In a nondescript building situated by a Target and some apartment complexes, students at the alternative school Minor Daniels Academy are greeted by metal detectors.
They don neutral uniforms. There are holes in the walls from when angry students punched the drywall and no one bothered to fix it, one staff member said as she showed Insider Louisville photographs.
Recently, one gang — named after a former student who was killed — scribbled messages threatening another gang, according to the Minor Daniels staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of retaliation for speaking freely.
She described regular fights, sometimes with teachers caught in the middle. Students curse and yell at teachers, or push seats together to create a bed and fall asleep. A short-lived social media post two weeks ago showed screaming, shirtless students hanging out of a school bus.
Insider asked multiple people familiar with Minor Daniels to describe the school’s environment.
“It feels like a prison,” they said in separate interviews.
Uncontrollable behavior, minimal assistance from leaders and anxieties of retaliation distress alternative school employees as they struggle to help the district’s most at-risk youth, an Insider Louisville investigation found.
And their reports suggest little has improved since the school’s rocky creation less than five years ago, signaling a cycle that fails students and educators.
“I don’t get why something is not being done,” the Minor Daniels staff member said. “The system is messed up.”
‘All we do is pray for Friday’
Alternative school employees understand their role in helping some of JCPS’ more vulnerable students confront trauma and years of being disadvantaged by systems not created for them. For many of them, it is why they’re working in an alternative school.
But daily issues and unresponsive administrators complicate that work, they said.
“All we do is pray for Friday,” the Minor Daniels staffer said.
Staff report feeling less safe at Minor Daniels and Breckinridge Metropolitan High School over the past year, according to new district survey data. Roughly 80% of teachers and administrators at both schools said they feel safe in the school this year — down from last year’s survey nearly 13 percentage points at Minor Daniels and 20 points at Breckinridge.
Classified employees reported even lower numbers — 73% feel safe at Breckinridge and 78% at Minor Daniels. Nearly 93% of staff districtwide reported feeling safe in their school.
Often, nothing comes of student outbursts, the Minor Daniels staffer said. Staff say they feel helpless and have minimal resources to handle behavior issues. JCPS does not expel students, and hasn’t for decades, leaving time at an alternative school to be considered the worst punishment.
Students realize this, responding to attempted punishments with remarks like “What are you going to do about it” and “You can’t touch me,” according to staff and teachers.
Miles away from Minor Daniels, a Breckinridge teacher called her alternative school “a judicial babysitting facility to avoid negative press.”
She waved a thick stack of yellow tearsheets. They are her copies of the 30 to 40 referrals she’s written since January. Referrals are “all I got,” the teacher, who asked not to be identified so that she could speak freely, said.
Writing a referral grants her a temporary reprieve from a student, getting them out of her classroom for at least the rest of the period. They typically go to the Positive Action Center (PAC). While the name implies they’ll work through the issue through a restorative justice lens, the teacher said they “just go there and sit.”
In her years at the school, she’s learned she can’t write up every infraction — it would take up the entire class time, and she probably wouldn’t have any students to teach afterward. Instead, she “teaches around it.”
Schools can suspend but it causes students to miss class time.
JCPS spokeswoman Renee Murphy said behavior events and suspensions are down at Minor Daniels this year. Attendance is up around 2% — a large single-year jump.
JCPS has seen a 16% decrease in out-of-school suspensions so far this year. Even so, Insider spoke with teachers districtwide who say the decrease is not necessarily because behavior is improving but that schools are under pressure to keep their numbers low.
Together, Minor Daniels and Breckinridge made up 7% of suspensions in the district this year but only 1% of JCPS’ student population.
Over two-thirds of Minor Daniels students will receive at least one referral while in the school. Over three-fourths of Breckinridge students will receive one — 4% received over 51 referrals, according to district data.
When asked for responses to concerns raised by teachers multiple times over the course of a month, Murphy and another JCPS spokeswoman frequently said the questions and issues were “too vague” to respond to.
Unresponsive to concerns
Kumar Rashad, a math teacher at Breckinridge, said he chose to work at the school because the kids needed him.
“I have to be a role model,” he said. “It’s the only way many of these guys are going to succeed. The reality is — to be man, you have to see a man.”
Alternative schools don’t necessarily have new teachers thrown into a tough school straight out of college. They are more likely to have advanced degrees than their peers, according to district data.
