One of the things I miss most being commissioner of education is the ability to be out in our schools every day. While I love my position and the opportunities it gives me to help shape policies and state priorities, the school building is where the rubber meets the road.
In December, I had the privilege of visiting Gallatin County and the Calloway County Day Treatment Center for the best of reasons, to recognize the two 2022-2023 Kentucky Education Support Staff Professional (KESSP) Award winners.
The KESSP award was created in 2020 by Gov. Andy Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman to recognize the state’s more than 46,000 classified school employees.
I frequently get the chance to recognize a few of the many outstanding educators and administrators we have in Commonwealth, from presiding at the Kentucky Teacher of the Year ceremony to honoring the world languages teacher of the year or the principal of the year at a Kentucky Board of Education meeting. However, support staff in every school are important partners in helping students succeed.
I have seen so many times in my education career as a teacher and superintendent, it was often the support staff who helped make sure students had food on the weekends or clothes on their back. It is support staff who drove those students to school, fed them breakfast and lunch every day, provided extra tutoring when they needed it and kept the building clean and welcoming. While our public school teachers are important and valued, support staff are just as important and often are the heart of the school building.
One of the people Lt. Gov. Coleman and I surprised with the KESSP Award last month was Michael Wright, an instructional assistant at the Calloway County Day Treatment Center (DTC). Wright’s work changes the lives of the students he helps on a daily basis. Whether it’s working with students one-on-one in math or inspiring a love of science with hands-on projects, he shows his students they matter and they can be successful if they persevere.
“Mr. Wright has worked at the DTC for five years and always goes above and beyond in all that he does, from working with students one-on-one in math or science, bringing in his own microscopes for kids to use, making radios from scratch with students, transporting students to and from school, making meals of all varieties – homemade ice cream, stew in a Dutch oven, etc.– to fixing things that are broken and rearranging furniture,” said DTC Principal and Director Travis Anderson, who nominated Wright for the award. “His work performance is second to none in our building and district.”
Kentucky’s other award winner, Gallatin County Schools Early Childhood Coordinator Heather LeBlanc, said she has always had a desire to support children and since 1995, has done so in one capacity or another, from facilitating summer programs for Indigenous youth in Canada to serving as a kindergarten aide. About 10 years ago, she moved to Gallatin County.
LeBlanc is helping to create the next generation of readers in her county through events such as the literacy train at Gallatin County’s Dolly Parton Imagination Library Night, which gave children and families who attended the event the opportunity to choose new books from the train to read. She promotes the Dolly Parton Imagination Library at every event possible and through her efforts, there has been an 30% increase of those in the community who receive free books.
LeBlanc also reinvigorated a community early childhood council into one with 27 active members who represent all aspects of the early childhood community and profession.
“This would not have been possible without Heather’s commitment to canvassing our community as well as the local early childhood community,” said her nominator, Kerry Tackett with the Gallatin County Family Resource Center. “In less than a year she had this council up and running. The council has never been so successful within our community.”
The accomplishments of these two support professional superstars have a real impact on the students in their school district. I ask you to join me in thanking LeBlanc and Wright, as well as every other support professional who serves in Kentucky’s public schools. They are an important part of helping every Kentucky public school student find their definition of success after high school.