Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Covington faces school woes


District battles audits, scores

By Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — The upheaval swirling around Covington schools is rooted in happenstance and the shock waves of past investigations.

        State audits, low test scores and last week's resignation of Superintendent James Kemp are all products ofthe district's history.

        For decades, Covington's school system has been poor and urban with a shrinking and transient student population. The district struggles to find solutions to the problems faced by most inner-city American schools.

        Since 1970, eight Covington schools have closed, following trends in population. The district loses roughly 100 students each year.

        Enrollment was 4,800 this year; in 1980, it was 6,500.

        At the same time, school leaders dealt with a state investigation into the 1990-94 tenure of former Superintendent James Biggs. A 1995 state report indicated Mr. Biggs withheld information from board members on contracts and misused thousands of dollars for consultant fees and unnecessary travel.

        That lengthy review was settled in federal court earlier this year when Terry Mann, principal of Chapman Academic Vocational School, agreed to retire and never work as a teacher or principal again. Under Mr. Biggs, Mr. Mann served as a principal without state certification from 1987 until 1995.

        The lingering effects of state and federal inquiries may have caused Covington leaders to become distracted. While other school districts were implementing Kentucky's education re form, many in Covington schools adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

        Covington schools were soon at the bottom on state tests. Until this year, the district lagged far behind in its use of technology. Students' scores on national exams continued to drop in the past three years. Not only has the district not been keeping pace, it is falling short of prior achievements.

        Yet the superintendent's recent job evaluations were positive. Mr. Kemp received a 4.2 out of 5 in 1997 and a 4.5 in 1998.

        Now the district — housed in eight regular schools, an alternative school and a nationally recognized preschool — faces tremendous pressure to make improvements.

        Board members will get the results of management and scholastic audits in June. Board of education member Col Owens said he hopes the system can take stock and move forward.

        “We need to make dramatic progress fast if we are going to meet the state's testing objectives,” Mr. Owens said.

        Experts say that schools fighting the realities of poverty, truancy and a lack of community support will find that those factors take a toll on testing performance.

        Covington is on par with most urban American schools with 70 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty.

        Mike Casserly, director of the Council of Great City Schools, said it is the state's responsibility to ensure that children receive an appropriate education.

        “It's difficult for city schools to improve on tests, but it's doable,” Mr. Casserly said. “Many big city schools are doing it more and more. It takes a very sustained and dedicated effort to make that happen.”

        Even with such efforts, it could take as long as 10 years to see significant improvement, he warned.

        For residents who grew up in Covington Schools and later even taught there, the school system's current state is disheartening. Betty Lee Nordheim, who gradu ated from Holmes in 1947 and taught art there for 22 years, remembers when the schools were in their heyday.

        “It was a great system,” said Mrs. Nordheim, 70. “We were ahead of the state in many ways.”

        Mrs. Nordheim is working on a book about the history of Covington's schools. The current system comes from a great heritage of community interest in education.

        Ten years after Covington became a city, it opened a one-room, log-cabin school for 20 students in 1825.

        A second school was built in 1836 and from that point on, there was a building boom. The school system was chartered in 1850.

        “Education has always been important to the people of Covington,” Mrs. Nordheim said.

        And Covington Schools did innovative things.

        In 1904, Covington passed a compulsory education requirement — and hired a truancy officer — two years before the state did so.

        “Of course the world has changed since I was in grade school and the kids can't be expected to learn as we did,” Mrs. Nordheim said. “Computers are good, but they need to know the basics, too.” Community involvement is also key.

        “Having the parents in the schools is good because they can see the problems that are there and work to fix them.” head CHANGES

        A review of Covington school district's many changes

        • 1970: Seventh District School closed. Glenn O. Swing School opened.

        • 1971: First District School converted to Covington Junior High. John G. Carlisle switches from junior high to elementary school.

        • 1972: Eighth District and Tenth District schools closed. Latonia Elementary opens.

        • 1975: Fifth District closed. Reopens as a job preparation program.

        • 1976: Covington Junior High reverts to an elementary school. Grades 8 and 9 move to Holmes campus. Seventh-graders remain in elementary schools.

        • 1977: Eleventh District School closed.

        • 1979: Chapman Vocational School opens. Sixth District School adds library.

        • 1980: Third District School closed. Twelfth District closed.

        • 1990: Seventh-graders moved to Holmes, which now houses all students in grades 7 to 12.

        • 1990: Biggs Early Childhood Center opens.

        • 1994: Old John G. Carlisle replaced with new building.

        • 1998: Fourth District closed. Reopens as alternative school.

       



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