Ep. 186: Cool Schools with Fleming County

June 2, 2020

Learn more about the unique programming flowing out of Fleming County, Kentucky, public schools.

Mike McShane: Greetings. This is Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice and host of the Cool Schools podcast. Today, we are talking to the district leadership of the Fleming County, Kentucky public schools. For those of you who might not be familiar with Fleming County, it’s sort of south of Cincinnati and east of Lexington. And one of the reasons that we’re chatting today is they have a really cool program working with home-schoolers to provide, for some students that’s more of a virtual program, but for others, it’s a blended hybrid-type program. It’s a little bit complicated. And we’ll talk about it more when we get into this conversation, but I really appreciate… We had the superintendent of the school district, Brian Creasman, and he was joined by Michelle Hunt who’s the chief academic officer. They gave us a lot of context, both about the school district in general, and this program in particular. I really enjoyed the conversation and I know that you will too. So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with the leadership of the Fleming County, Kentucky, public schools.

All right, so for those listeners who may not be familiar with Fleming County, Kentucky, or the Fleming County schools, could you maybe give us a little bit overview about your school district?

Brian Creasman: Sure. We are located in the northeastern part of Kentucky for a rural school district with about 2,200 students, about 300 faculty and staff. We are about 45 minutes south of Cincinnati and 45 minutes east of Lexington. We have six schools. We have four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. The demographics are pretty much Caucasian and we have a growing population of Hispanic students.

Mike McShane: So, now you all offer, I think, as I study these things across the country, a relatively unique program, a partnership with home-schooling families in your community. Could you describe that?

Michelle Hunt: Sure. So, two years ago we started having a conversation around the barriers that our families were experiencing that were causing an influx in the home-school population. We have seen a trend in the rise of students that are opting for home-school in our county. So, we began to discuss what we could put in place to maybe attract those students back into the public school system. So, we had an open house where we invited every home-school intent family to come and, basically, paint a blank canvas for us of what they needed to be in partnership with Fulton County. What barriers were causing them not to choose the public, traditional setting and how we can merge those two things to provide them services underneath our umbrella. So, after we collected that stakeholder feedback, we looked through that and discussed further how we could implement a virtual program, which this program has already implemented in our high schools through credit recovery, and then our Graduation Success Academy.

So, we found things such as religious beliefs, obviously, are one reason that some families are choosing home-school. It could be barriers to some of our high schoolers that may have some life setbacks or need to work. We also have some families that do some traveling and just different belief systems and even some that have had a poor experience in the traditional setting. So we offered an opportunity to be in our virtual program for all of our home-school students. And we had great success with that the first year. We are in our second year of implementation and we have about the same amount of students as we did the first year. We are closing the gap on home school. So that’s a great thing, but we’re also not only seeing that we’re seeing that some of our students, especially our high school students that may have barriers, we’re able to better assist them in their educational experience and alleviate some stressors and some anxieties that they are experiencing.

Mike McShane: So, what does the program actually look like? Let’s say from a student’s perspective, if they enroll in the home-school program, what’s a typical day look like for them.

Michelle Hunt: So, we get a lot of confusion, even in our own setting with it being coined the home-school program. It’s really a virtual program that students can opt to do at home. So it provides them a similar setting to traditional home school. They have a few options. We don’t measure attendance, we measure activity. So depending on their day, it doesn’t have to be a traditional day, seven to three. They can work from three to 10 if they so choose. We look at our online facilitators, which are teachers within our own district that monitor and provide support to our virtual students. They check for progress. We have a pretty significant progress monitoring system that really tells students, “Hey, you need to be at this point at this time.” How you get there is up to you. You do it on Saturdays and Sundays, that’s perfectly fine. So, we also offer our students an option to come on campus as well.
And some students choose to do that just for support systems. Other students choose to do a blended environment where they do their reading and their math or core online. And they may come in for their pathway at the high school because they want to be certified in a certain pathway. So, we offer that as well, but it is an online program. It’s probably very similar to what one might experience in college Blackboard or a setting to that nature where they take pre-assessment and then it populates based on that diagnostic test of what lessons they need, what they’ve mastered, what they haven’t. And then they’ll also take post assessments and then have to essentially pass the course for those credits.

Mike McShane: Well, this blended environment, I think, is something that you all are doing that is unique. I mean, lots of districts across the country have credit recovery programs, and there’s lots of virtual schooling options, but this allowing students to spend some time in the traditional school, but also doing some time at home, how did that idea come about?

