LOUISVILLE, Ky (WHAS11) -- One month after he described the performance of some Jefferson County Public Schools as "academic genocide," Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday defended his comments face-to-face with the JCPS Superintendent, Donna Hargens.
More than two hundred people crammed St. Stephen church's Family Life Center Thursday afternoon to hear a panel discussion, Academic Genocide: The West Louisville Pipeline into the Industrial Prison Complex, with Holliday, Hargens and several charter schools advocates.
Holliday expressed alarm that JCPS has not moved fast enough to improve its graduation rate and that most graduates are not college or career ready.
"What I saw was a whole group of children that were being removed from the economy and probably ending up in your prison system.," Holliday told the mostly African-American crowd.
"We absolutely offer no excuses," Hargens said. "We are about helping every child, child by child."
Hargens however, took issue with how charter schools advocate Hal Heiner applied JCPS' 70 percent graduation rate to an estimate of how many JCPS students drop out of school.
"We have about 100,000 students," Heiner explained, "and 30,000 of those students will never graduate if we keep doing what we're doing."
Hargens stipulated to the crowd that Heiner's math was wrong and a JCPS spokesman later explained that the district averages a little more than 1000 dropouts each year, and that students who take more than four years to graduate or later earn a GED do not count toward the graduation rate figure.
"The graduation rate is actually AFGR, Average Freshman Graduation Rate," explained Ben Jackey, the JCPS spokesman. "Through freshman and sophomore data, it calculates students making it through high school and graduating in four years. Students may leave the district. Or students may graduate in 5 years, 6 years, get a GED, etc."
Heiner, the Chairman of Kentuckians Advocating Reform in Education (KARE) stood by his equation after the event, applying the 70 percent graduation rate to the district's estimated 100,000 K-12 students. A map he shared later showed a disproportionate number of dropouts this school year live in the West End and Southwest Louisville.
"Every year that we don't see the change, 6500 kids in the Commonwealth of Kentucky are dropping out of school," said
C.B. Akins, founder of the BMW Academy in Lexington and Pastor of First Baptist Church of Bracktown. "6500, some of them are going to rob your house. Some of them are going to steal what you work for."
Though Kentucky is one of only eight states that does not allow charter schools (Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia), Akins' school employs some charter school strategies.
"We dispel the notion that black, low income black parents do not know how to make good decisions," said Jerry Stephenson, State Director for the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
"We need some tools in the tool chest," Stephenson continued, "other than one system that sets the agenda for everybody and everybody has to follow that agenda."
Hargens agreed the district needs to innovate and increase alternatives for students, disclosing that JCPS wants to add districts of innovation, what some people describe as "charter schools lite."
"We're already on the track to do that," Hargens told WHAS11. "We're submitting a district of innovation application that will engage the community in coming up with ways to do things differently with all our students."
"If we repeat what we're doing with someone who is not graduating, we're going to get the results that we've gotten," Hargens said, virtually echoing the JCPS critics. "So we have to do things differently."
Holliday complimented Hargens, saying - unlike some previous JCPS superintendents - the state enjoys "tremendous collaboration" with her.
"We've got to make sure that every child knows that they are valued," he said.
"We know what works," Hargens told the gathering. "It's well documented in research. It's well documented in succesful schools throughout the nation."
"You've got to have high expectations," she continued. "All of our employees had high expectations training. You've got to be focused on data, you have to be willing to extend time. You have to be willing to intervene at the level of the students."
Hargens said the district hopes to renegotiate some teachers union rules that complicate improvement plans at persistently low-achieving schools.
"We've been open with the community," Hargens told the crowd. "We've told them exactly how big the mountain is that we need to climb, but now we need to start climbing it."