Corrected: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the mathematics department head at the Academy @ Shawnee. It is Dion vonAllmen.
In Kentucky, becoming part of the School Improvement Grant Program meant more than just getting federal money for a rigorous turnaround plan: It meant that Principal Keith Look and his staff had to get used to the idea of having three officials from the state education department stationed right in their school, working with them daily.
Mr. Look was initially dubious about the arrangement. Having worked as an administrator in struggling schools in other states, he’s seen firsthand the friction that can develop between school staff members and specialists sent in by a state education agency.
Some of his teachers were also anxious at first.
“I thought the state was going to come in and tell us what to do. Like, you have to do this, word for word, or else,” said Brittany Mozingo, a mathematics teacher.
But that quickly changed once she met the trio of specialists from the Kentucky Department of Education, she said. Now she regularly welcomes Billie Travis, the mathematics specialist, into her classroom.
“They want us to grow; they want to see Shawnee be successful,” she said.
That’s the message the state team—led by Leesa Moman, a former district assistant superintendent working on special education issues, who is charged with mentoring Mr. Look—has worked hard to impart.
“Our job is to empower and encourage and assist,” said Ms. Moman, a 30-year veteran who some days leaves her home in Owensboro, Ky., at 4:30 a.m. and drives 108 miles to get to work at Shawnee in time for the start of school. Other days, she lives out of a suitcase.
The collaborative relationship doesn’t mean the state team agrees with Mr. Look on everything. “He may say something is pink, and I say it’s fuchsia,” said Ms. Travis, the specialist some of Shawnee’s students have affectionately dubbed “Miss Math.”
But Mr. Look said the success of the partnership has more to do with the shared vision and personal chemistry between his administration and the state team than with the arrangement itself.
He sees Ms. Moman and her team as the primary vehicle the state has for keeping tabs on the school. “It was an awkward dance at first,” said Mr. Look, but “both of us came in wanting the relationship to work.”
Mr. Look is now hoping to keep all three state officials for at least another school year.
Right now, that doesn’t appear likely to happen. The fiscal situation in Kentucky—as in other states—is grim. Funding for the state program, which pays for the specialists at Shawnee and other turnaround schools, is slated to run out in early summer.
“That doesn’t mean all is lost. … We’re going to be looking at trying to find a way to continue the funding,” said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the state education department. But she cautioned, “It’s bad all over.”
At Shawnee, all three specialists fill a void. Ms. Moman’s special education background is a huge asset for the school, where more than 20 percent of the students have been identified as having special needs. Bill Philbeck—himself a former principal—is the team’s literacy specialist.
Ms. Travis is also a veteran educator—and, like Ms. Moman, she’s an expert in analyzing test data to home in on students’ gaps. Her experience is especially helpful for Dion vonAllmen, who, as the mathematics department head, would normally take the lead on that work.
Mr. vonAllmen spent the first 20-some years of his career teaching at a Catholic school across the Ohio River in Indiana, where the students were nearly upper-middle-class—very different from Shawnee, where most students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Mr. vonAllmen, who applied for the job at Shawnee after reading about Mr. Look and his efforts in the local newspaper, keeps the fluorescent overhead lights in his classroom off and instead uses incandescent floor lamps he bought himself. He’s read studies that say softer lighting can have a calming effect on students who might stress over tricky math concepts.
He’s had a steep learning curve—adjusting not just to a new population, but also to a new approach to assessments, data-driven instruction, and accountability.
Mr. vonAllmen is a talented educator who has come a long way in a short time at Shawnee, said Debbie Powers, the executive director of the Kentucky Principals Academy, at the University of Louisville, who works with Mr. Look at Shawnee as part of a partnership with the university. But he would benefit from another year or two with Ms. Travis to hone his skills.
Mr. Look agrees, but he said he always knew that the state specialists were a short-term intervention, not a long-term solution.
“I know these people are going away eventually,” Mr. Look said. “If I can’t have them for another year, our progress will slow, but I don’t believe that we will slide backwards.”
Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as State Specialists’ Team Offers Aid in Turnaround