Michelle Hunt: That came through the blank canvas, really. We were really open to any and all ideas when parents and families came to meet with us. We actually, I think one piece that was really unique is Dr. Creasman asked all of our senior leadership team members to be there. So, our special ed director was there. Our DPP was there, curriculum and instruction. And so we listened to the barriers from each angle of the central office. And then we just kind of strive to make sure that we could provide a customer service that was appealing to want to do. And some of the conversations where the parents weren’t comfortable putting their kids on campus all the time, others were, they need to work in the morning or they want to get their pathway in welding, but they don’t want to sit in traditional seat time for English 12.

Some of it could have been they wanted to attend prom. They want to still play sports. And, basically, what we developed as our stance is if they’re enrolled in virtual, they’re our kids. So they have rights to everything we offer any traditional students under our umbrella. So, the blended environment really came with… We had one student that was traditional home school and she wanted to go in the health care pathway. She wanted to do some nursing classes. So she did her traditional course online, but then would come in for the nursing component. And we had another student that did a similar option, only except her pathway was culinary. So we’ve seen some success in that. And I think this giving that option is really appealing to students.

Mike McShane: I’d be interested. I mean, you have obviously learned some lessons that could be shared with other school districts. So if another, let’s say, another superintendent or chief academic officer or assistant superintendent came to you and said, “Hey, we see what you’re doing here with this virtual program, with this blended opportunity. And we’re considering it ourselves.” Is there any advice that you’d give them?

Brian Creasman: Yeah, I would think just go into this with a very open mind. There’s a tendency in public ed to operate within the box. This is completely outside the box. So when we try to do something innovative, inside the box, typically it doesn’t work. So I think you have to go in with a very open mind. We went in really flying blind because there’s not a school district, that we’re aware of, nationwide that really tried to build that bridge between traditional home school and public ed or traditional private school and public ed. So we didn’t have a road map. So we really had to learn on the go. However, just go in with an open mind, find time to listen, sit down with parents. I think we sat down the first year with every parent and just listened even if they decided not to enroll or participate in the FCBOE program.

But what we learned was all those other things that we were not doing or doing that were preventing enrollment. And, I think, really communicate and also model that we do value those families and those students who are traditional home-schooler, traditional private school that we value them and that it’s not them versus us or us versus them, but trying to build that bridge because one they’re in our community, they’re going to be our future workforce. Eventually, they’re going to be taxpayers. So it’s in our best interest to really try to bridge that divide because we want their support later on. And if we’re not doing something, would be another suggestion, if we’re not doing something, be open to that criticism or that feedback or that suggestion.

Mike McShane: Oh, that’s really interesting. So if folks are saying that you’re not creating options that we want to take advantage of, that you have to kind of own that, is that what you mean?

Brian Creasman: Yeah, we own that. And we also say, well, give us some examples or give us some strategies or give us some opportunities to try to get this right. And we’re constantly looking at the FCBOE program. How can we, again, provide that level of quality to every student and also meet their expectation or their needs or their goals or aspirations. It takes differentiation to a whole different level. We throw that word out a lot in public education or education in general, that differentiation. But you do have to start with the blank canvas and really listen to student voice, listen to parent and guardian input and design that program. And the more you do that upfront, I think the more willing they are to, hey, give this a try, let’s see what they can do. And on the tail end also provide us that critical feedback on how to make it better.

Mike McShane: And did this take any convincing of the school board or, potentially, I could see maybe the parents of the children who are in the traditional public school saying, “Oh, you’re giving all this special attention to someone else.” Were there any rumblings there? Did you have to bring those folks along as you tried this new thing?

Brian Creasman: We didn’t really have push back. The good thing about being in a very small, tight-knit community is everyone sees each other in the supermarket, doctor’s office, or attending church on Sundays together. So everyone knows each other. And we’ve got a great community that has students, no matter if it’s public, private and home school, really at the heart. Our community really goes to bat for our youth. So we didn’t really get any push back. The only thing that we really had issues with was it was such a unique program, trying to be utilizing our electronic systems like Infinite Campus, our student management system, trying to modify that to meet the needs. But that’s really the only push back because, at the state level, we had to work through some of the systems to get this right.

Mike McShane: I’m glad you brought up the state systems because, Michelle, you had mentioned earlier saying that the way this works, you don’t measure attendance, you measure activity. I would imagine there has to be some suite of policies at the state and local level that allows you the flexibility to do this and perhaps don’t exist in other states. So could you talk maybe for a second about what policies are in place that allow you this flexibility?

