Education advocates are working in communities across the state to improve learning opportunities for children in Kentucky’s public schools. KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw visited with two such people who are making a difference for their counties: An Appalachian native who leads an organization committed to helping children with dyslexia in Knott County; and the daughter of Mexican immigrants who is bringing new perspectives to the Livingston County School Board.
A New Voice in Western Kentucky
Christine Thompson says she decided to run for the Livingston County School Board because she wants to make a difference for her two young daughters and her community of Ledbetter, a town of about 1,600 people on the eastern side of the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers.
But in winning her race last November, she made history by being the first Latino women elected to public office in the commonwealth.
Thompson was born in California to parents who emigrated from Mexico in the 1970s. Her father was a mechanical engineer and her mother was a housewife. After six years in the United States, they became American citizens. Thompson says her father frequently stressed the importance of education.
“I remember him saying everything can be taken away from you except your education,” she recalls. “That really left an imprint on me and it motivated me to always do my best and to further myself in life.”
When Thompson was a teenager, the family relocated to Kentucky, settling in Paducah. She graduated from the former Lone Oak High School and then Murray State University with a degree in international relations.
Thompson and her husband, a social studies teacher in neighboring Crittenden County, had two children, now ages eight and two and a half. Thompson says the girls inspired her run for office.
“I wanted to be involved and make a difference for the sake of their future,” she says.
The school board race turned out to be a nail-biter with Thompson winning by 19 votes. She admits she didn’t expect to win, but she says she’s ready for the challenge.
“Education is an emotional topic for people,” says Thompson. “They’re very passionate about it, especially when it comes to their children’s education.”
Thompson says she thinks Livingston County has strong school leadership that’s focused on what’s best for students. But like many smaller, rural districts, the Livingston County school system faces significant funding issues. She says her local schools are struggling under years of shrinking state appropriations.
Even with the fiscal challenges, Thompson says she wants to make sure teachers feel appreciated and have supportive work environments. As for the school board, she says she hopes to restore “peace and harmony” within the district and build trust among board members, teachers, and the community.
“We really, as a board, need to take advantage of that discussion portion in the meetings and communicate with each other and have those difficult discussions,” says Thompson. “I know that can be daunting in a public setting like a board meeting, but… we’re there to answer those hard questions and to make those difficult decisions.”
In the wake of a 2018 school shooting at Marshall County High School, state lawmakers enacted new requirements for local districts to implement stronger physical security measures as well as foster better mental health among students. Thompson agrees that improving school safety will take that kind of holistic approach, but she also hopes legislators will fulfill their promise to provide schools the additional funding they need to make those measures a reality. Otherwise, she says local districts like hers might be forced to raise taxes to pay for the new mandates.
“I’m hoping we don’t have to do that,” Thompson says. “They’ve promised to help out with the safety bill and I’m hoping they’ll step up and meet that challenge.”
Helping Children with Learning Challenges in Eastern Kentucky
On the other end of the state, in southeastern Kentucky’s Knott County, Brent Hutchinson is into his seventh year as executive director of the historic Hindman Settlement School. Progressive activists May Stone and Katherine Pettit founded the school at the forks of Troublesome Creek in 1902. It was the first rural settlement school founded in the United States, and it soon became a national model for how an organization could provide education, health care and other social services.
“The settlement school has been a part and parcel of Kentucky life for now almost 117 years,” says Hutchinson. “What we’ve been able to do over the course of that time has really been to invest in a community in a way that a lot of other people really can’t do because we have such a multi-faceted focus.”
In its early years, the Hindman Settlement School served as the public high school for Knott County. Hutchinson says the facility continued to operate a full-time school until 10 years ago. Now the Hindman Settlement School focuses its educational efforts on helping area children who are dyslexic.
“There’s scientific evidence that’s been in place for decades that shows that… 15 to 20 percent of the population has dyslexia,” says Hutchinson. “We believe that they can learn just as effectively as anybody else, they just learn differently.”
Hutchinson says his staff works with 200 students in the Knott County school system that have reading challenges, and with another 100 kids in after-school and summer-time programs. He says every kindergarten student in the county of 16,000 residents is screened to see if they have a reading problem that may require special assistance.
But Hutchinson’s vision for the school isn’t just limited to Knott County. He says he hopes to expand the impact of Hindman’s work by training teachers on how to help dyslexic students throughout the region. He’s also lobbying state lawmakers to require dyslexia screening for all children from kindergarten through third grade. Hutchinson describes working with dyslexic children as “unlocking a code” – a code that discerns how each children learns and then helps them absorb information in the way that is best for them.
“Once a student learns how to read in the way that they can read, there’s no stopping them,” he says.
The Lawrence County native and Morehead State University graduate is garnering widespread attention for his work. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the foundation created by former President Barack Obama. Hutchinson was one of 20 civic innovators selected from more than 5,000 applicants from around the world.
“This is an enormous opportunity for me to learn a lot more about my personal leadership in a community setting,” he says. “But also to learn how to take the work that we’re doing at Hindman Settlement School and what we call ‘scale it up.’”
“There’s no shortage of need in a community like ours and really throughout our region,” Hutchinson continues, “[So] how can we take what we’ve learned at Hindman Settlement School and apply it broader issues in the region?”
Throughout the two-year program, the fellowship participants will meet in multi-day gatherings to collaborate with each other and connect with potential partners across a variety of disciplines. Hutchinson says he hasn’t yet met President Obama – that won’t happen until this fall – but did get to spend two hours meeting with Michelle Obama earlier this year.
“She is just as gracious and poised and energetic as you might imagine her to be,” Hutchinson says. “It was an honor to spend that time with her.”