Back to School
“Smaller may be a better model for local high schools” says Stephanie McDermott, associate principal of Lafayette High School
BY DAN ELKINSON
“It was a wake up call.” That’s how Stephanie McDermott describes her experience as the principal of a middle school in Paducah, when the shooting of students participating in a morning prayer group shattered the peace of a high school in her district.
McDermott, the associate principal of Lafayette High School, moved to Lexington from Western Kentucky just a year ago.
“People I knew were involved… When it happens so close to home you can’t believe it. Immediately you start thinking, what can we do, how do we control the damage, how do we break the news to kids and parents, and how do we make sure this never happens again?”
McDermott, who knew the shooter’s family personally, only spoke briefly about the effects of her experience in Paducah, but it was evident that the tragedy there has left her even more conscious of the need to focus not only on safety issues, but on improving teacher awareness and many other aspects of the high school experience for every single student to ensure a safer, more beneficial school environment.
“Paducah left an ongoing impression. He was not the type of student anyone would have expected to do something like this. That is the biggest lesson learned, now we have to look so closely for signs from every single student. Our culture is not used to that-we used to know who the bad boys were. But now we all must be much more aware.”
The tragedy at Paducah, like that at Columbine, instills parents, teachers and students everywhere with an uncomfortable awareness of potential violence.
Reform and education are two words that travel hand in hand here in the Bluegrass, and as the school year begins it is worthwhile to examine some of the changes being implemented in Lexington high schools. And a brief investigation of a single school may be the best way to shed light on the bigger picture.
Being seven months pregnant has not prevented Stephanie McDermott from using the hot summer months to better prepare for the upcoming school year. Although she is a new face at Lafayette, she’s made her mark. Michela Keith, a French teacher at Lafayette who has worked closely with McDermott said, “Her energy, creativity and friendliness have won the respect of both teachers and students after only a single year. It is amazing how much she has already gotten done.”
A number of McDermott’s responsibilities at Lafayette relate to discipline and safety issues, but she also proved to be extremely familiar with all working aspects of the school. She spoke at length about safety and discipline issues showing off the enormous state mandated Emergency Management Guide Manual, to which Lafayette has added extensively, making the manual better suited to their particular school. McDermott is responsible for updating the manual and reviewing it with the faculty. She notes with pride, “Every employee in the building knows what evacuation route to take, and what their responsibilities are in case of a crisis or an emergency of any kind.”
McDermott also addressed important school news she believes will continue to upgrade the quality of the overall educational experience. Efforts towards re-cultivating relationships between the school and parents was atop the list as McDermott pointed out that “education really needs to be a team effort to succeed.” Reducing freshman class sizes and the addition of a Reading Specialist to the faculty are two examples she gave that will enable increased participation and attention to student’s reading abilities. Extended school services (a state funded program which allows for a freshman orientation, before and after school tutoring, and study halls), the recent addition of social workers and law enforcement officers to the school, a new Technology Resource teacher, and the counseling department are all examples McDermott provided demonstrating how Lafayette is paying more attention to growing student needs. And of course she’s proud of the $11 million dollar renovations currently underway at Lafayette which will result in great physical and functional improvements.
It is not uncommon that busy parents look to the schools as the responsible guardian who is to shape their child into a well educated, well rounded member of society, because that is where their child spends the majority of each day. However, more and more teachers and administrators seem to feel that as many parents are working against the schools than with them.
Karen Vanover, a Kentucky native who holds an M.A. in Education and has been a Physical Education and Health teacher at Lafayette for twenty six years addressed this issue. “If a child today is reprimanded for poor discipline, or doesn’t receive enough individual attention, or isn’t passing a class, the blame seems to fall on the teacher and the school.”
She continues, “Children today reared on fast food, video games and internet searches are accustomed to instant gratification. They want to grow up faster, but they act less mature and responsible. They demand lofty results, but often lack the willingness, patience and work ethic to achieve them… These days everything is bigger and faster, kids want to grow up faster, their parents want them to have the best and outdo everything they did… Kids today are doing what we did in college,” says Vanover.
She continues, “We used to run school according to what we believed was good for all, now it seems to be run by parents who only care about what is good for their own kid.” Vanover seems to think that parents have a lot to do with the increase in discipline problems and lack of effort shown by today’s teens. “Kids get everything easy these days, and don’t really want to work. I see it in the classroom and on the athletic fields.
