Tuesday, August 29, 2000

Covington school year begins under microscope

Changes from the top down

By Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Doors opened Monday as the Covington Independent Schools kicked off a school year with new leadership and new programs. This opening day, however, marks the beginning of a year unlike any other.

        The troubled district is making overwhelming changes from the superintendent's office to the classroom, all under the watchful eye of the Kentucky Department of Education.

        “It's like a breath of fresh air,” Jane Ising, coordinator of the family resource center at First District Elementary, said of the district's renewed excitement.

        New programs, new policies and new leadership are all on the plate of the district's students, teachers, principals and administrators. They face tremendous expectations to turn around the district, which has ranked near the bottom on state assessment tests and has recently been the focus of intense scrutiny from the state Education Department.

        With this lofty challenge in front of them, Covington schools welcomed 4,270 students Monday with an enthusiasm and energy some teachers said has been missing for a while.

        “Everybody has a very positive attitude,” said Grace Jeffries, a fifth-grade teacher at First District Elementary. “We're looking forward to a new administration.”

        Among the changes are an all-day kindergarten at all six elementary schools, student uniforms at First District and new districtwide curricula.

        First District started the year by gathering students in the gym for an assembly filled with motivational cheers and lessons on the school rules.

        “Every day, try your best. You're coming to school for a purpose. You're coming to learn,” Principal Karen Lyon told a group of third- through sixth-graders.

        “We need to start off telling them exactly what our expectations are.”

        One of the school's top priorities is to improve attendance. In past years, some students have missed 20 to 30 days a year, which not only hurts the school's funding but also affects students' performance on as sessment tests.

        Another first at the elementary is uniforms: white shirts and blue pants, skirts or shorts. Uniforms minimize distractions, helping kids focus on learning, Ms. Lyon said.

        “It makes a difference for them because they're taking it seriously,” said Donna Adams, the school's behavior specialist.

        Clear communication and strong leadership seem to be cornerstones in Covington's plans to make change.

        “We have more of a direction,” Ms. Lyon said, adding that Interim Superintendent Jack Moreland has been very visible in the 55 days he's been in the district.

        “We all know what to expect and what our goals are. It's a nice change.”

        The first day ran fairly smoothly, said Mr. Moreland, who went school-to-school to greet teachers and students.

        “I'm real encouraged,” he said. “We want them to have high expectations, but we don't want the pressure to be so intense that they're unable to breathe because of it.”

        With the enormous pressure to succeed and the barrage of changes, Mr. Moreland said he was worried about low morale among staff. One of his goals is to create a fair, open and helpful administration.

        “It makes you feel like you're valued, and that there's a connection between the school buildings and the central office,” Ms. Jeffries said.

        With the school year under way, Mr. Moreland said he's not promising overnight fixes. His goal is gradual improvement rather than hills and valleys.

        “From today, we want to get better tomorrow and the next day. ... In a few years, we'll be a force to be reckoned with as an academic program. We can't afford to fail. These kids are too important.”


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