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Uniting for student success


The future demands that public schools are brave. 

I make this statement following a global pandemic, a two-year period that challenged educators to do more for students than at any other time. And yet still, the future demands more bravery. This courage must come as we work to better define student success for the 21st century and move beyond bureaucratic beliefs of the past. 

In the months ahead, Washington and Frankfort will again remind educators of bureaucratic compliance by placing testing labels such as “low,” “medium” and “high” on schools and students. These labels are a small part of a larger systemic issue. Regardless of the value of the test, this practice sends many schools, educators, and boards of education running for safety, asking: “What will be on the test next year?” In the meantime, any sense of local purpose, vision and values for our students’ future is lost. This practice has inspired Nelson County Schools to begin forming more meaningful metrics to gauge students’ transition to adult life. 

The focus on meaningful educational experiences is not an attempt to avoid accountability. It is quite the opposite. In order for true accountability to occur it must be valued and shared locally.

One example has been our 2019 goal to ensure every graduate is connected with people and places of work in Nelson County. This has led to over 90% of our graduates, 1,000+ students uniting with over 140 businesses. Another important goal is ensuring every third-grader will read at grade level. And while we are far from meeting this goal and have much work to do, publicly sharing this goal and our current metrics allows our schools and families to better unite for success. 

As a school principal where students scored in the top 3% in Kentucky in 2016, I observed firsthand how the testing system is about preserving a bureaucratic system of controls, rather than what education should be: a focus on the long-term interest of the student and community. Over my 20 years in both public and charter schools, I have observed how these practices stifle innovation and growth for both schools and communities, place lifelong labels on children and create burdensome bureaucratic demands on educators. We have to do better.

And while everyone says they want better government systems and schools, the path to get there is filled with landmines. Following this path is often called brave or visionary in education circles. Brave because any move away from aligning resources to compliance puts you in the crossfire of local, state and national politics of that moment. Visionary because moving beyond the past demands creativity, innovation and hard work. 

The same innovation and vision encouraged from private and charter schools across the country is not expected in public education. This is largely a byproduct of federal and state bureaucracies that focus on self-preservation rather than growth. Our Nelson County Schools will continue to move beyond bureaucracy to prepare our students for a faster future. 

School leaders and community members gather at a community table to discuss how to best prepare students for life in the 21st century.


To be clear, disciplined performance monitoring and metrics are essential to any effective organization. But those metrics must make sense and create value for students and families. In the same way, reading, writing and arithmetic are important measures of student success. Yet students and teachers must have opportunities to continuously learn and improve these skills in purposeful, authentic and life-changing ways. Life changing, like the ongoing work occurring at the Bardstown Airport and the Guthrie Opportunity Center, where our students and educators unite with community leaders and experts. Such work is not quickly measured and does nothing to improve state test scores. 

School leaders and teachers across our Nelson County Schools have been taking a brave approach to student success.

As stability has slowly returned to schools, teams have been meeting regularly to focus on the purpose of their courses and design learning and assessments or “tests” that better align to that purpose. We are deeply proud of the innovation and growth that is occurring across our schools to put students first. 

Nelson County is not alone as we seek a better way to prepare our students for life in the 21st century. Kentucky’s “United We Learn” vision encourages districts across Kentucky to build local community-based accountability systems, moving beyond state and federal measures. 

Our goal is to work closely with national, state and local partners to build a shared language that establishes even higher expectations for student success. In the NCS we have recently started “What’s NEXT?” sessions as a part of our board meetings and with business partners. In the months ahead, more “What’s NEXT?” meetings will come to our local schools and serve as a way to gather further input from educators and community members about what skills matter most for our students to successfully live, work and grow in our community and beyond. 

Visit our NEXT page to learn more about this work.

By WES BRADLEY, NCS Superintendent

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