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?

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Better Times at Douglass High

Logo of Frederick Douglass High School featuring Frederick Douglass' face and an open book.

Image credit: The Academies at Frederick Douglass High School

Two years ago, fifteen-year-old Miquel Green put on an earnest face and prepared himself to stand the consternation of his older brother, Andrew. Miquel had decided to transfer from his current high school in Baltimore, Md., to Frederick Douglass High School, the Charm City school from which Andrew had graduated just five years before.

“He was mad,” recalls Miquel with a chuckle, yet he couldn’t fault his brother for the concern. During Andrew’s time at Frederick Douglass High, truancy, violence, and underachievement were rampant, and Andrew counted himself lucky to have graduated on time. But Miquel knew something that his brother didn’t—Frederick Douglass High had become a turnaround school.

A Storied Past and a Brighter Future

A 2008 HBO documentary, Hard Times at Douglass High, filmed in 2004-2005, declared, “America is in the midst of an educational crisis.” At the center of this struggle was a disorganized, academically dilapidated Frederick Douglass High, where less than 25 percent of students graduated and hopelessness pervaded the halls.

But the school had not always been this way.

In 1883, Frederick Douglass High, then called the Grammar School for Colored Children, opened its doors. By 1889, the institution became the first in Maryland—and only the third in the nation—to award high school diplomas to African Americans.

Born out of the “separate but equal” era, the school quickly established a reputation for educational excellence among African Americans, and built a powerful alumni base, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, jazz entertainment legend Cab Calloway,  and “mother of the civil rights era” Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson.

But decades of financial and administrative struggles at the school and the challenges of a city dominated by urban poverty gradually disintegrated Frederick Douglass High’s academic foundation.

When the school’s current principal, Antonio Hurt, arrived from Georgia two years ago, the school was, in his words, “an education cemetery … people couldn’t take pride in our programs.”

Fast forward to today and Frederick Douglass High has reinvented itself. The entire school community has come together—the staff and students recommitting themselves to a learning environment based on the values of “pride, dignity, and excellence,” the school’s motto. The work is not yet done, but hopelessness has left the building.

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