More than 400 local residents jammed the auditorium and meeting rooms at Hopkinsville Community College Saturday to start what HCC President Dr. Jim Selbe said will be a “snowball” rolling toward improving local education.

 Teachers, parents, administrators, politicians and even a few students spent the morning hearing state and national experts describe the dire state of education in not only Christian County but the nation as well. They heard about how two weak teachers in a row will make a child’s future educational progress gloomy, while three good teachers in a row will provide a great foundation.

They heard about how education across the nation pales in comparison to other developed countries. They learned about what works and what doesn’t work.

It all happened during the Community Education Summit organized by Selbe, Mayor Dan Kemp and County Judge-Executive Steve Tribble. By the time it was over nearly five hours later, they expressed hope that the summit would increase the momentum of improving local education.

Christian County public schools rank 11th from the bottom in Kentucky.

“This is the beginning,” Selbe said. “I’m looking for a snowball now coming out of here,” Selbe said.

U.S. schools rank high in the wrong category, a national education expert told the crowd.

Dr. Kati Haycock, the summit’s keynote speaker, compared the education of students around the globe and gave several examples of how schools in the U.S. with majority of high-rick students have nevertheless turned the numbers around.

On an international test in 2003, U.S. high school students scored far below peers in other countries. In reading, they ranked 18th, and in math, 29th.

Which academic category had U.S. schools in its top ten?

Inequality. The gap in scores between students of a higher socio-economic level and those of a lower level were larger here than in most developed nations, Haycock said.

Haycock heads the Education Trust, a nonprofit that researches achievement trends.

The summit’s morning schedule brimmed with presentations by six education leaders and 11 workshops.

But summit speakers also offered reasons to hope.

Haycock spotlighted schools with high percentages of poor and minority students. All are achieving at high levels.

Haycock called one Atlanta elementary school —95 percent black and 88 percent poor— a “joyous learning machine.” Capitol View Elementary School’s fifth graders score in the top 1 percent of elementary schools in Georgia.

A senior high school in New York City that is 75 percent black has scored in the top 6 percent among high schools in the state.

The successes are no fluke, Haycock said. An Education Trust study found that the schools shared much including “audacious” goals, demanding course work, consistent grading systems and a heavy development of in principals and teachers.

The bottom line, Haycock said, is that “what schools do turns out to be hugely, hugely responsible for what students do.”

Haycock said Christian County Public Schools’ strategy for narrowing local achievement gaps is fundamentally sound. The district has focused resources into two initiatives, Thoughtful Classroom for better instruction and Positive Behavior Supports for tighter discipline.

 It was wise to make programs consistent from classrooms and schools, Haycock said. The question is how dedicated the district will be to these initiatives, Haycock said.

“Is this half-hearted or an all-out assault?” Haycock asked.

Superintendent Dr. Bob Lovingood detailed the districts improvement efforts in his “State of Local Schools” presentation.

The dramatic progress of Belmont and Millbrooke elementary schools showed it was right to have high expectations for the entire district.

“If some of our schools can be successful, they all can be successful,” Lovingood said.

The district has climbed 14.5 points on state tests over the past eight years, Lovingood said.  The district needs to double that progress in the next seven years to comply with No Child Left Behind.

The biggest barrier to improvement is the performance of middle and high schools.  In 2007, local middle schools ranked eighth from the bottom among 175 Kentucky districts. High schools ranked no better than 203 out of 236. 

Dr. Dianne Bazell, who delivered the State of Kentucky Schools speech, said the quality of high school courses is critical to the state’s workforce.  Bazell oversees academic affairs for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

The most decisive factor in a community’s income per capita, Bazell said, is its population of college graduates. Too many students were dropping out of Kentucky universities and colleges because they came in underprepared, Bazell said.

High schools must require their students to take difficult classes, Bazell said. The rigor of high school geometry or Algebra 2 class is more critical to a student’s academic future than race, gender or socio-economic status.

HCC President Dr. Jim Selbe ended the summit with an exhortation to phone the school board and tell board members to raise graduation standards. The board will get it first reading of a more demanding policy on Thursday.