But while Breckinridge teachers in interviews cited a recent upswing in internal culture, Minor Daniels reported an anxious culture of intimidation and retaliation.
Increasingly frustrated, Minor Daniels staff want to speak about the school’s situation — of the lack of leadership, unsafe behaviors and the need for more help. But fears of retaliation often prevent them from speaking to district leaders or reporters, one said.
In April, one Minor Daniels educator emailed two district officials about the school’s “unsafe” culture. In an email to Katy DeFerrari, the district’s head of school climate and culture, the teacher asked for a meeting to discuss issues in the school.
In an email to Glenn Baete, who is in charge of high schools, she asserted that school administrators retaliated against her or ignored her when she brought up issues.
“Power, positions, and personal vendettas are more important than safety,” she wrote. When teachers and staff need help with students, she continued, administrators are “in meetings” or unresponsive. School leaders are “intentionally creating division,” she said, leading employees to feel unsupported.
“I hope that by writing this email to you I can get the support that I need and resolve these issues peacefully,” she ended.
Murphy said the situation was handled but she couldn’t explain further, citing personnel matters. The staff member’s personnel file, obtained through the state’s open records law, does not show a transfer from the school or any disciplinary action.
“We take any concern by an employee seriously and we encourage employees to address any concerns they have with school leadership so they can be supported,” Murphy said in an email.
Vaughn Little, the principal of Minor Daniels, began in October with over 20 years of experience in alternative education. But a different Minor Daniels educator insisted he was “inexperienced” and that the school needed a veteran from within the district.
Nearly 98% of Minor Daniels’ teachers and administrators said they felt Little provides effective leadership in a recent district survey — up slightly from last year under a different principal.
Additionally, Little and his assistant principals are in a power struggle, multiple staff members said. Everyone wants to be “the good guy,” but no one wants to enforce the rules, one said.
“Nothing is changing,” a staff member said.
A spokeswoman for Teddy Gordon, a local attorney who frequently sues JCPS, said the office fields “lots of calls” about potential lawsuits from both schools. There are no open suits involving either school, she said.
Breckinridge staff also perceived neglect from the district.
Staff said in interviews they were not included on a recent task force to overhaul the two schools, despite being directly impacted by the decisions. For them, it felt like another step of distance between officials and educators.
The teachers union recommended two teachers — Rashad and Tina Bojanowski, who is also a state representative — for the group. But Rashad said there was miscommunication, so he never knew to go to the meetings.
Murphy said JCPS invited Rashad to multiple task force meetings and once received a confirmation that he would attend. She wasn’t sure if he attended the meeting.
So the group consisted of mostly community advocates, one of whom said she felt the entire operation was “for show.” Requests for data or to talk about alternative school assignment were ignored, said Elizabeth Senn-Alvey, a community organizer.
Recommended changes came from DeFerrari, the district leader for school culture, not the group, she said. Murphy said DeFerrari chaired the task force and wasn’t in the work groups.
Breckinridge teacher Michael Borho said staff feel “targeted” for facility changes because of the school’s high percentage of minority students.
“The students recognize this, and it makes many of them feel like they aren’t good enough for a beautiful, old building that is in neutral territory, and a safe location where they don’t have to worry about their own safety while at school,” Borho said.
Grappling with limited resources, both schools need more books, more mentors, more restorative practices and more programs to teach students skills, Rashad said. And those extra budget allocations come from the district.
“We have a room that says ‘library,’ but there are no books,” Rashad said.
The most at-risk
Breckinridge and Minor Daniels are alternative schools designed to serve students with behavior problems. If a student is involved in the legal system or has a serious behavior violation — like physical assault or weapons possession — at their home school, they’re typically assigned to one of the two schools.
During the 2017-18 school year, 804 students found themselves in one of the schools at one point or another.
Recently, JCPS officials mapped where those students live — green dots for one school, red for another. The presentation was meant to squash rumors that students are assigned to schools based off of gang or neighborhood affiliation.
It addressed that. But, more so, it showed students heavily come from the West End.
Alternative students are disproportionately black, poor and identified as special needs compared to the district.
Minor Daniels sees two-thirds of its students each day. Breckinridge sees slightly over half. The district’s average attendance rate is over 90%.
