Sunday, May 14, 2000

Lagging schools

Community key factor, solution

        COVINGTON — There's an underwear problem at First District Elementary School.

        Some children can't afford clothes that fit properly, much less panties and bras. The family resource director recently bought 100 pairs of underpants to distribute.

        This is reality at First District. Its students face all sorts of difficulties, and it is the worst-performing elementary school in Kentucky.

        This is no coincidence. American schools reflect the health of their communities. Where there is poverty and family chaos, students generally do not do as well, no matter how much reform is demanded of their teachers.

        Does this mean Covington kids are a lost cause? Not at all. It just means the current strategy isn't working.

Support needed
        Teachers get kids for 1,225 hours a year. Communities and families control the remaining 7,535 hours. Given the breakdown, Covington residents should be calling their schools to ask, “What can we do?”

        School Board member Joe Meyer has a different perspective. He thinks the district needs a new superintendent.

        “Our kids are not the least educable in the state,” he says. “They're better than that.

        “There are lots of school districts in Eastern Kentucky that have greater percentages of poverty and loss of opportunity than our kids.”

Low rankings
        To an extent, that's true.

        The Owsley County district is Kentucky's poorest. Ninety-two percent of its children qualify for reduced-price lunches, compared with 71 percent in Covington.

        Owsley schools aren't doing well, either. Last year the district ranked 165th out of 177 on the state's accountability index.

        Covington ranked second to last — on the surface, a worse performance with better demographics. In reality, though, there's little difference between second-to-last and 12th-to-last.

        Now consider the cushy Fort Thomas school system, where test scores are among the state's best.

        Only 5 percent of Fort Thomas students qualify for reduced-price lunches. The average income of Fort Thomas families was $53,000 in 1990, compared with $26,000 in Covington, according to the U.S. Census.

        Ninety-four percent of Fort Thomas parents are high-school graduates, compared with 63 percent in Covington.

Family stress
        Family stress cuts closer to the bone in Covington. Recently, First District Elementary took a call from a grandmother raising four children, one of them severely disabled. She was in a panic; her landlord had given her a few weeks to move.

        On another occasion, a First District mother showed up with a severe toothache and no dental insurance. The family resource center paid for emergency surgery.

        To be sure, incompetent management has hurt Covington schools, and the school board is right to demand better.

        At the same time, it's unfair to expect miracles from teachers. Everyone loses when kids are dropped at the schoolhouse door with suitcases full of dysfunction. “Here, fix this,” we say. That's crazy.

        The good news is that some schools and communities are working together on solutions, and some Covington students are thriving.

        Next week, I'll tell you how.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at