Michelle Hunt: Sure. So Brian mentioned that we had to be, definitely, out of the box thinkers through this process. With that in mind, we held true to this is what we wanted to do. So we invited the Kentucky Department of Education to come sit at a round table with us and say, “Hey, this is our vision for our virtual kids to get these home school kids back in to break down some of these barriers, and how do we do it legally? How do we do it within the parameters set by the state?”

The great news is that the state has some digital learning guidelines that we can follow. And they have the option for students to be selected in our management system, as Brian was talking about, into Infinite Campus as performance base. So when they’re selected as performance base, then we don’t collect attendance. We basically get state funding for any students that are marked with performance base once they’ve completed the program or upon completion.

So, the difference in terms of funding is a traditional student is all year long and it’s not based on completion. And then the Performance Academy is at the tail end of it and they have to complete the program. So the state already had some things, as far as digital learning, in the works that we could work with. And then we really had to stretch their brains on how we made that human management system recognize that sometimes they’re in seat time and sometimes they’re not. And they were very good to work with to ensure that we were within all the regs of what we are allowed to do as a public education system.

Mike McShane: So as you all look to the future, what do you think the next year, the next three years, the next five years has in store for this program?

Brian Creasman: We’ve really entertained, opening this up to a larger geographic area. And we get requests all the time, Mike, from not only in Kentucky, but across the nation of the home-school parents and students. So we’re looking at that. I mean, that’s a very lofty goal of opening up to a larger geographic area. We’re also always trying to figure out how to make it the most relevant and most accessible to students and not just with home-school students and private school students, but all students. Our needs are diversifying more rapidly now in 2020. So the pace of keeping up with that is somewhat challenging, but we’ve got to continue to keep molding this. And like Michelle said, stay true to the vision, making it as open and as least restrictive as possible so that we meet those needs and goals and aspirations of all students.

Michelle Hunt: And, Mike, I’ll piggyback on that too, because I think one of the things that I’ve been most pleased with, which wasn’t in our original conversation, because originally as we’ve discussed before our target was home-schooled students and to get them back underneath our umbrella. But I have seen this program also become a safety net, especially for some of our 18 year-olds or high schoolers that get hit with life or a life event that may prohibit them not to be able to be in the traditional setting because they have some type of barrier that they have to address. And this gives them the ability to still complete school and graduate with their peers. But also if they have to work or whatever that barrier may be, they can tend to that as well. So, it’s a great safety net for our students. I feel like.

Brian Creasman: Yeah, Mike. One of the things that we were most proud of, and it goes back to your question of what we see two to three years, is a lot of times home-school and private school students, especially in rural America, they do not have access to your career and technical ed classes or vocational classes or your advanced placement classes. So we have students who are now home-schooled, but they’re taking career and technical ed classes for the first time and participating in FFA or FCCLA or FBLA, those academic organizations. But we also have them participating in advanced placement, dual credit. And on the other side, we also have them participating in athletics, which a lot of times, especially in rural America, there’s not enough of them to have their own teams. So, we allowed that here in Fleming County to participate in extracurricular as well.

Mike McShane: Well, I’m so excited to see the progress that you all make in the future. Som thank you so much for joining me today on the cool schools podcast.

What an interesting conversation to talk to the people who are leading a school district who are really trying to do something new and different. I just really appreciate the philosophy that they take towards this enterprise where they’re saying, “Look, we are listening to our community. They’re bringing their needs to us. They’re talking about barriers that they have, problems that they want to have solved. Let’s work with them. Let’s not be too proud or too ideological or any of those things. Let’s try and roll up our sleeves. We’re all part of one community let’s solve these problems.” So, I think that’s something that I wish more and more people across all different education sectors believed. I think we could all learn lessons from that. And so I’m really glad they were able to share that with us.

I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. As always subscribe to our podcasts, you’ll get this Cool Schools podcast, as well as all the other EdChoice Chats that we do. And also please head to www.edchoice.org, where you can sign up for our email list. You can customize all of the stuff that you’re interested in and get rid of all of this stuff that you’re not interested in. We have lots of great content coming out all the time that I think everybody could learn from and enjoy. And finally, as always, if you know of a cool school near you, please don’t hesitate to give me a shout, shoot me an email, send me a tweet. Just shout really loudly. I don’t know I’ve got pretty good hearing, but please let me know schools. I’m always on the lookout for more. I get almost all of these schools from word of mouth. So, please let me know if you know a cool school near you. Thanks so much for joining me and can’t wait till the next time we can chat with another interesting, innovative leader of a cool school. Take care.