On the hot seat with redistricting, Alan Stein ignores the noise

March 3, 2015

When I first heard that Alan Stein had agreed to chair the Fayette County Public Schools’ redistricting committee, I thought: Has he lost his mind?

“That’s what everybody says,” Stein said with a laugh. “To some degree that is still a question being asked, mostly by me.”

Stein, a business consultant who brought minor-league baseball to Lexington, is one of the most civic-minded people I know. He championed a school tax increase. He helped revive Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass. He is Commerce Lexington’s chair-elect.

But few tasks are as complicated and thankless as redrawing school boundaries. No matter what happens, somebody will be angry.

Redistricting is an emotional issue, because it affects children’s futures and parents’ home values. It can bring out ugly issues of race, class and selfishness. Even at its best, it involves change, and nobody likes change.

The year-long process is coming to a close, so I sat down with Stein this week to talk about it.

In the past, Fayette County school officials redrew boundaries and then sought public comment. This time, the school board appointed a 24-member citizens committee to study the issues and make recommendations.

SteinAlthough school boundaries must be redrawn every few years because of changing population and demographics, this redistricting was prompted by the planned construction of several new schools.

The school board gave the committee a list of guiding principles to consider. “They’re all over the place, and they’re contradictory,” Stein said.

The committee decided to focus on a few of them: minimize disruption; try to keep neighborhoods together and kids close to home; and achieve more balance in race and income among schools when possible.

One thing the committee did not consider was how redistricting would affect individual property values. “For us, it’s a zero-sum game district-wide,” he said.

Parents want their children to attend high-performing schools, rather than low-performing schools. Knowing what makes the difference is not rocket science, Stein said. It comes down to school leadership, parent involvement and resources.

“All of these issues of performance in schools have virtually nothing to do with race,” Stein said. “It’s about poverty. It’s how involved can the parents be, how involved do they choose to be and what resources can they bring to the table.”

Stein cites the example of Ashland Elementary, which was one of the district’s worst-performing schools in the 1990s. Earlier this year, one ranking service rated it as Kentucky’s best public elementary school.

Previous redistricting increased the affluence of its student population somewhat. But the main reasons for Ashland’s turnaround were a good principal and faculty and neighborhood parents who decided to send their kids there and get involved.

“It’s a good example of what can happen,” Stein said. “Every school in our district has the opportunity to be successful.”

Still, poverty is a big issue, and it is getting worse. A decade ago, 27 percent of Fayette students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Now, it is 54 percent. By 2020, it is projected to be 60 percent.

“We’re losing the middle class,” Stein said. “The income inequality in America is just obscene. It’s obscene to me, and I’m one of the rich guys.”

Some of Lexington’s deepest poverty pockets are in minority neighborhoods.

“Most people would be extraordinarily surprised to learn how segregated, unfortunately, Lexington is,” he said. “You can see it starkly on our maps.”

Stein is proud of how transparent the redistricting process has been, with four listening sessions, dozens of always-open meetings and more than 1,000 written comments from the public.

He thinks this redistricting will achieve good results: less overcrowding at many schools, more kids at schools close to their homes and fewer split-up neighborhoods.

When final lines are drawn, Stein estimates that only 4,000 to 7,000 of the district’s 40,000 students will change schools, and about 2,300 of those will be going to the new schools.

“We’re not going to be as successful as I personally would like us to be in terms of attaining a balance in socio-economic diversity,” he said. “But we’re going to be a heck of a lot better than what we were.”

Stein expects the committee to recommend moving some special academic programs from one school to another to attract affluent families and improve socio-economic diversity.

Parents in some neighborhoods have been especially vocal in the process.

“All of these neighborhoods print up colored T-shirts to show solidarity or whatever; it’s almost comical,” Stein said. “I wish I had started a T-shirt business.

“But we can’t pay attention to the noise. It’s going to be there no matter what we do. You just say let’s try to do what’s right for all 40,000 kids as best we can.”

