As Teach Kentucky matures as a program, we are beginning to see more clearly how our recruitment, retention and networked teacher support can have a positive impact, especially when there is a high concentration of TKY alumni and current participants at a single school. At Southern High School in JCPS, there are currently 11 TKY alumni and participants, including the head principal, director of instruction and nine of the school’s current teachers, all of whom are STEM educators.

This is the first installment in a series on TKY at SHS. In this series, we’ll hear directly from some TKY teachers and leaders at SHS. Below Dr. Tyler Shearon, principal and member of TKY cohort 2007, and Dr. Kate Grindon, director of instruction and member of TKY cohort 2003, share their thoughts on Southern, Teach Kentucky and student impact.

What challenges have you faced at Southern High School?

Tyler: Southern is a school that has faced many challenges. Our students are mostly low income, with between 75 and 80 percent qualifying for the “Free and/or Reduced Lunch” benefit [for which families’ household incomes must fall below the federal poverty line.] Southern’s ELL [English Language Learner] population has doubled in the past three years. When students arrive at Southern, their standardized test scores often show them performing in the lowest quartile compared to their peers across the country.

Kate: There are so many things thrown at a school, at [low performing] schools in particular, and at teachers…it’s challenging to make time to do the things that we believe in, the things that we know will work, because that work is hard. We ask ourselves how can we push teachers in real ways without drowning them? Growth is uncomfortable, and burnout means teachers might leave the classroom all together. So we walk the tightrope between healthy discomfort and burnout from too much change too quickly.

Tyler: We live close to the line.

Kate: Our focus is on improving core instruction for every student, because too many of our students come with gaps and needs that cannot be met in intervention alone.

Where have you seen success?

Tyler: Moving out of CSI [or “Comprehensive Support Intervention” status, the Kentucky Department of Education’s label for schools performing in the bottom 10th percentile of schools in the commonwealth] has allowed us some breathing room to reflect and focus on how to be super strategic about supporting our students, ramping up instruction and closing gaps.

Kate: One success is that we see real focus now in PLCs [Professional Learning Communities of teachers who teach the same subject and level] on analysis of student work in authentic ways. We’re starting to see that that analysis occur organically, without prompting from us, which is great.

Tyler: My first year as principal was focused on building trust with my administrative team and teachers; this year, I’ve been able to shift focus to supporting and challenging teachers to grow.

Dr. Tyler Shearon (principal) and Dr. Kate Grindon (director of instruction) are TKY alums who lead Southern High School.

Kate: Also, our CTE [Career and Technical Education] partnerships have been hugely important for students, because we want everything they learn to be grounded in real world application. The more relevant their content is to their lives the more their engagement and ability to learn. When they can also get something useful—opportunities, apprenticeships, jobs—they work harder. The rewards are real and concrete.

What does Teach Kentucky mean to you?

Tyler: It’s a network, and it’s been a useful network at every level. Not only is it where I forged many close personal relationships, but it’s been a resource for my parents when they moved here, and now it’s where I look for top teachers to recruit.

Kate: I was one of the very first participants in TKY, so I didn’t have professional mentors, really. But it was so influential in terms of making me feel like part of the city, which had a direct impact on making me stay here after my two-year commitment ended. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed mentoring the newer teachers. I’ve also gotten a lot out of the personal relationships I’ve made through Teach Kentucky.

What supports do you provide for TKY teachers?

Tyler: We have a New Teacher Induction cohort that has continuous after school PD [professional development] throughout the year and a resource teacher assigned to a new teacher. It’s the most authentic model I’ve seen, because it’s not just about making them feel good, but about imparting skills for classroom management and assessment. The mentor teachers have a curriculum and meet for an hour and a half after school and get PD [professional development hours] or stipend for both participants and mentors.

Kate: There’s not a separate support for TKY, but because we have so many alt cert [alternative certification] teachers, the system is designed with those needs in mind.

Tyler: Also, because Kate and I were both alt cert teachers ourselves, we understand how it feels that first year. You have to struggle and fight through it to become a good teacher.

What are your hopes for the future at Southern High School?

Kate: I hope that our focus on National Boards best practices and growth, as well as our explicit support of candidacy, will make us attractive for our current teachers; I want them to see this as a place where they can grow and where they will be nurtured to grow. We also hope to attract more NBCTs [National Board Certified Teachers] into the building with this focus. We hold the district professional development for JCPS Boards candidates here in the building, and Tyler always makes an appearance and says, “This is the place you want to be.”

Tyler: I expect to see Southern High School continue to grow and improve based on a variety of measures.  We want all our students to graduate high school with a plan and the ability to implement that plan.  We can accomplish this together by focusing on improving the instruction delivered in classes and working with each student to individually develop their plan.