In the book The Story of Kennett: Shaping Our Future One Child at a Time, authored by Bob George and Joan Holliday, a theme came up as interviewed Kennett leaders---“If we get the kids right, the rest will take care of itself.” This belief isn’t universal.
I met a guy who lives in The Villages last week. The Villages is an Adult Retirement Community in Florida of over 100,000 seniors, where young people are “the help” that mow the lawns and clean the houses or are the grandkids who are brought in for a few days each year. I told him about Kennett and he looked at me and said, “Kids should consider themselves lucky if they just live through childhood. They’ll have plenty of time to get their lives right; you wouldn’t have to be concerned about kids if you lived in The Villages.”
Personally I’m not willing to give up on humanity and the idea of Kennett being a great place to grow up and grow old. To this end we interviewed Jeff Byrem, an expert on education. I contacted him recently and he reinforced the knowledge that Kennett is doing well now, but success is fragile. I agree, Kennett is funding good teachers and addressing the whole student but it could go south as Pennsylvania continues to underfund public education, and the population gets older and becomes less attached to the next generation. Here is Jeff’s interview.
My experience includes a number of years as a teacher, a dozen years as an assessment and curriculum specialist and supervisor, and a two-year stint as a high school principal. Later I was responsible for managing the school improvement plan development and review process for all failing schools in the Commonwealth. My final position was as a PDE Academic Recovery Liaison assigned to assist twelve Philadelphia charter schools that were designated by PDE as needing improvement.
A Superintendent is the leader responsible for change, the essential change agent in a district. The average time served in this position in 1999 was 2.3 years, but the tenure has increased nationally to 3.6 years (2010). Your current superintendent, Dr. Barry Tomasetti, seems to have made a strong investment in the community, and apparently, plans to stay around, as have his predecessors. Not only is longevity extremely important for causing significant and lasting change within educational systems; school Board members also need to maintain student achievement as one of their primary line items.
I like to use the Second Law of Thermodynamics when thinking about organizations. The Law states that the disorder (entropy) of the universe is always increasing, which is why all physical and biological systems move toward less ordered states unless energy is used in opposition. A living thing is a complex system that requires the constant input of energy; when sufficient energy is no longer available, an organism dies.
The same concept is analogous to what happens in organizations. Right now, things may be going along so well in the KCSD that it is possible success is taken for granted; however, I can guarantee that there is a huge amount of energy in the form of human and financial intervention and support that is being input and responsible for the good things we see, and I can also guarantee that if that energy declines, the current success will decline.
In unsuccessful schools, where disadvantaged students are not achieving at desired levels, you will often hear teachers referring sympathetically to the fact that those kids can’t learn because of the “baggage” they bring with them to school. Fortunately, there are schools across America filled to the brim with disadvantaged students who disabuse that point of view because those students are meeting and exceeding achievement expectations despite the baggage they bring with them to school.
The difference is that in those schools teachers are expecting every student, regardless of their “baggage,” to meet exacting standards. In order to do that, those teachers must and do employ research-based instructional strategies, apply what is known about motivation, and subliminally convey to their students that they expect those students to learn.
One of the instructional approaches that is highly successful with all students is the constructivist approach to learning. “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” is a quote that might belong to Plutarch but is attributed to William Butler Yeats, perhaps Ireland’s most famous poet.
It is my impression that Kennett School District continues to recruit high quality teachers. Doing so requires compensation packages that are competitive with surrounding districts, which justifies the importance of insuring adequate funding for the district. However, higher teacher compensation does not cause higher student achievement as measured by standardized tests. The only ways that I can think of that explain the metrics related to KCSD’s overall student achievement is that Kennett’s high quality teachers must be able to convey to their students that they believe their students can learn, must be applying what the research says are effective instructional practices, and are consciously or unconsciously applying what research has determined increases a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn.
Kennett seems to have the strong quality of believing in youth and in holding high expectations for educational success. Your examples from The Garage and Community Youth Center, Study Buddies, Young Mom’s and others back up the research that indicates there is a direct and apparently causative relationship between teacher expectations and student performance. I hypothesize that the achievement of KCSD students, especially those who are disadvantaged and achieve above the level that would be predicted based upon national data, is a probable result of the high expectations of teachers, tutors, and mentors.