Frontier Nursing University marks 75 years, from horse to Internet

October 7, 2014


A Frontier Nursing Service nurse visits a family in the 1930s. Photo provided. Below, Frontier Nursing University President Susan Stone. Photo by Tom Eblen


HYDEN — In her 1952 autobiography, Wide Neighborhoods, Mary Breckinridge told how she started Frontier Nursing Service here in 1925 to show how nurses also trained as midwives could make a big difference in rural health care.

Breckinridge, who died in 1965 at age 84, could not have imagined just how wide her old neighborhood would become.

The nurse-midwives she sent out on horseback to remote cabins in the mountains of Leslie and Clay counties were trained in England until World War II made travel there impossible. So, in 1939, Breckinridge started a small school for midwives, who deliver babies.

That school is now Frontier Nursing University, which is celebrating its 75th year as the nation’s oldest and largest school for nurse-midwives. Its graduates work in all 50 states and seven foreign countries.

Frontier also is marking 25 years as a distance-learning institution. It pioneered many of the online methods now beginning to revolutionize all higher education.

Many students, faculty, alumni and supporters were in Kentucky over the weekend for anniversary festivities. Events included a gala in Lexington, where Frontier has its administrative offices, and tours of the campus in Hyden, which coincided with the town’s annual Mary Breckinridge Festival.

The celebration not only marked an illustrious past, but also a promising future.

141001FrontierU0008Mary Breckinridge would seem an unlikely pioneer of health care for the rural poor. She was a society lady, born into one of Kentucky’s most distinguished families. Her father was a congressman and ambassador to Russia; her grandfather was Vice President John C. Breckinridge, whose statue stands in Lexington’s Cheapside Park.

But Breckinridge was living in rural Arkansas when her two children died young, and she blamed inadequate medical services. Already trained as a nurse, she volunteered in France after World War I and saw the difference nurse-midwives made there.

Breckinridge went to England for midwife training, then dedicated the rest of her life to improving public health in Eastern Kentucky by focusing on young children and their mothers.

Because there were few good roads here then, Frontier Nursing Service’s uniformed nurse-midwives rode horses to places such as Confluence, Cutshin and Hell-for-Certain. They carried medical equipment in their saddle bags, delivered babies and staffed community clinics. For serious cases, there was a doctor at the small hospital Breckinridge helped build on Thousandsticks Mountain overlooking Hyden.

After World War II, Eastern Kentucky’s population declined as the region modernized. Jeeps replaced the last Frontier horses in the 1960s. After the area hosted clinical trails for the birth-control pill, the birth rate plummeted.

By the 1980s, Frontier nurses mostly provided home health care to elderly people and staffed Mary Breckinridge Hospital, which was sold to Appalachian Regional Healthcare in 2011. The school for midwives struggled until it ventured into distance learning in 1989.

Susan Stone was a student in that first distance-learning class for midwives. She became a faculty member in 1993, remembering how she was told to buy a bigger mailbox because distance learning then meant a lot of packages and postage.

Stone has been president of Frontier Nursing University since 2001, and she has led dramatic growth made possible by the Internet, an expansion of degree programs and an increased demand for graduates.

Frontier had about 4,000 graduates in the first 75 years. Now it has 1,500 students enrolled in several master’s and doctoral nursing programs in addition to midwifery. Annual admissions have had to be capped at 700.

The average Frontier student is a 35-year-old registered nurse. More than 90 percent are women, and 70 percent live in rural areas. They come to the Hyden campus only two or three times: for a few days of orientation, a few days of clinical simulations and, if they wish, for their graduation ceremony.

“Our target is nurses who live in rural areas and want to stay and serve in those areas but want a graduate degree,” Stone said.

Students study online with 96 faculty members scattered across the country and do clinical work in their own communities. “We’ve been able to recruit a high-quality faculty because we don’t make them move,” Stone said.

