NEIHOF: Believe in students; believe in schools

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That’s what we need from you if you are to achieve our goals.

By James Neihof

Distinguished, Proficient or Needing Improvement – these are the categories by which Kentucky schools will be labeled in just a couple of weeks. Schools above the 90th percentile will be Distinguished. Those falling between the 70th and the 89th percentile will be Proficient. Those below the 70th will be classified as Needing Improvement.

This scoring system is far different from any previous scoring systems, and officials tell us there is no way to compare. Instead, educational leaders in Frankfort and across the state are urging parents and community leaders to see this as a new baseline. We are establishing a new reality – one that gives us an accurate representation of how our students stack up against peers worldwide.

Am I jittery? Yes, I am! But I am also excited. The new accountability model aligns perfectly with our overarching BIG Goal – to have every student graduating ready for college or career in 2016.

BIG Goals are scary. Setting goals of this magnitude requires great risk. Reaching goals of this magnitude will most certainly require intensely focused teamwork within the entire community – teachers, principals, students, parents, churches and the business community all have to agree.

I have committed my heart and soul to this goal. Why? The answer is simple – because our kids deserve it. Whether anyone else believes it or not, I do.

Your school board members believe it, too. Your principals, every single one of them, are pouring their hearts and souls into this goal as well. Teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians – people all across the school district in many roles – believe in the goal as we do. Now I need to capture your heart as well, and I’m coming after it.

Our kids deserve it. Let’s leave a legacy.

Do we have critics? Yes, we do. I accept their criticism. Criticism makes me sharpen my resolve. It makes me examine my practices to ensure I am capitalizing on every resource.

Criticism, however, is debilitating when its purpose is to make mockery of our goals – seemingly without ever making an effort to understand or participate in our efforts. How do I respond?

I seek to turn the critics into questioners – questioners who really want to help... to make a difference in our community – not to simply make fun and deride.

The loudest criticism surrounds our local tax rate. The single greatest factor contributing to this is that Shelby County is a growth district – enrollment increased 35 percent from 2000-2010. Because we are growing, we continue to add schools.

State law places the responsibility for dealing with growth on the school district and allows a district to levy a tax up to 15 cents per $100 of assessed property for school construction. We have this 15-cent growth tax. Without the growth tax, our tax rate would actually be lower than many Kentucky districts that are not growing.

The greatest criticism I hear is the one I also address – our students are not yet performing academically at the level I believe they are capable. District leaders all agree on this point. This self-criticism drives our work.

Our BIG Goals come directly from it. Here’s what our data says is happening, though – we have an ever-increasing percentage of students who are scoring at or above grade level on nationally benchmarked tests such as MAP, EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT. In short, our data says we are changing the academic trajectory of our students.

We have miles to go to reach our BIG Goals, but there is one thing of which you can be assured by me – excellence was, is and ever will be our goal – in everything we do. Excellence does not require extravagant practices, but it does require support from a community.

Many of our students’ challenges and barriers to learning are vast – transience, poverty, abuse, neglect, truancy, fetal alcohol syndrome, mental disability inflicted by parents who were drug abusers and, among others, disengaged parents. But none of them are insurmountable.

Rising from the rubble of the failures and shortcomings of others who came before them are children with dreams – children who love to set goals – children who believe they can reach them.

Do you believe too?