A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky’s 2020 Superintendent of the Year leads turnaround in Fleming County Schools

By Jacob Perkins
Kentucky Teacher

Sitting on Fleming County Superintendent Brian Creasman’s desk alongside family photos and Georgia Bulldog memorabilia sits a trophy with a yellow note placed upon it that reads, “Kentucky School District of the Year.”

Lift this note and you will find that it is the trophy he received for being named Kentucky’s 2020 Superintendent of the Year by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.

“I’m just one piece of this larger puzzle,” said Creasman, who recently returned from being honored at the School Superintendents Association’s National Conference on Education in San Diego. “It took a lot of people over the past six years to really move Fleming County to where it is today.”

Seven years ago, Fleming County – located on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in northeastern Kentucky – was one of the state’s lowest-performing school districts.

Poor academic performance on statewide assessments placed Fleming County High School in the bottom 5% of schools in the Commonwealth, triggering comprehensive diagnostic reviews for both the school and the district by the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE).

Fleming County High School culinary students show their treats to Superintendent Brian Creasman. Seven years ago, Fleming County was one of the state’s lowest performing school districts. Under the leadership of Creasman, Fleming County is now recognized as a distinguished district by Cognia. (Photo by Jacob Perkins)

Those reviews found the district was unfit to carry out its day-to-day financial operations and lacked leadership capacity and student achievement. These findings eventually led Fleming County to be placed under state assistance status.

“We were fortunate to be state-monitored,” said Creasman, named the district’s superintendent in September 2014. “We were probably days away from being state-managed.”

During Creasman’s first month on the job, Fleming County Schools failed to meet payroll. This eye-opening experience further cemented what he already knew – it was time to roll his sleeves up and get straight to work.

The Fleming County Board of Education established early on in the state assistance process that they wanted their district to be one of the best in Kentucky.

“When we started communicating that our vision was to be a District of Distinction, people thought that we had lost our minds,” Creasman said. “Most people, not only in the district but across the state thought it was unrealistic.”

The district began its turnaround efforts by collaborating with KDE to develop and implement a 30-60-90 day improvement plan. This plan not only defined the district’s strategies and goals, but it also provided the district with a sense of accountability and pushed its goal of continuous improvement further.

“We don’t have research and development departments in education,” Creasman said. “We have to do research and development every day. We have to try something and see if it works. If not, we have to go back to the drawing table.”

Creasman said before the district could get to where he knew they could be, they first had to learn how to fail.

“We really had to create that culture where failure is OK as long as we learn from our mistakes and keep moving,” he explained. “Typically failure in education is seen as a no-no. However, we took it a different way. That’s our way of continuously improving.”

To see the progress that Fleming County has made during this turnaround process, look no further than the work being done at its high school.

Seven years after being named a priority school and through the efforts of everyone at the high school and the district, along with the support of KDE’s Educational Recovery staff, Fleming County High School is now recognized as a distinguished district by Cognia.

Since Creasman took over as superintendent, the high school has received a $15 million career and technical education expansion that has allowed more students to join the various programs offered at the school.

It also now has a student-led and operated restaurant that is open to the public on Thursdays and the students are inspired to be innovative. Students have even created the Kentucky Student Council Association.

A Fleming County High School career and technical education student practices for a Kentucky Welding Institute competition that will take place later this year. Since Creasman took over as superintendent, the high school has received a $15 million career and technical education expansion that has allowed more students to join the various programs offered at the school. (Photo by Jacob Perkins)

Alongside guidance from KDE staff, the district used Cognia’s standards for quality to help steer them in the right direction. This partnership – together with putting teachers at the forefront of the process when determining a districtwide curriculum – worked tremendously well for Fleming County, a rural district that has less than 2,200 total students.

“Kentucky’s school turnaround model focuses on individualized continuous improvement,” said Kelly Foster, associate commissioner in KDE’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support. “The Educational Recovery staff coach and mentor school leaders and model best practices for teachers.

