After Early Progress, Ky. School Struggles to Turn Around

By Alyson Klein — June 11, 2013 10 min read
Keith Look, the principal of the Academy @ Shawnee, slaps hands with a student at the end of the school day. Intensive efforts to turn around the Louisville, Ky., high school have not yet yielded the needed results.
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After three years, a $1.5 million investment, a huge staffing shake-up, and an assist from some of the state’s veteran educators, the long-troubled former Shawnee High School here remains on tenuous ground.

The school, now called the Academy @ Shawnee, looked like an early success story for the newly supercharged—and controversial—School Improvement Grant program. Just one year after joining the high-profile, federally financed effort to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools, Shawnee posted double-digit gains in reading and math.

But then, the landscape changed. Kentucky—a leader in the national effort to implement uniform, rigorous standards—put in place a new curriculum and assessments that demanded much more of Shawnee’s students, many of whom entered ill-prepared for high school.

The school was pulled back into the academic doldrums, placing among the bottom 1 percent in the state.

Principal Keith Look, who left one of the highest-performing middle schools in the Jefferson County school district to lead Shawnee five years ago, is worried he will lose his job. State guidelines call for leaders at struggling schools to be carefully reassessed—and even removed—if a school remains among the worst performers for an extended period.

Liz Cox, left, an administrator at the Academy @ Shawnee, helps senior T’uana Hanley with her gown for the school's upcoming graduation day, as librarian Stephanie Conrad watches.

“Based on the way I read policy, my clock is ticking,” Mr. Look said last month. He expects the school to show significant growth in the second year of the new assessment system, but he doesn’t expect Shawnee to climb out of “priority status,” the federal term for a state’s lowest-performing schools.

“We will make gains,” he said, “but they will not be enough to get us out of the bottom 5 percent” next year.

What’s more, Shawnee and other low-performing schools in the 100,000-student Jefferson County district are caught in a political tug of war between the district and Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s commissioner of education. The state chief is considering taking over turnaround operations at a number of Jefferson County schools that he believes aren’t making progress fast enough.

Sufficient Time for Change?

Shawnee’s three-year roller coaster ride underscores some of the crucial questions facing policymakers as the first cohort of schools in the federal SIG program winds up its grants.

Is three years enough time to expect major changes in student outcomes? And how do much tougher standards and new tests—which nearly all states are beginning to embrace—throw a monkey wrench into the works when it comes to holding the lowest-performing schools accountable for change?

Already, the Council of Chief State School Officers is calling for the federal government to allow states the flexibility to freeze the lists of struggling schools—under a series of waivers put out by the U.S. Department of Education. That would give educators time to adjust to higher expectations, the CCSSO argues. (“States Seek Flexibility on Testing,” this issue.)

Turnaround schools like Shawnee are in a particularly precarious position during the transition to new common-core standards and tests, said Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based group that has done extensive research on the SIG program.

State and district officials in Kentucky and elsewhere should be cautious in drawing hard and fast conclusions from just one year of data, particularly right after big changes in standards and assessments, she added.

“It’s probably not fair to make high-stakes [personnel] decisions after you’ve changed the standards and changed the tests,” she said.

Clare Sievers, who conducts mathematics interventions at Shawnee, works with junior Javonte Richie.

Ms. Rentner expects to see a broader discussion of the issue as more long-foundering schools move to implement the Common Core State Standards and new tests.

“Kentucky is a leader, so they’re confronting it now, ahead of everyone else,” she said.

Early Success

When the SIG program was first expanded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, Shawnee High, which had seen stagnant student achievement for decades, was an obvious candidate for a piece of the $3.5 billion fund.

The program calls for state and other officials to choose from a menu of widely debated improvement models, including conversion to charter status, a complete shutdown, or use of a basket of strategies that includes merit pay and extended learning time. In nearly all cases, the principal must be replaced unless that person has been on the job for less than three years.

In the first year of the program, Shawnee and other low-performing Jefferson County schools chose the “turnaround” option, which meant roughly half their teachers were moved to other schools in the district and other teachers were hired to replace them.

Mr. Look had wide latitude to recruit the best replacements he could find. He was able to persuade some high fliers to switch to his campus, including more than half a dozen teachers who had previously held leadership and professional-development roles in the district. He wound up with what he described as a “team of Michael Jordans.”

The strategy paid off at first: The school made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the No Child Left Behind Act for the first time in its history, through the federal law’s “safe harbor” provision.

Unexpected Blow

Shawnee even scored a visit from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in November 2011. Afterward, Mr. Duncan occasionally weaved the school into public remarks to illustrate the power of the SIG program, which is on thin political ice in Congress. He quoted students by name who had told him that more of their friends would have made it to graduation if only the school’s turnaround had gotten started earlier.

Last year’s test results came as “a real sucker punch,” said Imogen Herrick, a science teacher who has been at the school since before the start of the turnaround. “We had adapted to the original assessments and started to make gains,” she said. “All of a sudden, this brand-new assessment system came in, and we were right back at the bottom again.”

Still, Ms. Herrick feels her students will benefit from the new curriculum, which generally uses tests developed by act, Inc. and is tied to the common core. And she pointed out that the school has inched up on the one measure that has remained constant from year to year: act scores. Shawnee students also made small gains—1.9 composite points—between the explore test, taken by 8th graders, and the plan test, taken by 10th graders.

