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FCPS outlines new initiatives to connect with students and families, plans for virtual graduation

In a press conference last week, Fayette County Public Schools unveiled two new initiatives designed to broaden opportunity and access for students and families, and outlined the district’s plans for graduation.

“While COVID-19 has dramatically changed the world around us, our core values have remained constant,” said Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Manny Caulk. “Team FCPS has continued to put students first, ensure victory in our newly defined classroom, collaborate, build capacity and hold one another accountable for success, partner with families and draw on the strength of community.”

Since the district suspended in person classes on March 13, our Child Nutrition Department has prepared and distributed more than 221,229 breakfasts and lunches and our warehouse team has delivered hundreds of meals to the homes of our medically fragile children. Our Family Resource and Youth Service Center coordinators have distributed 3,100 backpacks of food and household items each week to families. And in just six weeks, district mental health professionals have had 18,326 contacts with our students and families.

Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Manny Caulk addresses the media during a press conference Friday

“Today we are excited to announce two additional services to provide support for our most vulnerable children and families, which will enhance the work our district is doing,” Caulk said.

Since 2017, more than 30,000 elementary-aged students in FCPS have benefited from the Scholastic R.E.A.L. (Read, Excel, Achieve, Lead) Read Program, which combines the power of community partnership and mentoring with best practices in literacy. Scholastic selects age-appropriate, engaging books that celebrate diversity and strong values, and over the course of the school year, volunteers come in once a month to read with a class of students. The readers receive a pre-selected book and mentor packet that includes step-by-step instructions on reading aloud to students, including discussion questions. Students in each class receive copies of the book to take home and begin building their home libraries. In just three years, FCPS has been able to put more than 134,000 books into the hands of our students at 32 elementary schools.

“With the extended closure of our schools to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, our students and mentors are missing these special times together,” Caulk said.

To fill this void, the district is launching “VirtuREAL” Read.

“We know something meaningful happens when volunteers from our community share their love of reading with our students, said Student and Family Transitional Support & Dropout Prevention Specialist Christian Adair. “In order to continue to motivate and engage our students during social distancing, many of our volunteers who were in the classroom will now record themselves reading with aloud to students in order to provide videos and podcasts of the books students have at home with them.”

The videos and podcasts are available at www.fcps.net/REALread, and beginning May 4 we will broadcast our VirtuReal Read videos every day at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. They will air on channel 197 for Spectrum customers, channel 13 for Windstream customers and channel 2 for Metronet customers. The stories will also stream live on our fcps.net website.

“During this pandemic, we have all seen how important it is to establish routines so our children have things to look forward to,” said Rhoman James, Special Projects Intern. “Story time is certainly a perfect example of this.”

Since April 6, all Fayette County Public Schools have transitioned to “Non-Traditional Instruction,” also known as “NTI.” Some schools developed individualized packets of work for students, others moved to primarily online instruction, and many provide a blended learning model.

As part of our commitment to ensuring equity in both access and opportunity, the district has strategically invested heavily in technology. These investments have included reading and math curriculum materials with online components at all grade levels for every school in the district and devices to support one-to-one instruction.

“Before any of us imagined COVID-19, our district had roughly 35,000 Chromebooks and laptops available for students to use at home, which allowed us to provide devices for so any student who needed one during this time,” Caulk said. “But we know that access to hardware is only part of the digital divide. Access to the internet is another barrier for some of our families.”

To address that challenge, FCPS Director of Technology Bob Moore announced Friday that the district has partnered with both AT&T and T-Mobile to provide internet hot spots to families who do not have high-speed internet in their homes.

“Our technology staff is working with special education staff, student support staff, and Family Resource Youth Service Center Coordinators in schools to identify students and families who do not have internet access at home,” Moore explained. There is also a call-in technology help desk for families available from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. That phone number is 859-381-4410.
District leaders estimate needing roughly 2,000 hotspots total and are starting distribution of the initial shipment of 600 devices. The internet access provided will have all of the same filters available in schools to protect students. At this time, the district has established a six-month contract for service and anticipates the total cost to be $250,000 for 2,100 devices.

“When you look at maps of our community showing where internet access and free wifi are readily available, you can see that many of our children live in digital deserts where connectivity is simply missing,” Caulk said, calling the hot spots a game-changer. “Despite the tremendous efforts of our teachers to stay connected with students, NTI was never designed to replace in-person instruction for this long. Even under the best circumstances, when NTI only covers a day or two of missed school, there are limitations to paper packets. Putting hotspots into the hands of students and families who were previously unable to log on and participate in virtual instruction will dramatically increase our ability to help students individually.”

Caulk noted that COVID-19 will be a defining moment for our generation.

“More than anything else, when we are judged for how we handled this challenge, I would like to see our district heralded for compassion and empathy,” he said. “I want for the children of FCPS what I want for my own children.”

He shared that his daughter graduated from Lafayette High School in 2018 and spoke of how he and his wife are already looking ahead to their son graduating in 2021 from Carter G. Woodson Academy.
“The more than 2,000 seniors who comprise our class of 2020 deserve no less,” Caulk said.

After speaking with high school seniors from the district’s six high schools and 12 special programs, district leaders have developed a plan for a virtual graduation event, but are still hoping an in-person event might be possible.

Chief of High Schools James McMillin explained that the district’s Creative Media Production department was working with each high school to develop graduation videos that replicate a traditional ceremony. Speeches and student performances will be spliced together, and pictures of seniors will appear as the names of graduates are read. Each video will be unique to the personality of different schools, McMillin said, hinting that the district is working with community partners to develop other tributes to seniors.

“The senior class of 2020 will always have a special place in our hearts for their courage, strength, and ability to relentlessly chase after their dreams and goals during these unprecedented times,” McMillin said. “We truly need to wrap our arms around these amazing students and we hope to announce several other exciting partnerships to celebrate them and their accomplishments in the near future.”

If it is possible to receive the blessing of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department and the governor to hold in-person graduation at some time in the future, district leaders would still like to make that happen.

“We are absolutely committed to following every safety precaution, and will not hold an event without permission,” Caulk said. “We have placed holds on possible graduation dates at Rupp Arena in July, September and December of this year so that if it becomes an option to hold a live graduation ceremony of some type, we have those days available.”

From Fayette County Public Schools

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