Dr. Houston Barber is Superintendent of Frankfort Independent Schools in Frankfort, Kentucky. This is the first in a series of posts from Dr. Barber on how Frankfort is working to provide every student the resources and support they need to succeed in school.
Frankfort is nestled in between the two largest cities of Lexington and Louisville, but still hails as the capital city of Kentucky. It’s one of the smallest capital cities in the United States and yet demonstrates an impeccable hospitality for anyone who decides to make it home or even pass through the southern charm of a city. I grew up in in the heart of South Frankfort, where the capitol building resides.
A district without a plan
I was fortunate to attend Frankfort High School, a school with a rich tradition and focus on the individual child. When I graduated from Frankfort High School, I had no intention of returning back except for the occasional visit with family and friends. After watching from the sidelines and working in turnaround schools throughout my career, I noticed the growing challenges that continued to impact Frankfort, and, in particular, the city schools.
For one, the city population growth has been stymied for over 30 years. Second, most employees in state government no longer live in Frankfort. Seventy-five percent of the property in Frankfort is tax exempt, which creates a fiscal disadvantage for students in Frankfort Independent Schools. There is also a 70% free and reduced-price lunch population in the city schools. Finally, there are large learning deficits in reading, math, and writing, which perpetuate a learning gap among our diverse populations.
It was based on the aforementioned challenges that my family and I chose to come to Frankfort in August 2015 and impact the community and change the overall growth and development in terms of the economy and educational opportunities.
Upon arrival, I noticed that there were passionate teachers, community members, parents, and stakeholders. However, most of their passions focused on good intentions without focused intentionality. In other words, there was no strategic plan with a specific approach, deployment plan, review of data and trends, learning, and integrated supports.
A new approach
In order to develop the FIS strategic plan, we held community forums, conducted audits (cultural, academic, fiscal, etc.), and polled local and state officials about our progress. We used this data to determine our next steps and identify our focus areas. We came to a strong conclusion that our school system needed to take on a 3:1 approach for each and every child. A 3:1 approach is focused on social/emotional supports, academic behavioral supports, and access to opportunities (with mentoring) supports.
Within a year, we established a partnership with the Kentucky Counseling Center in order to provide counseling sessions for all of our students, families, and staff at any time. We launched Student Response Teams at Second Street School—based on the work of our fearless principal, Dr. Dewey Hensley—to provide immediate and individualized support for students.
Through our work with Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), we implemented the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC), Math Design Collaborative (MDC), and a hyper-focus on literacy supports for our students from Pre-K through 3rd grade. It was through collaboration with Michael Haggen and Scholastic that we have partnered to create immediate supports in our classrooms and outside in the community for all of our children. This work continues to grow and will be a factor in our progress as a school district.
In terms of mentoring, we partnered with the Kenan Charitable Trust to develop a partnership with Kentucky State University in Frankfort focused on 6th–12th grade African-American males with an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). This has been extraordinarily fruitful in that we have created STEM+ labs for our students and provided 3:1 supports from all angles.
In an effort to connect to Kentucky State University, we created a dual position known as the Chief Innovation Officer with KSU and hired one of the great design thinkers in the US, Dr. Ron Chi. He has connected the Frankfort Independent Schools with KSU and created Early College opportunities, a pipeline for teacher educators, cultural responsive pedagogy supports, and established one of the first alternative schools on a college campus in the country.
Through our mentoring opportunities, we have partnered with our local pastors, community businesses, Daniel Puder (My Life My Power), and Mario Urrutia (Super Student Athletes) to provide students with exposure and experiences unlike they have seen before.
Through the innovation of Mr. John Lyons, Frankfort High School is one of the first public schools in the country to have a full implementation of Summit Public School approach for personalized learning. In just one year, Mr. Lyons moved FHS from one of the bottom schools in the state of KY in terms of performance to top 50. We value each and every child and focus on personalized learning with mentoring supports at FHS.
A sense of urgency
In the end, without a sense of urgency to support our students in literacy, we will fail. It is with focused strategic plans (intentionality) rather than good intentions that will move our school district to a model for all. There is a call to action to our community and surrounding communities to provide access to books and resources so that the gap will no longer divide our schools and create despair in our efforts to develop productive citizens. It’s time to join our strategic efforts!
Photo via Dr. Houston Barber