Thursday, March 23, 2000

Covington schools to get help

Poor showing prompts action at five schools

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Five of Covington's eight schools will get help next fall from state-assigned educators charged with boosting student achievement and improving teaching methods, an Education Department official said Wednesday.

        The additional support comes in the wake of continued poor performance on state exams, and to give the district a way to make changes across the board, said Robyn Oatley, the department's director of community relations.

        Superintendent James Kemp said he is working with the state to implement changes he hopes will help the 4,800-student district develop consistent education plans in every school. Mr. Kemp also asked the state to conduct in-depth studies of all programs at each school.

        The district scored at the bottom of all Kentucky schools on last year's state test of basic skills. First District Elementary had the worst scores of all elementary schools in the state.

        “The conditions that exist in Covington are not conditions that have suddenly surfaced,” Mr. Kemp said. “Poor student achievement has been experienced in the district for a considerable period of time, not just the last five or 10 years.

        “The point is, we've come to a head. This is a work process and that's the way we need to deal with this situation.”

        The announcements come with the release of a Feb. 7 letter written by Ms. Oatley to Mr. Kemp after she was invited to help the district identify areas that need work. Ms. Oatley conducted “walk-through observations” of Covington's classrooms.

        The board is expected to discuss her findings at 7:30 p.m. today at board offices on Seventh Street.

        Her findings fault the district for creating a system of “haves and have nots” perpetuated by years of inconsistent leadership and a tendency to put more focus on advanced learners while leaving slower learners behind.

        Ms. Oatley also found examples of positive teaching at Sixth District and Ninth District elementary schools and suggested staff at other schools shadow teachers at these schools.

        “What the board needs to do is look at staffing and budgeting and where children's needs are and how they can move them forward,” Ms. Oatley said. “It will take awhile. It will take a mind-set change. The district will have to look at each and every child and make sure their needs being met.”

        Ms. Oatley said her observa tions were preliminary and should not be used to make generalizations. She said Covington's educators' “hearts are in right place. They want kids to succeed.”

        Yet her letter caused a stir among school board members and parents who were not aware of its existence, and the strong language contained in the document.

        Board member Joe Meyer called the report a devastating eye-opener.

        “As devastating as it is, for the first time it's strong enough and the reality of problems facing the schools is stark enough that it will jog the district into corrective action,” Mr. Meyer said.

        “There are major changes that need to be made and this report will be the impetus for those changes. You hate to have bad news of this magnitude come along, but if it prompts necessary changes it can be a good thing in the long run.”

        Ms. Oatley's report cites these concerns:

        • After taking the AP placement test in third grade, students are either “valued” or not, with advanced students placed with more engaging teachers in smaller classrooms.

        • Variations in professionalism among teachers, with some observed screaming at students while others re-teach concepts to students needing extra help.

        • Inadequate staffing and money. The district has 325 teachers, which should translate to a 14:1 student-to-teacher ratio, yet many classes have more than 25 students.

        • The use of a study hall at the junior high to baby-sit students when a teacher is absent leads to a waste of instructional time.

        Mr. Kemp said the letter was meant as an internal working document to help the district make improvements. Now that it has become public, Covington officials said many of the suggestions Ms. Oatley made are already in progress.

        How students are taught in elementary grades and at the junior high are under way. School reform programs were implemented this year at First District and Ninth District elementaries. The staff is studying how similar schools have achieved success.

        Board Chairman Hensley Jemmott said the entire district must improve its professionalism.

        “Everyone needs to know that we intend to move this system up quite a few notches in terms of improving student performance,” Mr. Jemmott said.

        Frequent changes in leadership is part of the district's problem, Ms. Oatley said. There have been three different superintendents in the past 10 years.

        “Our constituents need to know that it does no good to continually move superintendents in and out because that does not address the basic problems of professionalism,” Mr. Jemmott said.

        “We don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to settle in behind Dr. Kemp and work toward improving the system rather than attempting to tear down and disparage and discredit it.”

        • Lack of a middle-school concept for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

        • By fourth grade, passive and unengaged learning is the norm.

        • Most elementary students do not receive arts education.

        • Majority of classes in middle grades through senior high had no instruction going on.

        • Computers and technology are only used for word processing.

        • Some teachers think some students can't learn as much as others.

        • Create middle schools.

        • Eliminate junior high study hall by placing students in other classrooms.

        • Train teachers in hands-on and other active teaching methods.

        • Monitor classrooms and evaluate teachers to ensure effective teaching.

        • Align the curriculum in all elementary schools.

        • Train teachers in technology use.

        • Create school-wide discipline plans.


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