Stone thinks the demand for nurse-practitioners and nurse-midwives will continue to increase because of trends in the health care industry. She sees Frontier continuing to change to meet needs.

“One of the things we teach our students is entrepreneurship,” she said. “Sometimes what is needed is just not there and you have to create it.”

For example, one of Stone’s future goals is to offer training for psychiatric nurses, who are in big demand but short supply in rural America.

“Mary Breckinridge’s whole idea was that this would be a pilot project and there would be replications,” Stone said. “It’s just amazing when you look at what our graduates are doing. They really are going to change the face of health care.”

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State audit of Fayette schools shows need to restore public trust

September 20, 2014

Superintendent Tom Shelton and a majority of the Fayette County Public Schools board reacted to the state auditor’s report Wednesday by emphasizing that no money is missing and no criminal activity was found.

But if they think the auditor’s damning assessment of “chronic mismanagement” is any vindication of their performance, they should think again.

The auditor’s staff spent the summer combing through the school system’s books after budget director Julane Mullins sent board members an email in May alleging that a $20 million budget shortfall resulted from irregular accounting made worse by “numerous acts of mismanagement.” She also contacted the auditor.

“Auditors did not find any evidence of alleged criminal activity,” Auditor Adam Edelen’s office said. “However, they determined that poor financial management, weak policies and failed communications culminated in a weakened financial position for the district.”

The investigation found that errors and mismanagement left the board unaware of the district’s true financial situation, and that information was concealed from board members.

Auditors also cited a pattern of high pay, big raises and perks for top administrators with a lack of transparency at a time when school programs are being cut and teachers are scraping for needed classroom supplies.

The schools’ Department of Financial Services spent $115,212 on travel, training and reference books over a four-year period. And a trust fund left by a deceased teacher for “enhancement and enrichment of the educational program” was instead used for administrators’ travel and training.

The auditor also made note of the number of highly paid administrators. The district has 36 people making more than $100,000 a year — for a total of $4.35 million — including three new positions with salaries totaling $386,000.

Shelton’s first response to the audit was to push back. While acknowledging there were problems, he told parents in an email that “some of the state’s assertions are based on faulty calculations, factual errors, and false assumptions.”

But somebody must have reminded Shelton that the auditor’s office is one of the most respected in state government, and that this is hardly the first school system it has investigated. A second email to parents had a much different tone: “I recognize that winning back the trust of our constituents will require swift and bold action.”

Shelton’s first move was to hire two financial and management consultants — although he couldn’t say how much their services would cost.

Shelton is a certified public accountant; finance is supposed to be his strength. Last year, he created a new chief academic officer’s position and hired Jessamine County Superintendent Lu Young to fill it. That should have given him more time to focus on management.

Yet, most of the problems the auditor found related to finance and management.

The auditor blamed several problems on a “toxic” relationship between the finance and budget directors. Shelton said he became aware of the problem soon after becoming superintendent in 2011. So why, two years later, is it still a problem?

There is little in this audit to inspire confidence in Shelton’s leadership.

Parents, teachers and taxpayers (who just had their school tax assessment raised 2.3 percent) must be convinced that officials are more interested in educating Lexington’s children than in staffing central office with well-paid administrators.

Business leaders also need reassurance, because an excellent public school system is vital to Lexington’s economy. The auditor’s phrase “chronic mismanagement” is sure to resonate through the business community like fingernails on a chalkboard.

All of this comes at a critical time for Fayette County Public Schools, which has begun a major school redistricting process. Redistricting is a nightmare under the best of circumstances, guaranteed to make some people angry no matter how fairly the lines are drawn.

Efforts to restore credibility could be made more difficult by a divided five-member school board.

Chairman John Price and Vice Chairman Melissa Bacon voiced support for Shelton last week, as did board member Daryl Love. But board members Doug Barnett and Amanda Ferguson, whose persistent questioning of management was partially vindicated by the audit, expressed reservations about Shelton’s ability to continue as superintendent.

