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The Legacy of 'Prich': Bluegrass-Roots Reform

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This summer, principals and teachers in nine high schools across Kentucky will begin what Robert F. Sexton calls "a little creative stirring of the pot.''

They will be rethinking, with the aid of educational experts, the design and structure of their schools, from class schedule to curriculum and teaching methods.

Mr. Sexton is the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an unusually influential citizens' group that has masterminded the bottom-up reform project.

It may, he admits, be "presumptuous'' for an organization like his to take on a task that "should have been done by the state education department.''

But that, says he and the many admirers of his grassroots reform group, is the beauty of the Prichard Committee.

"I don't think instruments of government can respond as quickly as they need to,'' says Mr. Sexton, noting that the Kentucky High School Project bears many similarities to Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson's "benchmark schools'' proposal, which failed to gain passage in this year's legislative session.

"You'd have to move a mountain to convince the legislature to do this right now,'' he says. "It's not nearly so hard to convince a couple of donors and a few schools to do it.''

To Mr. Sexton, the project could be a lever for moving "this huge, complex system toward some truly creative thinking.''

The committee has convinced the education department to provide funding for technical assistance and to be, in the words of the state board, "open-minded'' in reviewing changes proposed by the nine schools. The Kentucky Humanities Council and South Central Bell have agreed to match the state grant.

Such a blending of government, business, education, and public support has been a hallmark of the Prichard Committee, whose work Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, calls "unique.''

In slightly more than half a decade, the 60-member citizens' group has gained a reputation as one of the most influential bodies in the state.

"I don't think there is any question,'' says Wade Mountz, the committee's current chairman, "that our credibility was a very significant factor in the willingness of donors to risk their money'' on the school-site reform initiative.

The 'Dazzling Center'

That credibility has been built up through an extraordinary combination of personal dynamism, effective communication, and consensus-building. And the man who embodied all three was the group's founder and namesake, the late Edward F. Prichard Jr.

Little known today outside of Kentucky, Mr. Prichard was once a man whom official Washington considered to be a likely future President. He was a White House assistant to Franklin D. Roosevelt at the age of 30, and held other posts in the Justice, War, and Treasury departments of that era.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in a 1985 memoir of "Prich'' for the New York Review of Books, called him the "dazzling center'' of the New Deal brain trust.

Katharine Graham, board chairman of the Washington Post Company and the widow of Philip Graham, another New Deal brain-truster, has described Mr. Prichard as "the most impressive young man of our generation, the one who dazzled us most.''

"Dazzling'' and "brilliant'' are two words used often to describe Mr. Prichard, who was known as much for his oratory and splendid conversation as for his keen analytical mind.

He had left his home in Bourbon County, Ky., at the age of 16 to study first at Princeton University, then at the Harvard Law School. At Harvard, he became the favored pupil of Felix Frankfurter, who took Mr. Prichard to Washington as his law clerk when he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Political Career Derailed

Though it was widely assumed when he left Washington to return to Kentucky after World War II that Mr. Prichard would eventually be elected governor or U.S. Senator, an act of political recklessness ended his hopes for higher office.

In 1948, he was convicted of vote fraud for stuffing 243 fraudulent ballots into 11 precinct boxes during a Kentucky senatorial campaign.

He spent five months in the federal penitentiary at Ashland, Ky., before being pardoned by President Harry S Truman.

After dropping from the public limelight for a decade, he slowly re-emerged in the late 1950's and early 1960's as a Kentucky statesman--gaining renewed popularity with the media, counseling governors, and leading the crusade for a stronger public-education system.

His Committee for Academic Excellence was his last grand effort, and many Kentuckians say his most lasting mark on the state.

Origins in State Commission

It had its beginnings in the work of a one-shot, garden-variety state commission appointed in 1980 by the state council on higher education. That group of 30 citizens was to examine the condition of postsecondary education in Kentucky. Its chairman was Mr. Prichard, who had worked with the council since 1966.

Mr. Sexton left the University of Kentucky at that time, where he had been director of the office for experiential education and an associate dean of undergraduate studies, to become the deputy executive director for the commission that eventually bore Mr. Prichard's name.

The commission's report, In Pursuit of Excellence, was released in the fall of 1981. But, according to Mr. Sexton, many of the panel's members felt that its release marked only the beginning of their work.