Multiple people told Insider students are likely to experience trauma in their home or neighborhood — sometimes both — that can manifest as behavior issues. Some are involved in gangs, and neighborhood issues can follow students.
“(The school is) something of a microcosm — what’s going on in the neighborhoods definitely shows up,” Borho, a social studies teacher at Breckinridge, said. While the biggest issues happen outside of school, the fallout continues inside, he said.
The students are often behind academically. One Breckinridge teacher said her high schoolers often read at a second or third-grade level.
They’re considered some of the most vulnerable students, with the school often their final stop between childhood and adulthood. But with that, plus being black and poor, comes a strong stigma that these are the “bad kids.”
Nearly every person interviewed for this story — school board member, educator, advocate, official — said that is a connotation, not a reason to write a kid off.
“An alternative school is not a punishment,” Ben Gies, a school board member who teaches in Oldham County, said at a recent board meeting. “An alternative school is an alternative for students to learn in a better environment.”
“We agree,” Superintendent Marty Pollio responded.
Recent pushes to restructure alternative schools were not Chris Brady’s first time tackling the issue as a school board member.
Less than five years ago, JCPS sought to fix the district’s failing alternative schools. Part of the solution was to combine middle school students from Kennedy Metro onto Buechel Metropolitan High School’s campus — creating Minor Daniels.
Calling the situation a “bit of a web,” Brady said the former superintendent Donna Hargens showed him, and maybe others, an internal investigation finding teachers in Kennedy inappropriately handling students and instances of isolation.
Despite a “lack of confidence” in the plan, Brady said he believed at that time his options were to immediately get students out of a bad situation or continue the status quo. So he, along with the majority of the board, voted in favor of the proposal in March 2015.
Problems with Minor Daniels began almost immediately. The school’s first principal was installed weeks before the first day in August 2015, leaving him scrambling to set up the school.
Staff complained of unsafe student behavior soon after. Local police told JCPS to fix “serious problems” with Minor Daniels in October 2015.
In news articles from the time, school officials often cited internal culture issues and teachers not being cut out for an alternative school for the behavior problems. A new focus on restorative efforts was different from the more punitive focus of the past. Results would take years, but the punitive result was “not very favorable,” Minor Daniels’ first principal, Don Dillard, said.
“We are trying to change the culture and it’s going to take some time,” the former JCPS spokeswoman said at the time.
In a survey by the teachers union that October, 86% of school personnel said that they didn’t feel safe in the building.
That survey was never revisited, the union president Brent McKim said recently. Anecdotally, he said, the situation seems to have improved. A Minor Daniels staffer who spoke to Insider disagreed — it got worse, they said.
Less than five years after the creation of Minor Daniels, JCPS officials set out again to improve its alternative schools.
“We are going to have to do things differently with our alternative schools,” Pollio said at a recent board meeting. “We cannot be happy or satisfied with outcomes that we have at this point.”
JCPS’ initial proposal, pulled from the task force’s recommendations and tied to a larger facilities push, included a slew of new initiatives to provide resources for students. A suggestion to merge high schoolers from Minor Daniels and Breckinridge overshadowed all of it.
JCPS spends an average of $54,500 to educate an alternative school student, compared to $13,500 for an average student. The merger was expected to pool resources, reallocating the funds for new support staff.
But an anonymous letter on Dear JCPS said a merger would increase gang violence in schools. Things are already tense enough inside the schools, the letter said. Combining all students on non-neutral territory would make things even worse.
Breckinridge teachers raised the same concerns in a January meeting with Pollio and other district officials. “Security” topped every group’s list of issues with the merger. One group wrote “bloods vs crypts (sic)” as their top concern.
“We can’t dump all the students who fell through the gaping holes in this system into one building and turn out the lights,” a Breckinridge teacher wrote in a letter shared with Insider.
In response to the letter, a board member, Linda Duncan, said the district needed the merger to provide more seats in alternative schools.
“Classrooms are being disrupted presently by more low-functioning kids than we can assign to either Breck or MDA,” Duncan, a former administrator, wrote. “We must have more space for those kids who are taking learning time away from the others who can do the work.”
A corrective action plan with the state says JCPS doesn’t have enough seats in its alternative schools. Moving students into Liberty High School’s building, as initially recommended, would provide those seats, allowing schools who haven’t been able to put students in alternative settings to do so.
