The concept of an open-door policy has deep meaning in the school district serving Mason County, a large pocket of northeastern Kentucky that comprises everything from rural farms to low-income housing projects in Maysville, the county seat. Each of Mason County School District’s 2,900 K12 students can expect an informal visit at home, every summer, from their teacher, or “advocate,” for the upcoming year. And most high school students, who are assigned to the same homeroom teacher from freshman year through graduation, develop a lasting bond with the person who comes knocking four years in a row.
“We want to know about our students’ interests, and where they live, and about any barriers they might have to being able to perform at a higher level academically,” says longtime Superintendent Tim Moore. “We in education speak in jargon about increasing rigor and relevance to new standards. Core standards are a really good thing. But we need to lead, first, with knowing who our kids are. Kids work for people who care about them.”
Familiarity Breeds Success
In the seven years since MCSD introduced its home-visit strategy, the district has enjoyed multiple payoffs: Having ranked only 126th out of 174 districts on statewide academic assessments in 1998—shortly after Moore’s arrival in the district—MCSD now ranks about 30th in the state. It is one of only 22 districts in Kentucky that met all of their NCLB targets in 2011. Moore says his district’s graduation rate is up to 87 percent—above the state average of 78 percent. Discipline referrals are much lower than before home visits began. And total adult volunteer hours have soared from 9,000 to nearly 80,000 annually.
“We have a high number of kids who would typically be seen as at risk,” Moore says. “About 65 percent are on free or reduced-price lunch, a little over 50 percent live in a single-parent home, and about 12 percent live with grandparents or other guardians. But we regard every kid as at risk because you can live in a big, beautiful house and still face obstacles. When our kids encounter something that sets them back, they’ve got a support system that sees them through.”
In the early years of his tenure, Moore hired Associate Superintendent Kelly Middleton and Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Pettit to help turn the district around. This tight administrative team has focused ever since on improving communication among staff members, board members, unions and, most importantly, between students and teachers.
Once the home-visit initiative proved successful, the district added a new twist to the school year: “The last week of school,” Middleton says, “you now go to your next year’s teacher, districtwide, for the ‘sneak a peek.’ We find out a lot about you and your family before summer. And it takes away all of the parents’ fears about the next year.”
Relationship-driven practices are essential to every area of administraton—discipline, safety, attendance, finances, public relations and especially student achievement, Middleton says: “No significant learning occurs without significant relationships.”
Middleton says the value of his district’s approach is most evident on high school graduation night. “Each student’s homeroom teacher is sitting on the stage, and that’s the last person to shake the student’s hand,” he says. “We have to keep a supply of towels ready because of all the crying going on back and forth between the teacher and the child. They have become that close.”
Mason County (Ky.) School District
- Superintendent: Tim G. Moore for 14 years
- Students: 2,903
- Schools: 4
- Teachers: 198
- District size: 257 sq. miles
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunches: 65%
- Students with limited English proficiency: 1%
- Per-pupil expenditure: $10,018
- Web site: www.masoncoschools.com
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer in Fair Oaks, Calif.