Taylor County School District: A Conversation with Leadership
Q&A 04 November 2015
By Roger Cook and Sarah Hayes and Jessica McCubbin
At Taylor County, if kids meet the criteria, they get to move forward in their learning.
Q. We know you’ve had zero drop-outs in the last six years. How did you do that?
A. Roger: We are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The doors never close at Taylor County Schools. And you get to learn the way you want to learn, anytime you want. We have our six-spoke wagon wheel of learning (see the previous page for more details), which lets our kids and our teachers learn and teach the way they like.
Q. How does technology play into all of this?
A. Roger: Without technology, my vision of performance-based education wouldn’t have come to fruition. Sarah and Jessica (my technology integration specialists) are the best of the best. They work closely with all of our educators to figure out ways to leverage the technology to create innovative and engaging learning environments. Even our “traditional educators” are not traditional, and they don’t really want to be. They’re working hard to integrate technology to make sure their kids are engaged and energized.
Jessica: A great example of how we’ve used technology to change the classroom environment is through the creation of our self-paced classrooms. We start every class as a whole group, formatively assessing to ensure students are on track with learning the standards. After that, students separate into their own cooperative groups—sitting on the floor, at desks, in the hall–wherever they want. They receive their instruction by watching our teacher-created video lessons on their devices and then complete assignments, activities, projects, simulations, etc. to practice the content.
Sarah: It’s important to remember that because we have the technology, the cooperative groups can be on different levels and learning different things at the same time. It really creates an atmosphere of learning and engagement. At Taylor County, it’s the teacher’s job to facilitate learning, not to lecture, and technology tools allow us to do this well.
Roger: We also have Odysseyware software to address the needs of the virtual learners. It has courses from 3rd grade and up that cover all content areas. We have every type of student imaginable, from students who struggle to students who are taking advanced classes, in our Virtual Academy. They can utilize Odysseyware at any given time, both during and outside of the regular school day.
Q. So, with such a different model for learning, how do you evaluate progress or success?
A. Roger: We try to think about the question: “Are we getting kids career- and college- ready?” Our college and career-readiness stats are getting better all the time. Our ACT scores aren’t as high as we’d like them to be—we averaged a 19, and we’ve been as high as the low 20’s before. But we’re working on it, and there’s no doubt our learners are more prepared to enter college, the world, and the workplace based on what we’re doing at Taylor County.
I will also add that I wish test scores were not as emphasized in Kentucky. I’ve been summoned more than once to do a presentation on the importance of test scores, and I tell them that test scores are only a small sample of what schools are about. For example, I have kids who just don’t test well, but they can tear a diesel engine down and rebuild it. I keep telling the legislators: “You have to expand your criteria.” I will likely be on a committee helping our state legislature expand them. I actually wrote a total performance-based accountability system for our state. It made it through the Senate but was, unfortunately, shot down in the House. We’re hoping that over the next few years, we’ll see a shift toward other ways to think about progress and success.
It isn’t rocket science, giving education to kids the way they want it. I’ll say, ‘Ma’am, do you mind if I teach your child in the way they learn best?’ Are they going to say, ‘No’?
Q. It sounds like things look pretty different at Taylor County. What are visitors’ first reactions?
A. Jessica: It overwhelms them when they hear us talk about it at first. However, once they see it in action, it makes logical sense to them. They see kids working together cooperatively and the teacher facilitating the classroom and meeting the needs of every child. They see what it means to be a performance-based (competency- based) system. At Taylor County, if kids meet the criteria, they get to move forward in their learning. It does mean, however, that we don’t look like a traditional school.
Roger: Now, for us, this is old hat—I’ve been doing this for ten years now. And, once people get over the initial surprise, the reactions get much better. We’ve had people look around and say in amazement, “Everybody seems to be so happy! Even your teachers seem happy.” It’s great to be able to show people what happens when kids and teachers are set free to learn and teach in ways best for them.
Q. And what about your parents, what do they think? Was it a difficult transition when you first started?
A. Roger: Our parents are happy. When I first came here, they were worried and had a lot of questions and concerns. They just couldn’t imagine what all these transitions would mean for their kids. We worked hard to get them on board and continue to emphasize parent outreach.
And, the transformation has been great to watch. I do meetings every three months with the parents, and it is so clear that not only are they on board with the way we do things at Taylor County, but they are also incredibly engaged with their kids’ learning. They’re asking questions, using the education lingo, and figuring out ways to make sure their kid is doing their best.
It’s also really exciting that our kids can take college classes while they’re still in high school. That’s been a huge thing for the parents. With our performance-based system, we have tons of fifth graders taking middle and high school classes. So, by sophomore or mid-junior year, they’ve finished their high school credits. But, they don’t want to leave, so we have an early college. It costs their parents $60 per credit hour. That is nothing compared to what they’d pay anywhere else! And, it means that we graduate seniors who can enter college as mid-term sophomores. As you’d guess, our parents are huge advocates for these early college opportunities. We calculated that, just last year, we saved them $260K in college tuition. They encourage their kids to keep moving in their learning, saying, “Save us some college money!”
All this parent support helps to create a system that is self-perpetuating.
Q. What about the surrounding communities? Do you get questions from educators outside of or from elsewhere in Kentucky?
A. Roger: Yes, we do. A major question we hear: “How can we go back and sell our community on this?” I have even gone and made presentations to other boards of education. I try to tell them that this isn’t rocket science. If I say, “Ma’am, do you mind if I teach your child in the way they learn best?” or “Can I let your child’s teachers teach in the way they love most?” Who’s going to say “No”? We are giving education to kids in the way they want it.
When I hear this method can’t get the same results, I share that our test scores are in the 83rd percentile in KY. We are a proficient school district. We are one of the designated districts of innovation in Kentucky. And when they hear all that, no one can question it.
Q. We assume the question of funding also comes up a lot. Has this cost Taylor County a lot more money?
A. Roger: No, not really. The traditional amount of funding we get covers it. We just use the money differently. I am originally from the world of construction. I was one of those kids who came from a broken home, a government housing project. I grew up figuring out how to fix or build what I needed. I’ve been able to put that to use as Superintendent. For example, we had a $90,000 air conditioner go down. We purchased aluminum and welded it ourselves. We fixed it for $5,000. We put those savings to work for us. We used the money to buy more technology—we put it back toward our learners.
Sarah: A major issue for most districts is class size—but not as much for us. Teachers here have had up to 36 students in their classes, but if they are teaching in a self-paced environment, those large numbers aren’t as overwhelming. Class size would be an issue if we had our teachers standing up at the front of the classroom lecturing and trying to keep everyone together on the same concept. As we shared earlier, we’ve also been able to use technology in a lot of great ways. All of this has meant that we haven’t had to hire additional personnel.
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