Schools in NKY education cooperative are stronger together than they are apart

Group serves 17 districts, 60,000 students

DAYTON, Ky. -- Dayton Independent Schools Superintendent Jay Brewer has about 1,000 students in his school district, but he feels responsible for the success of 60,000.

That’s the number of students that fall under Northern Kentucky Cooperative for Educational Services’ unique umbrella. Dayton is just one member of the regional co-op, which serves 17 school districts.

Its history spans 30 years, but the group is celebrating a new era with a renewed sense of purpose. The common goal: creating synergy in Northern Kentucky.

“By coming together, we’re improving education across the region for our kids,” said Brewer, president of the co-op’s board of directors. “No matter what school district you’re in, they are all ‘our kids.’”

Creating that level of collaboration among districts requires schools to share collective resources like never before, said Amy Razor, the co-op’s executive director. It also requires educators to connect and grow together.

It would be a challenge in any region, she said, because no two school districts look just alike. That’s especially true in Northern Kentucky, which is home to the third-largest school system in the state (Boone County Schools) but also home to more small, independent school districts than any other area in the commonwealth.

To put things in perspective, Boone County Schools’ student enrollment has grown to around 20,000, while enrollments at Southgate and Silver Grove independent school districts both hover around 200. All three districts are part of the co-op. 

So how is it possible to create synergy among school districts that look so different?

“Those differences are actually what makes it work,” Razor said. “Every school district brings a different strength to the table.”

Those strengths are shared among members through strategic partnerships and professional learning opportunities, she said. They all learn from each other – and they all benefit.

“When you bring all that talent together, it has a big impact on student learning,” Razor said.

The bottom line: Schools are stronger together than they are apart.

A case in point is the success of the co-op’s new regional professional learning communities (PLCs).

In education, PLCs are groups of educators who meet regularly, share expertise and work collaboratively to improve teaching practices and student learning. They’re nothing new in school districts, but the regional approach is innovative.

The co-op has a growing number of them that cater to every kind of educator, from new teachers entering the field to experienced pros, in a variety of content areas, including arts and humanities, math and physical education.

They’re all teacher-driven, said Michele Augsback, a professional learning coach with the co-op. The groups tackle professional development together and even plan tours that allow them to visit each other’s classrooms, she said.

The PLCs are a great resource for teachers from schools of all shapes and sizes but especially for teachers who come from smaller districts, Brewer said.

“It’s tough to have a department meeting where the department is one or two folks,” he said.

The approach hasn’t gone unnoticed. The cooperative was recognized for its regional PLCs in September with the Kentucky Department of Education’s “Best Practice” award.

The group also received recognition from the state for one of its long-standing programs earlier this year. Its Regional School Programs alternative school was named an “Alternative Program of Distinction.”

The alternative school serves 11 member districts with three different programs designed to help students who have barriers to success in traditional classroom settings, said Principal Stephanie Turner.

The goal with all three programs is to tackle those barriers to student success and help facilitate transitions back into traditional classrooms.

“Ultimately, we want to get our kids back to their home schools,” said Turner. “We love seeing those successful transitions.”

The alternative school ties in with the local co-op’s original mission to provide cooperative services in special education. It’s the only alternative program in the state that’s operated through a cooperative, but Turner said that collaboration is one of the things that has made it a success.

Sharing those types of resources is a big part of what the Northern Kentucky cooperative is all about. It has a variety of consultants for different areas of education on staff who are shared among the school districts.

For example, certain member districts may only have a handful of students who are English Language Learners. Those districts are able to share the co-op’s ELL consultant, who works to serve all those students.

“It’s a huge benefit because it doesn’t make sense for a school district to have a full-time staff member for just a few students,” Brewer said.”It’s not fiscally responsible.”

The same idea is applied with grant opportunities. Much like its Professional Learning Consortium, which facilitates its professional learning communities, the co-op also has a Grants Consortium. The group develops grant-funded projects to support both individual school districts and regional work to promote student achievement. It also provides training to school staff.

Since it began in 2010, it has brought in around $20 million to support K-12 projects that aim to improve education in the region.

The cooperative is also having an impact on Northern Kentucky because it’s giving local educators a collective voice, Brewer said.

“Together our voice is amplified. That’s important, especially when it comes to advocating for our kids at the state level,” Brewer said. “When we can stand up collectively and get behind something, it’s very powerful.”

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