“Our efforts include diagnosing individual school issues, collaborating with the school to develop a turnaround plan that includes evidence-based practices that support school improvement and building sustainable systems that will stay in place after the Educational Recovery staff have left the school,” she said. “In order to be successful in turnaround, it is essential for us to build relationships with the schools and the districts and show them we are there to help.”

Foster has seen turnaround success at schools and districts across the state, so she knows it can be done, regardless of size or setting.

Creasman, who has experience in small and medium-sized districts through his time in Georgia, North Carolina and now Kentucky, believes school turnaround is possible anywhere as long as the district has a leader and school board that is committed to the teachers, staff, students and community.

“The key is always the leader,” he said. “Whether that’s good or bad, the leader has to walk the walk.”

In addition to walking the walk, Creasman said that it’s imperative in a turnaround process to acknowledge there are issues and to have a positive working relationship with KDE.

“We’ve not always enjoyed this positive team-approach partnership with KDE,” he said. “We had to really reflect and say that we needed help.

Creasman said looking back, had he not had the support of KDE, “this conversation would probably be totally different.”

“Sometimes we see a lot of these things through a vacuum,” he said. “We see it as KDE is doing something to us. I think the district and leadership has to really take it upon themselves to build those relationships with KDE.”

Tim Godbey, who was the principal of Lincoln County High School when it was named a priority school in 2011, said he agrees.

“My first, and possibly smartest, decision in the turnaround process was to embrace the three-member KDE team assigned to my building,” he said. “I made them a keystone of our turnaround team, and to my surprise, they became more than I ever expected. They challenged me each day to stay focused on the instructional improvement of my building while simultaneously supporting me to remove barriers with time and resources.”

Godbey now serves as KDE’s Educational Recovery director for the Central Region, which includes Jefferson County.

“I had no idea what a tremendous opportunity I was being afforded when I entered the process of school turnaround work,” Godbey said. “What I thought was a devastating state of affairs became the greatest professional learning and growth period of my career.”

Senate Bill 158, which has been filed in the Kentucky General Assembly and is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, aims to remove KDE from the audit and turnaround process for Comprehensive Support and Improvement schools and force districts to hire an outside entity to conduct the audit, serve as a turnaround team and facilitate a turnaround plan.

The bill also seeks to remove KDE’s authority to approve outside entities that are serving as audit or turnaround teams.

“When we start trying to limit what the Kentucky Department of Education can do, I truly believe that we don’t fully grasp what’s going on in the state,” Creasman said. “I would invite KDE back just to get personnel, because sometimes I need extra help and they provide that.”

Now almost a decade later, Godbey can still vividly recall those priority school days in Lincoln County.

“Every day I knew my biggest fans, cheerleaders, mentors, coaches were the members of my

Educational Recovery team,” he said. “Together, we celebrated, lamented, argued, encouraged, planned and monitored our work with a relentless pursuit of changing learning outcomes for the students of Lincoln County High School, and change it we did.”

“In three years, our school went from the 15th percentile to the 94th percentile of Kentucky high schools. It is, without doubt, the partnership between our school and the Kentucky Department of Education that transformed the culture and climate of our school.”

Creasman agrees.

“I’ve worked in three states now in education and I continue to say the Kentucky Department of Education is the most effective and efficient,” he said.”… Legislators don’t know what they don’t know and some leaders, if they were honest, would say they would have KDE in their district right now.”

Creasman recalled being a high school principal in North Carolina and being a part of a school turnaround effort in a state where education officials took a more hands-off approach.

“We were having to pay a vendor for the work that KDE is doing for free,” he said. “If we bring vendors in (to Kentucky), they’re not interested in building capacity. They’re interested in making sure that districts stay in longer because they’re getting more money.

“That’s what I fear. When money is tight already, how is Fleming County going to pay for a vendor or some organization to come in and do what KDE is doing for free?”

This story first appeared in Kentucky Teacher, a publication of the Kentucky Department of Education.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment