College & Workforce Readiness

Students at Turnaround School Reflect on Changes

By Alyson Klein — June 03, 2011 3 min read
Academy @ Shawnee senior student Alison Philpott, right, signs a yearbook for friends in her class as fellow senior Keenon Kelly watches on May 31.

Alison Philpott, 2011’s valedictorian at the Academy @ Shawnee, could tell this school year was going to be different when she helped move a few of her new teachers into their classrooms last summer.

“They were excited to be here,” said Ms. Philpott, who will enroll in a pre-veterinary program at Western Kentucky University in the fall. “They really wanted to teach at Shawnee.”

Raven Smock, another senior, agreed. “Last year, we had teachers giving up on us,” she said, recalling one who walked out of a class because she was frustrated with the students’ behavior. “Nobody was pushing me.”

But late last year, as part of the requirements of the federal School Improvement Grant program, the long-troubled Shawnee High School lost more than half its teachers. They were replaced by educators hand-picked by Principal Keith Look. Most were experienced teachers who wanted the challenge of working at Shawnee.

See Also

Read the main story about Shawnee’s turnaround journey:

Turnaround School Passes One-Year Milestone

“This year is just so much better,” said Ms. Smock, who will attend Jefferson Community and Technical College, in Louisville. “Students need that extra push,” she said.

Still, Ms. Smock thinks the shakeup came too late for some of her former classmates. If the new teachers had been at Shawnee all four years, “our senior class would be bigger,” she said.

About This Series

Throughout the school year, Education Week is chronicling Principal Keith Look and his team at the Academy @ Shawnee in Louisville, Ky., while they work to transform the long-troubled campus as part of a $3.5 billion federal push to turn around thousands of low-performing schools. For previous installments in this series and multimedia features, read the rest of the series “Tackling Turnaround at Shawnee High School.”

Check back on Monday, June 6, for more on the end of the year at Shawnee.

Henry Winburn, another senior, writes poetry in his spare time and is just steps away from becoming an Eagle Scout. He will also enroll in the community college next year and plans to transfer to a four-year college after that.

But Mr. Winburn wishes he’d had more guidance early in high school about how to pursue higher education. He didn’t know, for instance, that taking at least a year of another language would have boosted his chances of getting into some of the four-year schools that interested him, he said.

“I just wonder how I got through all my classes here and didn’t know that,” he said. “I should have been taking Spanish.”

Academy @ Shawnee senior student Henry Winburn has seen many changes in his four years at the school.

To help next year’s incoming students start thinking early about college, Shawnee will begin offering an advisory program. Students will meet in small groups for an hour a week. Each teacher will take an advisory group, as will school clerks and administrators.

And Mr. Look recently hired Dwayne Compton, a Shawnee graduate who previously worked in the admissions office at two colleges, including the nearby University of Louisville, to help a group of 9th graders get ready for college.

Dropout Prevention

Mr. Look has other ideas to address the dropout problem at a school where the graduation rate hovers around 60 percent.

After scouring student transcripts with his administrative team last summer, Mr. Look concluded that some students were at risk of leaving school, or even aging out of the system. He suggested that some work toward the General Educational Development, or GED, credential.

About 15 students took him up on the offer. Shawnee enrolls and takes responsibility for them, although they are in a separate, smaller class. But, unlike students in community GED programs, they can still take part in high school activities including pep rallies and the prom. Some even take part in a graduation.

Education Week is collaborating with education news sites in Chicago, Colorado, New York and Philadelphia on a collection that chronicles school turnaround efforts across the country. Read the collection.

So far, three students have earned their GEDs this school year, and another three were on track to do so as the school year ended, Mr. Look said. But it’s unlikely that Shawnee students will continue receiving GED tutoring next year. It’s just too expensive, Mr. Look said—about $10,000 to $15,000 per GED.

Still, Deshawn Washington, 19, said he’s glad to have been part of the GED class. He likes the smaller, more personalized atmosphere of the class held on Shawnee’s campus.

“I skipped a lot last year,” Mr. Washington said. “I felt like I wasn’t learning. ... It actually looks like a high school this year. Last year, people were just playing.”

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 June 08, 2011 edition of Education Week as Students Absorb Year of Changes, Move Forward

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