“A number of students still want to learn, but on the whole more students are disruptive,” says Vanover. “I do believe that KERA’s motto of ‘everyone can learn’ is true, but everyone learns at different speeds… some kids get bored when material is covered too slow, while others get frustrated that the same material is being taught too fast.”
This may be an explanation for why students misbehave in class; they are either bored or frustrated, and they aren’t getting enough attention.
But Vanover doesn’t feel this is an excuse. “Kids expect so much and their egos are so fragile these days… they are treated too sensitively, and therefore never learn to be accountable for their actions.”
Vanover is known around the school for her excellent work ethic. McDermott referred to her as “someone who never stops working.” She obviously expects the same from her students.
McDermott explained that what makes teachers popular with both administrators and students is their style of teaching and their attitude towards the students. “Teachers need to be excited, interested and creative, and they need care about their students.” McDermott named a number of Lafayette teachers of various subjects she felt fit this mold, one of which was newcomer Michela Keith.
Keith, who will begin her second year teaching French at Lafayette this August, shares some similar views with Vanover about students’ attitudes, but also possesses some ideas that are quite contrary. A number of reasons may account for this, but primarily their difference in age and duration of teaching seem most likely.
Keith received her M.A. in Education from U.K. with a concentration in French after studying pedagogy and linguistics for a year in Perpignan, France. “My year abroad had a major impact on my fluency and love for the French language and culture,” says the cheerful and bright twenty-five year old.
Keith seems to agree with Vanover that the students could work harder, but adds, “they are kids, even if they think they’re adults. I hate having to deal with distractions so I try to keep every minute of class time focused and interesting.”
When questioned about her first year as a high school teacher, Keith, who was also the junior varsity girls soccer coach and member of the school’s equity committee, replied with mixed emotions. “I loved it, but it was draining… the most important part of teaching is supposed to be that fifty minutes you spend with the students each day, but there are so many other responsibilities like curriculum and lesson planning, ordering texts, making proposals, and sitting on committees that get in the way.”
Teaching four different sections of French makes it even more challenging for Keith because each class is at a different level and requires different instruction. “I try to make it as interesting and fun to learn as possible,” says Keith. “I like them to listen to spoken French every day, and I think it is also important for them to learn about the culture because it will increase their appreciation for the language. This year I had my students read French poetry, visit French websites, and write a paper on the European community. Next year I’d like to look at some French films and maybe have my students get French pen pals,” Keith adds, giving credit for those ideas to her Resource Teacher, Diane Jeter. (All first year teachers must have a Resource Teacher to help them develop a personal growth plan according to KERA’s implementation of KTIP,Kentucky Teacher Internship Program.)
Keith was still in high school herself when KERA was enacted, but as a teacher she has since developed some strong opinions about it. “It has led to some great improvements, but it is really a long term plan where eventually the entire state will be working with the same standards.”
She further explains, “Standardizing curriculum with the ultimate goal of having all students in the state learning the same material is one of KERA’s seven major strands. A number of state hired education specialists mapped out this type of plan modeling it after a number of highly successful school systems in other countries such as Denmark and Japan. A grant from the Pew Foundation (an organization that studies curriculum issues in the United States) given to Fayette County three years ago totaling $750,000 has been put towards achieving this goal.”
Keith attended the Kentucky United Nations Assembly with some of her students in Louisville this past year, and found the experience to be a great opportunity to socialize with students outside the classroom. She also had a barbecue for her French V class the evening before they took the A.P. exam. “I think showing the students that you care about them and are interested in their lives is one of the most important aspects of my job.”
Pressures from home and pressures from peers can make being in high school a difficult and challenging time. Educators like McDermott are doing what they can to alleviate some of this pressure by providing students with friendly faces within the school whom they can turn to. This can hopefully prevent possibly harmful situations from erupting into tragedies.
The addition of Nan Riekert, a licensed social worker, has helped tremendously with keeping a number of “at risk” students interested and coming to school. McDermott says, “She’s an adult in the school who they know they can trust and talk to about anything, and she keeps an eye their attendance and class work as well.”
