Back at the end of July, the Curriculum and Instruction team took a trip to Eminence, Kentucky to attend a two-day conference hosted by the local school district. I’ve been to many conferences in my twenty-five years as an educator, but this was different than anything I’ve ever attended. This was a great experience for me, and I think, the whole C&I team. As with many things in life, it all revolves around a great story.
Eminence is a really small town about forty minutes east of Louisville. The superintendent and organizer of the conference is a guy named, Buddy Berry. Buddy is a native of Eminence and he’s very, very committed to the school. Like a lot of rural America, there’s some significant poverty and social issues in Eminence — very high homelessness and free/reduced lunch. Before Buddy became superintendent, the entire district, K-12, served less than 500 students. In short, it’s a difficult place to create a highly effective educational environment.
As I said earlier, Buddy is a lifer in Eminence. He grew up there. He worked there as a math teacher at the high school level — like a lot of tiny districts, there’s only one K-12 building. About seven years ago, the district had just lost a superintendent — the fourth one in three years. No one wanted the job. This district was declining in enrollment. The facilities were aging and the student population was high-need. Without any administrative pedigree or experience, Buddy threw his hat in the ring for the opening. Given the job’s recent history and Buddy’s connection to the community, the school board took a chance and hired him with the provisionally.
Today, Eminence schools serve over 1,000 students (they’ve doubled in size). While the student population is still very high-need, they have rated a perfect score the last two years on Kentucky’s school improvement scale — something no other district in Kentucky has ever done. They’ve built an addition to accommodate all of the new students called the “Ed Hub” which is focused on collaborative and personalized learning. In short, it’s been an amazing transformation.
So, how did he do it? I don’t want to oversimplify it, but it his philosophy boils down to three words — “Surprise And Delight.” Buddy deeply understands the power of engagement. So, he very intentionally looks for ways to surprise and delight both students and teachers. They have set very high expectations in Eminence as well. But, rather than leading with these, the leadership team continuously looks for S.A.D. (ironically named…) opportunities.
For example, the elementary hallway is made up to look like a main street at a theme park.
The cafeteria has a slide going from one level to another — remember this is a K-12 building.
There are fun “Easter eggs” and artistic touches everywhere in the building.
To demonstrate this theory to the participants of the conference, the first-day meeting spot was held at a “fun center.” We did a lot of learning, but we spent a good bit of time racing go-carts and playing laser tag, too.
Don’t get the wrong impression, Eminence is anything but frivolious. I’ve never seen a school take fun so seriously. They have a laser-like focus on student engagement and achieving at high levels. Their results both in terms of student achievement and in overall growth are really impressive. And, to be honest, it makes the world a more enjoyable place if we are focused on creating surprise and delight.