Selbe asked the crowd to fill out a card that listed ways to get involved. Citizens could become a part of the solution by tutoring, mentoring and sharing their resources.

Rich Maddux, chairman for the Workforce/Education Development Partnership Committee, said businesses could do more than “bring cupcakes to school parties.” Maddux praised Continental Mills’ collaboration with teachers and students at Christian County High School.

Hopkinsville Mayor Dan Kemp said he hoped city government could also be a partner.  Kemp was interested in starting a teacher incentive program modeled after one in Tennessee.

Chattanooga’s city government recruits teachers by securing them affordable mortgages with down payments as little as $3,000. The city also offers free legal services and master’s degree classes.

Selbe said it will fall on Kemp and the summit planning committee to build on the momentum of Saturday’s event.

JOE PARRINO can be reached at 887-3239

From the crowd

More than 400 people — a mix of educators, parents and citizens — attended the Community Education Summit on Saturday at Hopkinsville Community College. Here are impressions offered by several of them:

Barbara Starling

Barbara Starling was so impressed with Dr. Kati Haycock’s keynote speech that she got a front row seat for Haycock’s workshop titled “Recruiting and Retaining Quality Teachers.”

Starling serves on the Parent Teacher Student Organization at Christian County Middle School where her daughter Meg is a student.

Starling said the summit inspired her to step up volunteer efforts, especially to improve inner-city schools.

“There is nothing more important,” Starling said.

Karen Graves

When the audience was asked to share what was “warm in your heart and loose on your tongue,” Karen Graves jumped up.

Graves is the vice-president of Hopkinsville Middle School’s Parent Teacher Organization.

Recent PTO meetings have dwindled, Graves said. The mother of two urged fellow parents and teachers to make their alliances a priority.

Together, “we can accomplish miracles,” Graves said.

Bruce Kendrick

Bruce Kendrick, a pastor at Moore’s Baptist Church, said he attended the summit to see the direction of the school system.

“I am always talking about our youth at church,” Kendrick said.

During a discussion on the achievement gap, Kendrick said he was made aware of the seriousness of the problem. He believes many attendees also were made aware of the problem.

The struggles of students present an opportunity for the church to become “surrogate parents,” Kendrick said.

Ivan Brown & Brandy Hale

The pressure is on. At least for younger teachers in Christian County Public Schools, said Ivan Brown and Brandy Hale, both teachers at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. Both are 27 years old.

They attended the summit Saturday in an attempt to do their part in improving the local school system. It’s up to them — the next generation of teachers — to do something, they said.

“Younger teachers bring new ideas to the classroom,” Brown said. “They almost entertain while they teach. The seasoned teachers are stuck in their ways, but they don’t see it that way. The way kids are now, you have to teach a different way.”

Catherine Soldo

As Dr. Catherine Soldo observes how the public school system is doing, her concern grows for her own profession.

With two children of her own preparing to begin at Hopkinsville High School next fall, she wants to do her part to help, she said.

“In the future, if we don’t get more students involved in health care, we won’t have qualified professionals in the medical field,” she said.

Soldo attended the summit Saturday hoping to learn what she could do to help make a change. She plans on mentoring students who want to go into her line of work. She is also interested in the role businesses can play when linked with the school system, she said.

“The information is bad, but it’s encouraging,” Soldo said. “I find it a challenge. I can’t wait until when our schools are like others that rank higher.”

Mack & Cathy Jerles

Mack and Cathy Jerles left the summit early in protest. Mack said he was unfairly silenced when he began blurting questions in the middle of a presentation.

“This is one of those deals where you sit and listen to what they want you to hear,” Mack said later.

The Jerles are angry that their son Sam had been promoted from grade to grade through the system despite failing most of his classes.

“They gave him a diploma and he can’t even spell the word “diploma,” Jerles said.

The Hopkinsville family said administrators ignored their pleas to hold Sam back. Four years after graduation, their son is still struggling to find a career.

— Compiled by staff writers Julia Hunter and Joe Parrino.

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