Shelton’s annual evaluation, which was postponed because of the audit, is now due. That should be interesting. His employment contract is up for renewal in June 2015.

But board members have as much work ahead of them as Shelton does. They must restore public trust in their ability to work together to provide effective oversight.

This audit is an embarrassment for Lexington as well as for the Fayette County Public Schools, and it should be a wakeup call. Our children deserve better.

Morehead space program shows Eastern Kentucky can aim high

July 26, 2014


Zach Taulbee, 21, of Prestonsburg uses a computerized CNC machine to make an aluminum part for a small “cubesat” satellite. Taulbee is an undergraduate and machine shop manager at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center.  Photo by Tom Eblen


MOREHEAD — When people talk about diversifying an Eastern Kentucky economy dominated for a century by coal mining and poverty, they often don’t aim very high: low-wage factories and corporate call centers.

But you can see another possibility at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center. Over the past decade, in partnership with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and the University of Kentucky, the center has become a world leader in designing and building small, high-tech spacecraft of the future.

One morning last week, I stood with Kris Kimel, president of KSTC, in the center’s control room as engineers used computers to locate two Morehead-built satellites now circling the Earth. Faculty and students use the control room to download data and upload instructions to the satellites as they pass within range of one of the world’s biggest space-tracking antennas, visible out the window on a nearby hilltop.

“This is a different kind of call center,” Kimel said.

Lexington-based KSTC was created 27 years ago as a non-profit corporation to develop innovation-driven, entrepreneurial companies in Kentucky. A decade ago, Kimel saw an opportunity to grow Morehead’s already strong astrophysics program in a new direction.

He realized that the micro-technology then revolutionizing computers and cellphones would also change spacecraft, especially as NASA was turning over much of its traditional work to private industry. Somebody needed to design and build this new stuff, Kimel thought. Why couldn’t it be done in Kentucky?

“We knew we had really smart people here; we knew we had smart students,” he said. “But we had to be aggressive and ambitious and move quickly.”

140721KySpace-TE0086KSTC set up a lab in California’s Silicon Valley. Benjamin Malphrus, chairman of Morehead’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and UK engineering professor James Lumpp spent several weeks there in 2005 with about 20 graduate students, learning all they could about new satellite technology.

They collaborated with engineers at NASA and Stanford University. Among them was Robert Twiggs, who helped develop some of the first small satellites, including the CubeSat, which has become an industry standard. Twiggs left Stanford in 2009 and moved to Morehead to teach.

KSTC created Kentucky Space LLC in 2010 as a non-profit corporation to coordinate this university research with industry. Last week, KSTC created Space Tango, a for-profit enterprise, to commercialize the work.

Much of that work involves designing and building CubeSats, which are 10-centimeter cubes packed with off-the-shelf technology and powered by solar panels.

When launched from a rocket or the International Space Station, the satellites take advantage of space’s zero-gravity environment to gather a variety of scientific and commercial research data. Other CubeSat uses range from tracking ships at sea to making high-resolution photographs of Earth for mapping and surveillance. Almost all of Kentucky Space’s hardware and software is designed and built in Kentucky.

“We’re trying to develop a home-grown set of technologies that can integrate into spacecraft,” Malphrus said. “There’s an incredible variety of applications people have thought of, but we don’t even know what all the applications are yet.”

Another Kentucky Space product is the DM processor, whose development was funded by the Defense Department. It is a supercomputer — 20 times more powerful than a desktop computer — that can be built into a small satellite for such applications as on-board processing of high-resolution images. It weighs about 12 ounces.

Kentucky Space, Morehead and UK have had several experiments on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. They also have built two research platforms on the space station and are developing more.

“We’re clearly one of the global leaders in trying to work on and design this next generation of spacecraft,” Kimel said. “Our specialty is building small machines quickly.”

Kentucky Space also recently announced a partnership with FedEx Corp. to develop a Space Solutions division to help global clients safely move payloads between laboratories and launch sites.