"The people on the committee concluded that unless the existing political system--represented by agencies, boards of trustees, the governor, and the legislature--was given a push, it was unlikely that they were going to take the steps that were needed'' to improve education at every level, says Mr. Sexton.

The members stayed in touch informally throughout the following year, and by the spring of 1983, Mr. Prichard had secured enough private donations to form The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

The group broke all ties to state government, expanded its agenda to include elementary and secondary schools, and added another 30 citizens to its membership.

These committee members included--then and now--not only representatives from the state's most influential businesses, such as Ashland Oil and South Central Bell, but also concerned parents and community activists. They served on a voluntary basis, contributing their time--and often their money--to secure the committee's goals.

'Event of the Century'

At the time of the committee's founding, recalls Dorothy S. Riddings, who was then its vice-chairman, "we looked at our priorities and decided that something ... had to be done to show the legislature that there was enormous grassroots support for improvement of education.''

What they decided upon--and somehow managed to pull together logistically--was a statewide series of town forums on the question: "What do you really want your schools to do?''

State newspapers called the simultaneous forums held in the fall of 1984 the "landmark event of the century'' for Kentucky education. The Prichard Committee had brought together nearly 20,000 parents, educators, and concerned citizens to talk about the schooling of their children.

Ms. Riddings says now that many of the committee members initially had serious doubts about the feasibility of the idea because of the huge amounts of time and effort required for organization.

"It was such a massive undertaking for a volunteer group without a full-time staff,'' she says.

The committee's total staff consisted of Mr. Sexton, who had joined the re-formed group as executive director, and a part-time secretary.

The forums got a big boost, Ms. Riddings says, when the committee received a gift of $50,000 from an anonymous donor. That allowed the group to hire a part-time coordinator for the forum project--Scottie Kenkel.

Ms. Kenkel still assists the local groups that were spawned by the town forums.

The Ashland Oil Company offered to publicize the forums, and Martha Layne Collins, then Governor of the state, pledged her participation. The Kentucky Educational Television network agreed to broadcast a discussion between Governor Collins and Mr. Prichard that would serve as a starting point for the local group discussions.

Death on Eve of Success

Ms. Riddings and others credit Mr. Prichard's magnetism and stature with making "our early efforts credible'' and ensuring the success of the forums.

When some 400 local organizers for the town forums gathered in Lexington to discuss the details of the event, Mr. Prichard told them they were "the shock troops in the battle for educational improvement.''

"As long as I draw breath,'' he said,"I will give everything to this cause.''

And he kept his word, working diligently until the day the forums were to take place, even though he had lost his sight from complications of diabetes and was on dialysis for kidney failure.

On the day of the forums, he entered the hospital and was unable to deliver the televised address. He died a month later.

Mr. Prichard's long-time friend, former Gov. Bert T. Combs, stepped in that night for Mr. Prichard and the forums went on as planned.

After the televised discussion, local groups in virtually all of the state's 180 school districts held their own forums. The committee arranged for a moderator and a notetaker to be at each of the meetings to record the suggestions.

Those suggestions later were incorporated into a major reform report issued by the committee in 1985, entitled A Path to a Larger Life.

Even more important, Mr. Sexton points out, is that the forums provided the impetus for the creation of many local and state groups that are still active in pushing for education reform.

Help From 3 Former Governors

Even though the town forums had firmly established the Prichard Committee as a force for educational change, Mr. Prichard's death posed problems for the group.

"When we lost Ed Prichard, we lost our catalyst for fundraising,'' says Edward T. Breathitt, a committee member who served as Kentucky's governor in the mid-1960's. "That's why it was necessary for the three governors to activate the business community.''

Mr. Breathitt, Mr. Combs, and another former Governor who had joined the group, Louie B. Nunn, wrote letters to businesses and private donors asking for support.

Their solicitation brought in $30,000 from 150 new donors, which was added to the nearly $50,000 previously collected.

"The tremendous thing that you cannot underestimate about that campaign was that the average donation was $300, and they came from little banks and employers across the state who had never been contacted by a committee member before,'' said Mr. Sexton, who stresses that the on-going support of the business community has sustained the committee.

Today, the committee operates on about $150,000 a year. Mary and Barry Bingham Jr., of the publishing dynasty that formerly owned the Louisville Courier Journal, have pledged to donate $100,000 this year and next year.

Mr. Breathitt attributes the support to a "heightened awareness'' within the business community of the link between education and economic development.

A Credible, Nonpartisan Force

James M. Wiseman, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which has formed its own education task force, agrees.