Holding five-month old son Will in her arms during the interview, it was immediately evident Nan Riekert has a way with children. This August, Riekert, who has worked with youths in a variety of ways for the last seventeen years, will begin her third year as Lafayette’s social worker, a position created by the Board of Education. ” Riekert begins. “Some kids, for whatever reason, just aren’t interested [in school], but I believe if I can find a way to hook them, or just give them someone to talk to, and be someone who cares about them, then I can get them to come to school.
“Most of my kids are very bright, bright enough to trick their parents and teachers, but don’t seem interested in school. They just need a little extra push, and need to feel involved with school,” Riekert confides.
According to McDermott, Lafayette will spend roughly $7,000 on a freshman orientation prior to the start of this school year. The orientation will allow incoming eighth graders a chance to meet administrators, teachers and other students. In addition to the opportunity of being socially introduced to the new and often intimidating world of high school, the orientation program will acquaint them with the layout of the school and offer tips on how to organize and plan for academic success. Extended school services also provide extra money to compensate teachers who tutor before and after school.
McDermott also mentions the great success of the Parent Teacher Student Association, which helps involve the community in school affairs, and also praised the counseling department who she confesses is “overworked with administrative tasks [like college admissions], but still does a wonderful job helping students in need and communicating with parents.”
Another improvement McDermott excitedly discussed was this year’s addition of a Technology Resource Teacher who will play an intricate part of in the long range five year plan aimed towards catching students and teachers up to speed with computer technology, an acknowledged weakness at Lafayette.
Two students, Debbie Peterson and Shawna Yeary, mentioned that they had little or no experience working with computers in school. The two students also revealed their opinions on other matters such as safety, curriculum, and teachers. Both admitted to feeling safe at school despite the increase of nation wide school violence. As far as classes go, Shawna suggested that “the students should have greater flexibility in selecting their schedules, because certain classes interest certain students, and others do not.” Debbie agreed, saying that “fifty minutes is a long time to concentrate on something you have no interest in.” She also suggested more educational field trips like to a hospital for students studying biology. Make learning fun and interesting.
These comments reflect a number of things said by McDermott (who was an English teacher herself) when asked what makes teachers successful.
Finally McDermott talked about the ongoing renovations. “They will really improve the overall atmosphere and functionality of the entire school,” she reported enthusiastically. Added “drops” will provide every classroom with the ability to access the internet, and two recently added computer labs allow for elective courses and special class sessions to teach students important computer skills, for example.
In the course of the last few years many events have led to questions regarding the quality of education, and the levels of stability and determination the younger generations of Americans are receiving from attending public school.
Stephanie McDermott, Nan Riekert, Karen Vanover, and Michela Keith may have different ideas and different solutions, but are linked by their strong desire to improve the school atmosphere and quality of education their student receive. They are also a few of the many overworked and underpaid school employees Lexington as a community (like communities all over America) has come to rely upon to prepare children for what no doubt will be a very challenging future. But students must be willing to be taught, to be helped and guided. A teacher’s success relies partially on what they have to offer, and partially on what they have to work with.
With 56 schools and some 33,000 students, Fayette County is the second largest school district in the state. The five public high schools, Bryan Station, Dunbar, Henry Clay, Lafayette and Tates Creek all possess their own individual strengths, and are working towards overcoming their weaknesses.
Lafayette High School will enroll approximately 1,750 students this fall, and is physically the largest school building in the state. “Many educators, administrators, students and parents seem to agree that schools are becoming too big and impersonal, which increases the risk of students falling through the cracks,” says McDermott. She suggests that many of the new programs and positions were created with the intention of re-establishing a more personal connection between educators and students, and increasing the amount of individual instruction each child receives.
“If a child today is reprimanded for poor discipline, or doesn’t receive enough individual attention, or isn’t passing a class, the blame seems to fall on the teacher and the school.”
“I loved [my first year of teaching], but it was draining… the most important part of teaching is supposed to be that fifty minutes you spend with the students each day, but there are so many other responsibilities like curriculum and lesson planning, ordering texts, making proposals, and sitting on committees that get in the way.”
“Most of my kids are very bright, bright enough to trick their parents and teachers, but don’t seem interested in school. They just need a little extra push, and need to feel involved with school.”