On the first day of classes last month, the new superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools rode a bus with students, read stories to them, and even explained how he’s the person who cancels school when it snows.
Unfortunately that’s the easy part of the job.
Emmanuel “Manny” Caulk must also shepherd a district that contains some of the state’s best and worst performing schools, a significant number of children not reading at grade level, and a disproportionate percentage of minority students facing suspensions.
Caulk appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the challenges facing the state’s second largest school district.
A Safe Haven at School
A native of Wilmington, Del., Caulk says the classroom was where he found an escape from his childhood in a public housing project.
“School was the safe haven. That’s where you had the positive role models,” Caulk explains. “But as soon as you left that building, you went to an environment where there was hopelessness and despair.”
But Caulk persevered and went on to earn a law degree and a masters in educational leadership. He rose through the administrative ranks as a principal in Newark, N.J., assistant superintendent in Baton Rouge, La., and Philadelphia, and finally as superintendent of the Portland, Maine, public schools.
Caulk says he wasn’t looking for a new job until a colleague told him about the position in Lexington. He says was intrigued by the demographic similarities between the Portland and Fayette County systems. The more he researched Lexington, the more he realized the city had a well-educated population, a desire to close the achievement gaps in public schools, and strong support from the community and the local chamber of commerce.
Listening and Learning
In addition to canceling school on snow days, Caulk says his job as superintendent includes providing support and resources to the district’s educators, administrators and staff, and sharing his vision for improved student outcomes that will move the schools “from good to great.”
“The opportunity it presents us as a community in Fayette County is to be able to build that pathway to success for each and every student from cradle, through high school, through college, and career,” Caulk says.
Since starting in August, Caulk has meet with personnel across the district to learn about their work and their needs, and to impress upon them the importance of forming relationships with students. That even extends to bus drivers and cafeteria workers, according to Caulk, because the drivers are the first and last school employee a child usually sees each day, and the food service staff may provide a student’s only balanced meals of the day.
He’s also holding listening and learning sessions across the district so parents, community members, and key stakeholders can share their thoughts about improving the educational experience. And he will survey students, staff, and families to collect quantitative and qualitative data about Fayette County Schools. Caulk says he needs all this information to help him and the consultants he wants to hire to formulate a plan to address the district’s most pressing problems.
A ‘Moral Imperative’ to Improve Education
He describes one of those challenges with the moniker “7-17”: A child spends seven hours a day at school, and 17 hours a day elsewhere. Although Caulk and his staff do all they can to improve the school environment and give students the skills they need, they can’t control the despair the children may encounter in their home lives.
Given his own upbringing in a public housing project, Caulk says he understands what the 22,000 Fayette County students who live in poverty face. Without good early childhood education, many students enter kindergarten and first grade already at an academic disadvantage.
Those problems only compound as the child gets older, which leads to “novice” or underperforming students. He says the district has some 4,300 novice students in English and reading, and 3,500 novices in math.
“Right now we’re a district where a student’s race, class, language, and cognitive ability determines their destiny,” laments Caulk.
The Kentucky Department of Education had threatened to intervene if the district didn’t reduce the number of novice students and improve its low-achieving schools. Caulk calls correcting these problems is a “moral imperative,” and he says he’s excited to partner with state officials to develop an improvement plan.
Another issue involves a disproportionate imbalance in school discipline. African Americans comprise about 23 percent of students in the Fayette County schools, but they account for almost half of student suspensions in the district. Caulk says the number of suspensions due to law violations has decreased by a third in the past five years. He says he’s talking with principals to develop strategies to further reduce the racial imbalance.
“We need to do more in terms of restorative justice… and be able to support our students to keep them in the learning environment,” Caulk says.