advocate because what happens there has consequences here and across the state," Votruba said.
 
Votruba chairs the NKY CEO Roundtable which recently issued an endorsement of Common Core in a letter that reads in part:
If the Kentucky Core Academic Standards are producing such strong results, why do pockets of resistance remain? The most common criticism is that the standards represent the federal government’s attempt to impose a national curriculum when the constitution makes clear that education is a state responsibility. In fact, there was no federal government involvement in the development of the standards. 
 
The standards were developed by the states with leadership from university faculty, teachers, and professional educators. It’s been argued that the standards are not research based and are not internationally benchmarked. In fact, the standards grow out of research and are strongly aligned with the performance of high performing states and nations. It’s been argued that the standards represent a national curriculum that all schools must embrace. In fact, the standards are NOT a curriculum. They are performance outcomes that must be met but the curriculum used to achieve them is left up to local schools. Some suggest that the standards aren’t high enough. In fact, the standards represent a minimum performance threshold. Schools can set standards that exceed the Kentucky Core Academic Standards but not below. Finally, some argue that the standards only include skills and not content knowledge. In fact, the standards have a rigorous definition of college and career ready which emphasizes content mastery as well as its application – for greater depth of knowledge.
Commissioner: More funding for P-12 coming, but at expense of higher education
 
Holliday said that the Kentucky Department of Education requested $360 million in the Governor's proposed biennial budget, but Governor Steve Beshear put even more in there as announced during a speech in which the Democrat emphasized a need to improve resources for Kentucky's schools.
 
Teachers will get pay raises and technology will be improved, if the budget is passed.
 
But higher education will see a reduction in funding, Beshear said, if his budget is adopted.
 
"The big drawback," Holliday said, "is (Beshear) had to borrow money from all other state agencies including higher education and we're very worried about that. He didn't have a choice because he can't spend what he doesn't have, so in the General Assembly this session, the push will be on for tax reform."
 
Holliday also said that expanded gaming could be a new revenue source for education in Kentucky. "I think there's probably a lot of support to at least put it on the ballot for Kentucky citizens," Holliday said. "All I need to do is walk up and down your streets here and look at your school system and I can't help but wonder what would happen if you had a revenue source like gaming to compete with what's across the river."
 
Cincinnati has a brand new casino within walking distance of Covington.
 
More money for Kentucky schools must mean better results, Holliday said.
 
"With any new funding should come accountability for funding," he said. "That is an initiative we have pushed for statewide. We have required superintendent evaluations to include an ethics review, fiscal accountability, and required additional school board training. And we're looking for results. We cannot keep providing funding without seeing improvement in results and that is measured usually by the traditional measures of closing the achievement gap, graduation rates, college and career readiness rates."
 
"The worst thing that could happen is the governor and General Assembly to invest in schools at the expense of higher education and other agencies and K-12 not show results."
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photo: Covington Board of Education building/RCN file