Some activists said a school with room for 1,000 students could give school leaders the ability to push out students instead of providing the supports they need.
Eventually, the merger was broken off from the larger facilities plan, then put on hold for at least a year. JCPS plans to revisit a facility change next year in the second phase of alternative changes. But without more seats to appease the state, Brady still has concerns.
“I already approved a plan like this before and that was a mistake,” Brady said, referencing the creation of Minor Daniels. “I don’t want to repeat my mistake.”
Change is needed
Educators are hesitantly optimistic about the coming set of changes.
The transition process into and out of the schools will be reworked to improve school connections and increase parental involvement.
Restorative and trauma-informed practices will continue. Increased mental health supports and a focus on de-escalation tactics are expected.
A new partnership with the Rhode Island-based nonprofit Big Picture Learning is slated to play a large role in individualizing learning. Multiple career and technical education options are being considered, opening students to jobs immediately out of high school.
Rashad was unsure how the new plan would play out logistically but said, “in theory, it sounds great.”
Alternative school changes are one of the district’s nine budget priorities for the coming year. The draft budget, set for a vote Tuesday, allocates $6.8 million for Minor Daniels and $5.8 million for Breckinridge — both 12% jumps in funding.
Educators, school board members and advocates agreed multiple levels of change are needed in alternative schools. Schools need to resolve immediate behavior issues while working to get students to grade level academically and restore deep-rooted trauma, they said.
Aligned with national best practices, this plan could be the answer. But some are hesitant, marred by years of being put on the backburner and spurned by the district.
Pointing at each bullet point of a marked-up printout of the district’s alternative school presentation, a Breckinridge teacher unleashed a stream of concerns regarding the plan. She wants more details, she said, but when she asked the district, no one had answers for her. Murphy said school principals have specifics to share with teachers and staff.
“They don’t care about our students,” the teacher said, referring to district officials as a “whole group of ‘yes men.’ ”
Plus, many of her high schoolers read at an elementary level. How will this plan get them to the level where they can read the job application they’ll need to use their trade skills?
‘The business that we’re in’
Despite their concerns, each educator had at least one success story. A student who transitioned out of the alternative school, later thanking them. A student who jumped double-digit points in a district assessment because a teacher pushed them to care.
Rashad runs a mentoring group called Men of Quality at Breckinridge. Focused on responsibility and cultural diversity, the group visited Kentucky State University and saw “Pipeline,” a play centered around the school-to-prison pipeline concept.
Between relationship-building and boosting self-esteem, the work helps save students’ lives, Rashad said. “That’s really the business that we’re in,” he said.
For many, an alternative school is the last stop between graduating, dropping out or worse.
According to district data, 2% of Minor Daniels students drop out. That jumps to 11% at Breckinridge. Graduation rates are significantly lower than the district: 72% for Breck, 63% for MDA.
Alternative students are at risk to become “disconnected youth” — people aged 16 to 24 who aren’t in school or working. About 12.6% of Louisville’s youth are considered disconnected, according to national data.
Louisville’s disconnected population goes “up and down” over the years, with the newest data showing a “somewhat better” picture than years past, Senn-Alvey said.
Senn-Alvey’s coalition of nonprofits, Emerging Workforce Initiative, works to provide wraparound services, helping youth with job skills and to find housing. But more can be done, she said, including better relations with the district and its schools.
Students who are suspended are nearly three times more likely to end being involved in the judicial system within a year, according to the ACLU. For some students, they already are. The statistic puts them at a greater risk of ending up on the school-to-prison pipeline — a concept that early exposure to the legal process will mean students go straight from school to incarceration.
“Those schools are the engine for the school-to-prison pipeline,” a lawyer and task force member, Rita Ward, said. “Unfortunately, the people driving this locomotive do not have the educational background and expertise to know how to fix what’s wrong.”
Sometimes, those in the schools face the worst.
Sitting at a corner table in a coffee shop, the initial Minor Daniels staffer begins counting on her hand. In a whisper, she says former students’ names, one by one.
She’s been counting students who have been killed in the past four years. After reports of deaths of young black boys, she said someone at the school always asks the question.
“Was it ours?”
This story has been updated with additional comment from JCPS and freshly released data.