Effective and Sustainable Turnaround in Rural Kentucky

Local professionals talk with high school students. They are seated at round tables in the high school library.

Leslie County High School has pioneered Operation Preparation, which brings in local professionals to discuss possible career paths and help students prepare for adult life. Photo credit: Kevin Gay

Three months after accepting the role of principal at Leslie County High School (LCHS) in rural Hayden, Ky., Kevin Gay was informed that his school was failing. Identified as persistently low achieving by the state department of education, LCHS was ranked in the bottom 10 percent of all high schools in Kentucky.

That was in 2010.

Today, following a concerted effort to turn around the struggling high school, LCHS is ranked in the top 10 percent of high schools in the state. The school also boasts a 99 percent graduation rate and a renewed emphasis on ensuring that students are college-and career-ready.

The school’s rapid rise is a special point of pride for this rural community of 11,000 residents and about 500 students.  Poverty is a real issue here. The Kentucky Division of Nutrition and Health Services estimates that at least 69 percent of the students at Leslie County High School receive free or reduced lunches. And, in this sparsely-populated area, many students travel about 30 miles to reach the mountainous region where their high school stands.

Yet despite these challenges, in four school years Leslie County High School went from being ranked 224 out of 230 high schools – to being ranked 16th overall in Kentucky.

While each school turnaround story is unique, successful turnaround efforts like the one at Leslie County High School are emerging across the country. Students are achieving new levels of success in places like Alchesay High School in Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Reservation; Emerson Elementary in Kansas City; and Orchard Gardens in Roxbury, Mass. In these places, school leaders have used federal funding from the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program at the U.S. Department of Education to kick-start much needed change in historically low-performing schools.

Thanks in large part to successful partnerships and an attitude of shared responsibility, Leslie County High School has built a new foundation for success in this rural Kentucky town.

How did they achieve such powerful results in such a short time?

A New Way of Doing Business Garners National Attention

Principal Gay and other school administrators partnered with three education recovery specialists assigned by the Kentucky Department of Education to form a turnaround team focused on increasing academic performance, integrating data-based decision-making, and improving school culture.

The team met on a consistent basis to develop and fine tune this three-pronged plan.  “We changed the way we did business. We are still educating kids, but systematically we changed the ways we made decisions and what drove those decisions,” Gay remembered.

A student talks with two local professionals in the Leslie County High School library.

Local professionals talk with students at the Leslie County High School library as a part of Operation Preparation. In the last few years, the school has transformed from a failing school into one of the top-performing schools in the state. Photo credit: Kevin Gay

In the process, the school’s successes have drawn the attention of folks far beyond the Kentucky state line.  Highlighting the simple yet essential belief that “the best ideas come from the American people” the White House recognized Principal Gay last year as part of the Obama Administration’s “Champions of Change” initiative.  The program recognizes ordinary Americans who accomplish extraordinary things in their communities.  But when discussing the turnaround success, Gay preferred to praise his entire team.

“Their strong leadership made this possible. We had an extraordinary team of real good people who just jelled.”

Today, each student at LCHS maintains four “student data notebooks” – one for each core subject.  Each 3-ring binder contains the necessary course materials, as well as student specific reports and formative assessment tracking documents.  For example, every student enters English class with the following materials in hand: course syllabus; course specific rules and practices; student specific attendance and discipline reports; classroom notes such as vocabulary words and journal; printout of quarterly assessment and ACT practice results; and his or her formative assessment tracking document.

This example speaks to a new focus on resources and tools for success.  And, this change in culture does not simply result from more data, but from its more effective, efficient and timely use.  For example, the formative assessment tracking document is a record of a student’s performance on daily learning targets.  Every day, teachers provide each student an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a specific objective.  In math class, for example, a student might be asked to solve an algebra problem.  At least every two days, that teacher provides an assessment or quiz on a given algebra lesson in order to further gauge students’ mastery of learning targets.  The process tracks progress; it also quickly identifies any students who may be falling behind.

Two professionals talk with a student at the Leslie County High School library.

A Leslie County High School student chats with two visiting professionals at the school library. As part of its turnaround effort, the school has placed a renewed emphasis on ensuring that students are college- and career-ready. Photo credit: Kevin Gay

To avoid students falling further behind than one learning target or specific lesson, LCHS’ schedule includes a daily support period in which additional instruction is provided.  To further track student performance – and improve communication between students, teachers and administrators – each core subject teacher keeps a “teacher data notebook” containing information similar to their student’s notebooks.  Lesson plans are then designed to support, and provide, targeted instruction to students based on their identified needs.

The school re-evaluates its strategies every 30 days through a “30-60-90 day plan.”  These meetings allow teachers and administrators to determine whether there is sufficient progress toward identified goals, and whether new strategies and activities are needed.

Embracing Responsibility for Student Success as a Community-Wide Effort

These meetings closely mirror those held by the turnaround team back in 2011.  But today, responsibility for the continued progress and success of the turnaround effort rests with Leslie County’s dedicated leadership and teachers.  Empowered by the turnaround experts and the Kentucky Department of Education, the local leadership and teachers are the sole monitors and decision-makers in the ongoing work to ensure the improvement and success of their students.

“Once trained in systems, people think differently,” Allred explained.

For this rural community, the road ahead is a constant challenge requiring tireless commitment. Nonetheless, the partners in this project are convinced that they are building a new foundation and creating a brighter future for their community and their students.

Susan Allred, who served as Associate Commissioner at the Kentucky Department of Education from 2012-2013, and was a member of the LCHS turnaround team, confirms that the state has high hopes for the long-term success of the LCHS endeavor, adding, “They have the processes to make changes to get where they need to be. Sustainability is not the ability to keep doing the same thing; [it is] using what they have learned to continue to move forward.”

For their part, the Leslie County team shows no sign of slowing down.

When asked if this turnaround is sustainable, Principal Gay reiterated the clear, high expectations that everyone in Leslie County has become accustomed to, and then he added: “We expect nothing less.”