Veteran schools superintendent Steve Hefner has been on the job in Lexington-Richland 5 less than two years, but he thinks he has figured out why the district’s three high schools are consistently ranked excellent, as they were on the 2012 district and school report cards unveiled Tuesday.
“What I see here is instructionally there is a strong system-wide approach,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not by accident. It’s very strategic that it has happened.”
Hefner acknowledged the district has an edge over some Midlands school districts because there is a strong middle class and many affluent families in the student population. While there are pockets of poverty, there is not the stubborn generational poverty that is seen in Richland 1 and some rural Lexington school schools.
But while those demographics could account for some of the general strengths, Hefner believes the consistency of the district’s excellent ratings over several years is attributed to a data-driven philosophy that extends from elementary to high school.
“They understand the data that is out there and they understand the connections to do the analysis,” Hefner, the former head of Richland 2 schools, said.
Lexington-Richland 5 had the second-highest absolute performance rating in the state, with 13 schools receiving excellent on the absolute performance rating and the year-over-year growth ratings on the report card.
The district accountability team is composed of three employees with some support staff, but that team is assisted also by data teams that operate in each school. Every teacher participates on a data team through their in-service work, assessing individual MAP and PASS scores to find out the academic strengths and weaknesses of students.
That means the district has been able to defy the national trend where elementary schools do well, middle schools falter and high schools demonstrate sporadic improvement, he said.
The “drill down” data analysis is aided by the district’s quick response in identifying the students who need help and getting those interventions in place and by what Hefner calls “a positive approach to managing student behavior.”
“The schools here are so quiet,” he said. In his former life at Richland 2, he said the schools were “all great, but they weren’t quiet.”
“This isn’t Lake Woebegon,” Hefner said, referring to humorist Garrison Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town where the “children are all above average.”
“It’s the real world but I think the schools have really, really mastered the art and the science of knowing how to really connect the information they have. There is an attitude here: you show me a kid I cannot teach.”
He said teachers and parents insist upon low student-teacher ratios and won’t back down when a class gets too big.
“We had one fifth grade class that had one kid too many and I heard about that all year,” he said.
Hefner said the push toward excellence began about five years ago when the district underwent a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, accreditation process.
“I think, at that time, they weren’t excellent as a district and they kind of got cited for that,” he said. “One of the findings was that they had too many disparate things going on across the system” including the way they approached professional development.
Hefner said that doesn’t mean running schools “is like running a McDonald’s chain, but you have certain practices in place to run all the schools.”
Hefner said the district is also buoyed by strong family involvement in the life of the schools.
“The parents are phenomenal,” Hefner said. “I have never experienced the level of parent engagement that I see here and that is a huge factor in the success that exists here.”