‘Academic genocide’ comment kicks off debate about low-performing schools

Dr. Terry Holliday, Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education, termed JCPS practices “academic genocide.”

If Dr. Terry Holliday, Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education, was looking to spark dialogue when he called Jefferson County Public School’s slow progress among its low-performing schools “academic genocide,” he got what he wanted Thursday.

Some 200 community and education leaders packed in to listen to a boisterous panel discussion entitled “Academic Genocide: The West Louisville Pipeline into the Industrial Prison Complex.” It was hosted by the civic group Leadership West Louisville at St. Stephen Family Life Center.

For an hour and a half, a diverse panel of education leaders, including Holliday and Dr. Donna Hargens, superintendent of JCPS, expounded on challenges and possible solutions for improving low-performing schools.

Several of the panelists, including former metro councilman and mayoral candidate Hal Heiner, advocated for new models of education, such as public charter schools.

Panel moderator DeVone Holt, a board member of Leadership West Louisville, kicked off the discussion asking Holliday what he meant by the phrase “academic genocide.”

Holliday said he’d borrowed the expression from fellow North Carolinian Judge Howard Manning who used it describe eight high schools in Charlotte, N.C.

“He purposefully chose that phrase, and I did too,” Holliday said. “I looked at the low-performing schools, and 18 of the 41 of them are in Jefferson (County), and I looked at the college career readiness numbers and at the graduation numbers for those schools, and I got alarmed that we weren’t moving fast enough.”

For example, he said, at one of the low-performing schools, of the 100 children who enter ninth grade, only 40 graduate four years later, and of them, only six are career- or college-ready.

“What I saw was a whole group of children who were being removed from the economy and probably ending up in your prison system,” he said.

He said negotiating with the local American Federation of Teachers for more incentives to work in poor-performing schools could help.

Hargens said learning gaps — when students miss key concepts — is one of the barriers low-performing schools must often overcome. To help remedy that problem, she said the school system is implementing readiness assessments for kindergartners.

Heiner, speaking as Chairman of Kentuckians Advocating Reform in Education, a new group of business and civic leaders interested in education, passionately argued the need to examine non-traditional examples of success, from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio which works with autistic children, to the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School for at-risk youth in Indianapolis.

He said he wanted to see more than small, incremental change at JCPS, like the district’s recent announcement that graduation rates had increased from 67.8 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to 69.4 percent in the 2011-2012 school year.

“Still in the big picture, that equals 30,000 lives,” he said of those students who still drop out. “Let’s look around the country at what’s bringing not a one percent increase in results, but a 20, 30 and 40 percent increase in results – dramatic results – and bring those best ideas to Jefferson County and into Kentucky.”

But the most resounding call for dramatic change, which roused the crowd to clap on numerous occasions, was from Dr. C.B. and Rosz Akins, founders of the Carter G. Woodson Academy for boys in Lexington. According to its website, the academy is a public, college preparatory school that teaches standard curriculum through the lens of African American history, culture and needs.

C.B. Akins called for the community to become heavily involved with education by starting after school tutoring programs, weekend workshops and other opportunities for young people the district may not yet offer.

“This requires a local solution to a national problem, and you will not solve it from the top down,” he said. “Get up and do something about the deplorable conditions that keep your kids going to prison or ending up dead.”