Blind World Magazine

blind students to take part in "Reality Store."

Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky.
Sunday, February 19, 2006.

On Wednesday, at the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville (KSB), dozens of blind and visually impaired middle and high school students will participate in an imaginative "Reality Store" to help them learn about adult careers and the value of a solid education.

Students will be asked to imagine they are 28 years old and the sole source of their family's income. They will select a career and be assigned a corresponding salary, as well as up to three dependents.

The students will have taxes deducted from their salary, set up checking and savings accounts, and visit booths where they will be expected to buy transportation, utilities, real estate, home and life insurance, day care, grocery store, clothing and entertainment necessary for their survival for one month.

Students will also make stops at the "crystal ball booth" where they may experience unexpected medical bills and other financial "surprises" as adults do. When student checkbooks get too low, they will visit a booth for financial advice such as changing careers, renting versus buying a home, and government assistance programs.

As Paula Penrod at KSB says, "It will not take long for a student to learn that a single parent with two children and a $20,000 salary cannot afford to live in an upscale home, buy designer clothes, pay for childcare and still have money to buy groceries."

It's a great idea, one that's becoming popular around the country.

Yet it's only the latest in a series of recent changes at KSB and its sibling school, Kentucky School for the Deaf (KSD) in Danville. These changes at KSB and KSD have not just been in the social environment. The most impressive changes have been in the classrooms. And those changes offer important lessons about Kentucky's overall educational progress since 1990, when the General Assembly passed the acclaimed Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA).

For all of us worried about underachieving students and low-performing schools and inadequate adult leadership, the changes at KSB and KSD offer remarkable evidence that KERA's underlying premise ("All students can perform at high levels") is built on solid ground, and KERA's innovations and ideas can work extremely well.

How do we know? In 1999, the "academic index" at KSB (the weighted average of CATS scores for reading, writing, math, science, social studies, arts/humanities and practical living/vocational studies) was 31.9 for the elementary school and 27.1 for the middle school. Absolutely dismal. The academic index for the high school was better, 57.4, but nothing special.

Maybe that was all that should have been expected from kids with significant sensory impairments. Some people thought so, at least.

But these scores haunted Kentucky's educational leaders. So the state Board of Education, led by then-Chairman Helen Mountjoy, and the state Department of Education, led by Commissioner Gene Wilhoit and in this area by Associate Commissioner Johnnie Grissom, started looking for solutions.

The state board hired an outside consulting firm to conduct a thorough review of the operations at KSB and KSD, and compare those with what other states were doing and what Kentucky could achieve. The consulting firm produced a lengthy study that provided a framework for the redesign of academic programs for the two schools.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education inspected KSB's and KSD's academic programs and instructional leadership. Department officials also met with parents and school officials and social service people throughout Kentucky to examine programs in local school districts where other students with sensory impairments were attending.

The Department brought in new leadership. At KSB, for example, a new principal came to the school from Western Kentucky named Jeanette Wicker. She was a "highly skilled educator" -- one of the particularly successful innovations of KERA. Wicker did not have a great deal of professional experience with sensory impairments. And her selection hardly calmed the rising voices from some KSB alumni and school representatives who distrusted the changes coming from Frankfort.

But Wicker did know how all kids learn. And she knew how to use the talents of the many skilled educators and administrators already at KSB, like Kathy Jones and Cathy Johnson.

And with the backing of Wilhoit and Grissom and other department officials like Barb Kibler from Louisville and Bill Stearns, and with the steady support from state Board of Education members, a dramatic new direction was set for KSB.

Classroom practices changed. Methods of instruction changed. Use of tests to identify strengths and weaknesses changed. And not least, expectations changed radically.

Do they know what they're doing in Frankfort?

Does KERA work?

Can all children really learn and achieve at high levels?

By 2003, after substantial changes in the instructional leadership and programs at KSB, the academic index had rocketed from 31.9 to 70.7 for KSB's elementary school, from 27.1 to 80.6 for the middle school, and from 57.4 to 65 for the high school.

That means that reading and writing and math scores doubled for most grades. Tripled at some levels. Same basic facilities. Pretty much same number of students. No known differences in the backgrounds of the students.

What changed? It's as simple and as complicated as this: sweeping changes in expectations and instructional practices.

This is what the late Chief Justice Robert Stephens and the Kentucky Supreme Court dreamed of when they invalidated the existing "system of common schools" in Kentucky in their landmark 1989 decision.

This is what Louisville state Sen. David Karem and the General Assembly dreamed of when they drafted and passed the nationally-acclaimed KERA statute in 1990.

This is what Helen Mountjoy of Owensboro dreamed of when she joined the state Board of Education in 1991, where she will be leaving this April after 15 years of passionate and brilliant leadership. No one in Kentucky has had a greater impact on the lives of the next generation than Mountjoy.

And the 2003 CATS scores at KSB weren't statistical flukes. The Department of Education officials in Frankfort, and Jeanette Wicker and her talented faculty at KSB, didn't rest. The improvements continued.

In 2005, the academic index had climbed to 82.6 for the elementary school, 85.1 for the middle school, and 78.9 for this high school. These were higher than the academic scores for most Kentucky schools for children without sensory impairments.

And the number of low achieving students with "novice" scores has fallen just as dramatically.

Less astounding but similar improvements have also occurred at KSD in Danville following substantial focus on the instructional programs there. Similar improvements are occurring today in many schools in Jefferson County and across Kentucky. KERA can work for all kids, no matter their race, gender, disability status or socioeconomic background.

That's the dream. And KSB proves it can be a reality. It will be proven again this Wednesday for more students at the "Reality Store."

David Tachau is a Louisville lawyer. In April, he will complete a four-year term on the Kentucky Board of Education, where he has represented Jefferson County.

End of article.

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