Last updated: July 18. 2013 11:29PM - 251 Views
Cris Ritchie

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HAZARD – It was little over a week ago that Jonathan Jett was picked to lead Perry County Schools as the district’s full-time superintendent, and he is taking the job as the district faces some very real challenges.

In 2011, Perry Central was added to a state list of persistently low-achieving (PLA) schools. A new principal was hired for the school and the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) dispatched an education recovery team to help lead a three-year academic turnaround.

In 2012, with new state accountability standards in place, Perry County Schools as a district failed to meet the statewide average, ranking in the bottom 9 percent in the state, according to figures from KDE.

But things are beginning to change, Jett said during an interview last week, including at Perry Central where the recovery team is implementing practices that should increase student achievement. He said these changes can become part of the day-to-day processes of schools across the district, and not just PCC.

“The major thing that we have to do is take what we have learned and the processes we’ve been guided through with the education recovery staff with KDE, and implement that at all of our schools,” he said. “Not wait until they become a priority or become a PLA school, but be proactive and put those processes in place to ensure that they are doing what needs to be done at the school.”

Jett wants the district to become one driven by data to show areas of weakness where schools can improve. Principals should be able to identify rigor in the classroom and what quality instruction looks like, and administrators should have open conversations with faculty.

“It can’t be that somebody is a good teacher because they’re there every day and they volunteer to work extracurricular events,” Jett said. “It’s got to be about what are they doing in that classroom and what does the data show.”

Jett’s contract as superintendent will keep him on the job for the next four years. There are goals he hopes to see met by the time those four years are up, including stark turnarounds at several schools and a significant jump in the number of graduating seniors who are ready to either enroll in college or enter the workforce. In 2012, less than 50 percent of students statewide graduated college or career ready.

That process of turning things around began during his term as interim superintendent, Jett said, with added labs at Perry Central for students who may need extra work in particular subjects. Two days were set aside this past school year which Jett called “data days” where educators reviewed scores from the PLAN and ACT tests. If students did not meet their benchmarks, teachers plotted the best course of action to increase those scores.

“We want our college and career ready rate to improve and increase every year,” Jett explained. “We want to see more students going to college, we want to see more students be prepared to enter the workforce, and we want to just make sure that we are doing a better job of allowing the students to have input and understand what their role in the education process is.”

Jett is also taking the reins during an uncertain time financially. The school board was advised during its May meeting of an $800,000 loss in state funds due in part to decreasing enrollment. And in a district already absorbing two straight mid-year state funding cuts, officials are having to continue to find additional savings.

Jett said he expects some savings in employee pay following the retirement of 23 employees, some of whom will be replaced by teachers with less seniority, and therefore smaller salaries. Travel is also being cut down to an as-required basis, and over this summer he expects more opportunities for local training sessions. Utility costs will also be on the table this summer. The district pays from $70,000 to $100,000 each month on utilities. Jett has advised principals to turn up the thermostat during the summer while classes aren’t in session, and make sure the lights are off when they’re not needed.

“If we could cut that (utility expense) in half for three months, that’s $100,000, and that’s going to be significant,” he said.

The biggest way to save money, however, is to cut staff, close old schools, and build more energy efficient facilities that will pay off in the long run. Staffing is determined based upon site-based allocations, but with the completion of the new East Perry Elementary this month, and the potential to build two more new schools in the next few years, Jett said the district could begin to see significant savings on school maintenance costs.

East Perry replaces Dennis Wooton Elementary, while the board recently approved a facilities plan that would also replace Chavies Elementary School, in addition to combining the student bodies of A.B. Combs, Willard, and Big Creek into a new facility.

“Even though those schools are a huge cost initially, they’ll be a big savings for the next 25 years,” Jett said.

Jett is optimistic both schools can be approved and completed by the time his four-year contract is up. Officials are talking with a landowner about property for the Chavies school, while they continue to evaluate land near Exit 56 for the consolidated school. Both schools could be located on the main corridors of the Hal Rogers Parkway or Highway 15, and could also attract students from other school districts to increase enrollment.

“One of them may have to be a phase project, but I really feel like if we could get cooperation and get property from the right people at the right price, then I think both projects would be a possibility,” he said.

Jett will also look to build an atmosphere of cooperation with neighboring school districts, most notably with Hazard Independent Schools. That cooperation was evident during his interim term as both city and county school boards approved plans to begin a cooperative effort to improve academic standards such as college and career readiness. Jett said preliminary plans are also in the works that could result in trade offs with Hazard, so Hazard’s students could gain access to Perry Central’s JROTC program, while Perry County students could enroll in a nursing aid program in the Hazard district.

“We’re open to doing that with any district,” he said, adding there may be opportunities within the district as well, by sharing programs between Perry Central and Buckhorn high schools.

Ultimately, Jett said the priority during his tenure must be student achievement in the classroom and ensuring an environment exists where the county’s youth can get a leg up in life through education.

“I think that we are making instruction and the students’ education our main focus,” he said, “and I think that’s evident in the way we’ve celebrated our academic successes in the past few months.”

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