I marked my one-year anniversary at the helm of the Kentucky Department of Education last month with a trip to Meade County, the school district I graduated from more years ago than I like to admit.
I got the chance to co-teach a class with Jonathan Mangin, a former veterinarian who is now a science teacher at Meade County High School. I enjoyed the opportunity to be in front of students again. As commissioner, I have the tremendous opportunity to oversee the creation of programs and policies that can help Kentucky’s students every day. While I am honored to have been entrusted with such a great responsibility, I must admit that I miss forming bonds with students and seeing how much they grow throughout a school year.
No doubt about it, the past year has been a trying one for everybody. Never in my lifetime would I have thought I’d be living through an event like COVID-19, which radically altered the way we as a nation do everything. It changed holidays, church gatherings, how we go out to dinner and how we work. It especially impacted the way our children were educated and how they socialized.
But despite the challenging situations, Kentucky’s people have managed to shine. Our students wrote books about their COVID experiences, principals drove buses to get their students to school on time and our school nurses helped local health departments give COVID vaccine shots. I’ve been consistently amazed with the dedicated and creative educators and staff members that fill the halls and classrooms of Kentucky’s public schools.
COVID has taken a toll on all of us – physically, mentally and emotionally. It has created new rifts in our communities and sometimes, even our families. None of us planned on being caught in a worldwide pandemic and very few of us were equipped to deal with the far-reaching disruptions the virus has created.
Despite those rifts, there are still many things that unite us. All of us want our children to be happy, safe and equipped with the skills they need for whatever kind of future they are dreaming about. All of us want our schools – and Kentucky – to succeed.
I know all of us have been dreaming of the day when we could “return to normal.” I want us to aim higher than just thinking about going back to our old ways. I want us to think about creating a “better than normal” in our public schools.
I have talked with many Kentuckians throughout the past year about what they want the future of education to look like. Some definite themes have emerged from those discussions.
Our families, our students and our educators are yearning for a rethinking of what education means and should be today. Families and students are looking for more chances to connect with their schools, while our education leaders are looking for more ways to connect schools with their community. Students want an education system that recognizes them for the complex human being they are and responds to their individual needs.
I would like to see us create a system where our children are given the space to try new things and yes, sometimes fail. I envision a system where if our children and our schools are struggling, we work together to improve things, not point fingers and look for someone to blame.
Improvement, like education, is not a fixed point that we either achieve or we don’t. Improvement is a process and every step forward is an achievement to be celebrated. While we are not where I would like for us to be right now, it doesn’t mean that we can’t get there.
At the 2021 Kentucky Education Summit, scheduled for Nov. 1-2 at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, you will hear more about the vision for the future of our public schools from the Kentucky Coalition for Advancing Education. This diverse group has worked tirelessly over the past three months to go through the thoughts of the more than 1,200 people we heard from during the virtual listening tour I held earlier this year.
The coalition will unveil a report that shows where education is now in the Commonwealth and where people have told us they want to see it go. That report will be used to guide the Kentucky Department of Education’s work going forward. I hope you can join us. Registration is free and open until Oct. 15.
This is an exciting time in education. The disruptions caused by the past year have shown us that real change is possible, but change can be difficult and it takes time. The important thing to remember is that change can, and does, happen. I hope you will join us as we take these first steps toward a new future in education.