"We might have been late in arriving at the conclusion, but we have decided that education is the biggest single factor in bringing economic growth in the state,'' he says.

Mr. Wiseman adds that the fact that the Prichard Committee is a non-governmental, nonpartisan group of citizens has made it the most respected group in the state working in education.

Those same attributes are cited by members of the press as reasons that the group's activities have received extensive media coverage.

"The committee is one of the dominant voices in Kentucky education,'' says Mary Ann Roser, an education writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Talking to them is a way to get the citizens' viewpoint as opposed to the bureaucratic viewpoint.''

Mr. Sexton says he considers the support of the press as crucial to the organization's success as the support of the business community.

Says Fannie Louise Maddux, a committee member who serves on the board of education in Hopkinsville: "It's very important to work with the press because the major, long-term activity of the committee is to keep the grassroots folks aware.''

Building Legislative Momentum

Local newspapers and television stations were instrumental, Mr. Sexton notes, in carrying the message of the 1985 reform report to every community.

And the document's dismal findings were, in fact, news.

Kentucky ranked 50th among the states in the number of adults having a high-school diploma, 49th in the number of college graduates, and 48th in spending for education. Yet it ranked 1st in the rate of teen-age pregnancy and 3rd in the level of poverty.

The report called for reforms in all areas of education, from early-childhood services to the status of teachers.

"The town forums and the report built the momentum for the 1985 legislative session,'' says Ms. Riddings. Some reform measures, such as reduced class sizes and an "academic bankruptcy'' provision, were adopted in a special session that year.

"But we would have liked to have seen so much more,'' Mr. Sexton says. "That's a major reason for the high-school project.''

'Asking the Right Questions'

The two-year project began last year with the selection process for schools. Mr. Sexton and a consultant, Stephen A. Henderson, principal of the Model Laboratory School in Richmond, Ky., conducted meetings with principals and teachers interested in participating.

The attendance at those informational sessions was encouraging, Mr. Sexton says; most principals brought three or four teachers with them.

Bill Wells, the principal of Murray High School, one of the schools eventually chosen to participate in the project, says his contingent "drove 300 miles in the snow to attend one of the meetings.''

"We were that interested,'' he says, "in just having the opportunity to hear the speakers and share ideas.''

Mr. Wells and his staff members will join the principals and teachers at the eight other schools chosen as they begin looking this summer at ways to restructure the school day, the curriculum, and the instructional program to better motivate both students and faculty members.

The schools, which are located in rural pockets of eastern and western Kentucky and in the large metropolitan area of Louisville, will receive materials, technical assistance, and consulting visits from experts, by way of the Prichard Committee.

Those involved in the project will also attend several retreats--the first of which is scheduled for June--to share ideas and meet with nationally recognized experts in the field.

Five additional schools from the Jefferson County district, which includes Louisville, will participate in the retreats. They are associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, headed by the Brown University educator Theodore Sizer.

"Substantially, what Mr. Sexton and the committee have come up with is very close to what we are doing in the coalition,'' Mr. Sizer says. "I think they are asking all the right questions.''

By June of 1989, each of the nine schools in the project is expected to have formulated a plan for change that the participants will then take to local school boards and the state board.

Working on Changes

From early indications, some of the plans could include radical departures from the status quo.

Wallace Napier, principal of Evarts High School in Eastern Kentucky, says, for example, that his faculty members want to restructure the class schedule to more closely resemble a college schedule.

"We would like to teach the basic courses on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and have the electives offered on Tuesday and Thursday,'' he says.

Implementation of such plans, given board approval, would take place in the fall of 1989.

Mr. Newman of the E.C.S. says the Kentucky High School Project fits in with the current focus of many reform efforts elsewhere, which he describes as "changing the system from within the school building.''

"But to see a citizens' committee involved in such an initiative,'' he adds, "is unique.''

Staying Power

To Mr. Sexton of the Prichard Committee, however, the high-school project is "something we are really doing on the side.''

"Our main focus,'' he says, "has to continue to be on harnessing grassroots support for measures that will assist at-risk children and improve the teaching profession, among other things. We simply cannot lose sight of those issues.''

It is this continuing effort to keep the citizenry aroused and informed about education, Mr. Newman says, that sets the Prichard Committee apart from other similar groups.

"I can't think of another citizens' committee with as much willingness to stay in the game,'' he says.

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