Tito Castillo, a school administrator at Shawnee, worked under a federal School Improvement Grant but will not be returning next year. Ms. Cox and Ms. Sievers are also not returning.

Ms. Herrick, has signed on for another year at the school, despite interest from other places in the district.

“We’ve put a lot of heart into this place,” she said of Shawnee’s staff.

For the most part, the teaching force has remained relatively stable throughout the turnaround effort, with about a dozen teachers electing to leave over a three-year period. The same can’t be said for Mr. Look’s administrative staff, which has turned over every year, in part because of promotions.

But Ms. Herrick and other teachers say they feel as if they’re under a powerful microscope. Part of the reason: Jefferson County officials don’t think the school is making progress fast enough. And the district itself was stung by state Commissioner Holliday’s contention that turnarounds had been more successful at schools in which the state led improvement operations.

Dewey Hensley, the district’s chief academic officer, is worried that test scores will remain so low at Shawnee, particularly after all the resources that have been poured into the school. And he’s concerned about Shawnee’s suspension rate. It has gone down 20 percent over the past year, according to Mr. Look, but remains among the highest in the district.

See Also

Education Week is chronicling progress at Shawnee High School in Louisville, Ky., where educators work to transform the long-troubled campus as part of a nationwide federal push to turn around thousands of low-performing schools. See past coverage.

“There is a new accountability system that changes the metric to some degree ... yes, that is challenging,” Mr. Hensley said. "[But] every kid in Kentucky took the same test. Our kids that attend Shawnee High School were in that first percentile.” Trend data is important, he said, but “that’s a red flag.”

“We can’t be so much about inputs,” he said. “We have to be about outcomes for kids.” He added, “To have a great staff, that doesn’t necessarily translate into [higher] student achievement unless there are things put in place that are directly connected to that kind of change and achievement.”

Mr. Hensley, who oversees more than 155 schools, said he has been to Shawnee a couple of times and has not talked extensively to its teachers. Lynne Wheat, an assistant superintendent, keeps him apprised of Shawnee’s progress. She declined to be interviewed for this article.

Billie Travis, who is one of four Kentucky Department of Education specialists in turnarounds assigned to Shawnee, said the school is making progress with challenging students and new standards.

“The bottom line is that the teachers here know how to teach. That’s something we don’t see at all of our priority schools,” said Ms. Travis, who spends four days a week at another priority school and has helped conduct close evaluations, or “audits,” of others. “Because we’re at the bottom doesn’t mean the teachers aren’t teaching their heart out,” she said. “We’re teaching act to kids who are at the 3rd grade level.”

Mr. Look, she added, “has found people who have knowledge of the students and what they bring to the table and how to move them from point A to point B. It’s just that we don’t have time in four years to move them from point B to point C.”

A little over 80 percent of Shawnee’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (compared with 63 percent across Jefferson County) a figure Mr. Look says may be artificially low since it could include students at an early-childhood center housed on the site. Twenty-seven percent of Shawnee’s students are in special education. The school also has a high transience rate: Seventy-five percent of freshmen have moved on to other schools by senior year, Mr. Look said.

Mr. Hensley pointed to two other priority schools in the district that he said are making greater gains: Western High School, which has a high-poverty population and saw double-digit gains in the first year of the turnaround, but remains in the bottom 3 percent in the state; and Fern Creek High School, a larger school with a much broader demographic mix of traditionally underserved students and their more advantaged peers. Other schools with student populations similar to Shawnee’s, including Valley High School and Iroquois High School, are also in the bottom 1 percent.

Potential for Turnover

State support at Shawnee had been strong at first, but has tapered off through the turnaround period, in part because of limited resources. Initially, the Kentucky education department dispatched a trio of veteran educators to work in the school full time, helping Shawnee staff and students make better use of data to improve instruction.

By the end of the 2012-13 school year, the only state specialist to visit the school regularly was Ms. Travis, who was there one day a week. The school could gain another full-time state-assigned educator next year.

Compounding matters: Shawnee’s nearly $1.5 million in federal turnaround money is drying up. As a result, Mr. Look is losing several staff members. Many of them came out of retirement to lend a hand at Shawnee, including a veteran English teacher, a former principal who dealt with discipline, an assistant principal, and a math teacher who offered students one-on-one tutoring.

Another performance audit, which could be conducted next school year and include the results from 2012-13, is likely to prove crucial to whether Mr. Look is able to remain as principal. If he ends up leaving the school, it is unclear how many of the staff members he picked to fill Shawnee’s ranks would stay on.

Mr. Holliday, the education commissioner, said he has “good confidence” in Mr. Look. The school’s difficulties stem from “a multitude of things. I don’t think you can point to Keith’s leadership as being the barrier,” Mr. Holliday said in an April interview.

Mr. Holliday said he’s encouraged by state and district collaboration efforts in Louisville, and will make a determination later this year about whether it makes sense for the state to step in and take control of turnaround efforts in Jefferson County. In either case, he sees district and state officials as critical to sustaining the success of long-struggling schools.

“A great principal can get good results for the first year or two,” he said. “I think the federal models for low-performing schools will not achieve [long-term] results without tremendous district support and state support.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as After Early Progress, SIG School Struggles to Improve


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