2013: A Year in Review

The new year that starts this week marks the close of my first full calendar year on the Jefferson County Board of Education. As we enter a season of resolution, looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead in 2014, I wanted to recap some of the positive highlights that I experienced as a board member in 2013.

  • At the top of my list has been the pleasure of getting to know, and to work with, so many talented, dedicated people in the JCPS family. From my colleagues on the school board, to the elementary school students to whom I read Dr. Seuss stories, to the extraordinary teachers and principals I’ve encountered in and out of the schools, the people to whom board membership has introduced me made 2013 special.
  • Another highlight was that the work of these fine people showed results. In 2013 JCPS students exceeded the numerical goal set by the state and measured by state-required tests. Perhaps more important, JCPS students continued their multi-year trend of rising within Kentucky’s rankings: in 2011 JCPS scored in the 9th percentile (that is, worse than 91% of Kentucky’s districts), but in 2013 JCPS ranked in the 32nd percentile. I credit this progress to Superintendent Hargens’ focused leadership in implementing JCPS’ strategy for improving student achievement, and to the intensive efforts of educators across the system to reach and engage our students. JCPS has a long way to go to reach its goal of being the best urban system in the United States, and bottom third in Kentucky is not satisfactory — but 2013 performance suggests that momentum is building.
  • Also noteworthy was that JCPS made this progress while being among the first big districts in the nation to implement the new Common Core State Standards, which require more learning from students at every level. I credit the broad Louisville community for understanding that our students must learn more in order to become successful adults in our globally competitive world, and I credit their teachers for changing and learning to deliver on these higher standards.
  • At a more practical level, JCPS and its teachers’ union negotiated an affordable, effective labor contract, and the board used its taxing authority to pay for it. As I wrote in August (here), teachers are by far our most important driver of both student achievement and system cost. JCPS and the JCTA had to come to an agreement on terms that would attract and support good teachers, while remaining realistic and responsible in light of the funding challenges and broader infrastructural demands of a public school system. I believe the new contract effectively balanced these twin imperatives.
  • Finally, as a person with a visual memory and one who loves music, my mental review of 2013 brought forth some special, somewhat random vignettes:
    • The powerful student chorus in JCPS’ Youth Performing Arts School’s (YPAS) rendition of Urinetown, a socially conscious musical satire that both made me think and showcased the tremendous talent being cultivated at the school.
    • The laughter and friendly get-to-know-you conversation at an early pot-luck supper with board members and spouses.
    • A surprise visit from Curtis Aikens, a nationally-known chef and literacy advocate, in response to an invitation from English language-learners at Atherton High School who were inspired by his struggle with illiteracy and its similarities to their own work to master English as a second language.
    • Fern Creek students’ presentation to the board regarding their inspiring visit to the Navajo nation to learn about the sacred values attributed to food in that culture – and the subsequent exchange that resulted when Navajo students and leaders came to visit Louisville.
    • A performance that showcased the rich cultures of Shawnee High School’s Newcomer Academy, during which students sang and danced in proud celebration of their varied heritages.
    • Seneca High School’s graduation ceremony, when Principal Michelle Dillard moved from thoughtful speech to glorious song that nearly raised the roof of Freedom Hall — inspiring me with an example of an educator doing whatever it takes to connect with our students.

JCPS and its board face challenges in 2014. Uppermost on the community’s mind, as Kentucky’s legislature considers whether to restore some of the funds cut from education during the recession, should probably be how we will fund the continuing improvement of our schools. This conversation continues to evolve at the state level (see, for example, here), and Louisville must do all it can to ensure that we are not short-changed in the distribution of state funds.

Also a priority for me is for the board to focus its own efforts in support of the big changes we are demanding from teachers and other personnel across the system. In addition to mastering the new Common Core, staying after school to use extended day funding allocated by the board to help struggling learners catch up, and all the “normal” challenges of delivering great instruction, teachers and principals will be working within a newly adopted professional assessment and development system. The board is pressing for big change and progress within our schools, and it seems only right that the board adapt its own processes to sharpen its own, and Louisville’s, understanding of what’s happening in JCPS.

Change is hard for all organizations, and I expect lots of dialogue as the board finds its way in this new, ubiquitously connected and constantly communicating era. But I am pleased to open the new year with a sense of optimism, driven by the learning and accomplishments of 2013.