By Mike Marsee
Jim Evans wanted more – more for himself and more for his native Lee County.
That desire led Evans to move from teaching into school administration and eventually to become superintendent of Lee County schools in the span of about 15 years. It continues to drive him as he works to improve his district during challenging times.
“I wanted to come back and work with kids like me, and I wanted to have an impact on the county and on our school district,” said Evans, who was named the 2018 Kentucky Superintendent of the Year in December by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators (KASA). “Self-improvement would be one thing, but I always wanted to do things to help our school district.”
A first-generation college graduate, Evans started his career in Lee County schools in 1992 as a teaching assistant. He got a job as a special education teacher the following summer and taught for five years at Lee County Middle School, coaching tennis and girls’ basketball at Lee County High School.
He became Lee County’s superintendent in 2008, and he has helped the district’s schools thrive through some difficult times. The county lost more than 1,300 residents – 16.7 percent of its population – from 2010 to 2016. Four schools have been consolidated into two with a combined enrollment of 930 students.
“Every year he’s had to cut staff, and every year he’s had a smaller and a worse budget,” said Steve Carroll, the Lee County administrator who nominated Evans for the award. “When other people have got their heads down, he’s stayed positive through some very tough economic times and maintained his focus on academic achievement for students.”
Through it all, Lee County’s schools have shown improvement. The high school graduation rate has climbed for three straight years to 95.5 percent in 2016-17, and both the college and career readiness rate and the combined elementary reading and mathematics assessment results are above the state average.
Carroll said Evans’ focus is always on continuous improvement.
“He’s just outstanding at telling people, ‘You can get better at it, and here’s what we need to do,’” Carroll said. “I think we have some really, really good teachers, and I think that team concept of empowering those teachers to make decisions goes a long way.”
“Everything we do is focused around instructional programs and helping our kids,” Evans said.
One of the things Evans said has benefitted the district and its schools most during his time as superintendent is its accreditation through AdvancEd, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts rigorous quality reviews of pre-K-12 schools and school systems.
“That’s one of the best things that we’ve done here,” he said. “Working with AdvancEd is about getting better. They look at your instructional practices, your systems, your processes.”
The district was accredited in 2010 and reaccredited in 2015 in a process in which a team of AdvancEd staff members conducts classroom walk-throughs, interviews with everyone from school board members to community members and a survey.
“We got the details back and they saw some good things and some opportunities for improvement,” Evans said. “It makes you take a strong look at yourself and you get some hard feedback. You have to be able to take that hard feedback and do something with the data.”
A focus on individual professional learning for teachers led to the launch of a two-day district professional learning conference last summer in which sessions were developed and delivered by district staff.
“Teachers were able to select from 20 to 30 sections that we provided via our own leadership staff,” Evans said. “We did a follow-up at Christmas and we’ve got another one coming in the spring. We plan on doing that again this year.”
Evans said that program, developed by Carroll and colleague Karen Angel, is an example of the teamwork that has become a hallmark of Lee County schools.
“It’s about getting better, continuing to find what services we can offer our kids,” Evans said.
He said it has taken everyone in the district – from students and staff members to the board of education – to make Lee County schools successful.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work, and my hat’s off to our teachers and our staff for that,” Evans said. “We’ve got a great staff, a great school board. This award has my name on it, but it represents the entire community.”
The effort stretches well beyond the schoolhouse doors, as Evans has worked to cultivate partnerships. Before dual-credit courses became prevalent, for example, Lee County schools partnered with Madison and Owsley counties and Eastern Kentucky University to offer college-level algebra courses via Skype.
“We just try to make sure we provide every opportunity for our kids,” he said. “Our kids don’t have a college next door, but we have so many good community partners. And when I say community partners, those aren’t all within Lee County.”
Some of those partnerships were forged in Lee County and its area technology center’s (ATC) participation in the first cohort of the New Skills for Youth initiative, a statewide effort to transition ATCs and locally operated technical centers into regional academies through a $2 million grant.
Partnerships also help Lee County schools prepare children to learn in a district in which 79 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
The district has a strong family resource and youth services center, and it hosts a Ready Fest each summer for its elementary school students. This summer, it will pair with the Kentucky Department of Local Government to make medical, dental and optometric services available not only to its students, but also to their families as well.
“Being a rural school district, our resources are thin, but we can’t use that as an excuse,” Evans said. “It’s up to us to provide every resource we can for our students.”
Carroll said Evans is quick to roll up his sleeves as well.
“He is willing to do those things that have to be done for this district to be successful,” he said.
“I never say no, really,” Evans said. “If there’s anything that needs to be done, I’ve always been willing to do it.”
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