Morehead’s space studies program now has about 60 students. This fall, it will start its first master’s degree program, in space systems engineering, with 10 students. While many are from Eastern Kentucky, about one-third of the students are internationals who sought out Morehead, Malphrus said.

140724KySpace0103Kentucky Space and Space Tango are small, with five contract employees and one full-time engineer: Twyman Clements, 27, a UK engineering graduate who grew up on a farm near Bardstown. But Kimel said a half-dozen small companies already have been created out of Kentucky Space’s work, and he said he thinks that is just the beginning.

Spacecraft might seem an unlikely Kentucky product, but it’s not. Aerospace products have become Kentucky’s largest export, edging out motor vehicles and parts, according to the state Cabinet for Economic Development. A diverse array of aerospace exports totaled $5.6 billion last year — 22 percent of the value of all Kentucky exports.

Economic development strategies are changing from the old model of luring corporate branch plants with jobs that are here today and may be gone tomorrow when incentives run out or cheaper labor is found elsewhere. There is more long-lasting economic impact in creating specialized knowledge and an environment where entrepreneurs can use it to create high-value companies.

“This is not just about education; we’re growing a new industry here,” Kimel said. “If we don’t commercialize this technology, these students won’t stay here, because there won’t be opportunities for them.

“I’m not one of these people who thinks everyone should stay in Kentucky; they shouldn’t,” he added. “But for those that have the opportunity and want to, great. And we want people to come here from other places who are interested in this industry. We want them to say this is the place to be.”

Eastern Kentucky has a long way to go in creating the workforce to support many high-tech companies, but Kentucky Space shows what is possible. It isn’t the only answer for the region’s economic challenges, but neither are low-wage factories and call centers.

“Kentucky historically has done an excellent job of putting together other people’s ideas,” Kimel said. “What we need to start doing is building our own ideas, because that’s where the value proposition is. We have to find things that we can do better than anybody else.”

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Reconsider demolition of UK lab that played role in space race

April 22, 2014

WG1 The Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory opened in 1941 to do aeronautical research. Designed by Ernst Johnson, its front resembles an airplane cockpit.  Photos by Tom Eblen

I have made several trips to the University of Kentucky campus over the past year to take a good look at some of its iconic architecture before administrators demolish it.

The most recent trip was to see Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory. It is unique among the several mid-20th century buildings designed by noted Lexington architect Ernst Johnson that may soon meet a wrecking ball.

Swedish industrialist Alex Wenner-Gren, who got rich selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners, gave UK $150,000 in 1940 to build a laboratory for aeronautical research.

The mission called for a structure about as utilitarian as you could get: thick, strong walls to contain aircraft engine tests and funnel out the exhaust. But Johnson found a way to give his building style.

The long, narrow building resembles an airplane, with tail fins on the back roof and a curved front façade of glass block and fine brick work that reminds you of a cockpit. Form elegantly reflected function.

Wenner-Gren is one of the area’s few remaining examples of Streamline Moderne architecture. The style, which also was used in everything from steam locomotives to toasters, reflected mid-20th century Americans’ hopeful visions of a space-age future.

In the 1950s, the lab’s mission evolved from aircraft to biomedical research. In 1959, the lab got an Air Force contract to train chimpanzees, the first astronauts of the Mercury Space Flight program.

During a recent visit to Lexington, retired Space Shuttle astronaut Story Musgrave recalled doing biomedical research in Wenner-Gren while earning degrees in physiology and biophysics that prepared him for his future NASA missions.

wg2As with many older UK buildings, renovation and updating of Wenner-Gren over the years looks to have been basic and minimal. A water leak in the annex recently damaged a display case chronicling the lab’s significant scientific history.

Eli Capilouto, who became UK’s president in 2011, deserves a lot of credit for moving swiftly to play catch-up to longtime facilities needs, from student housing to academic buildings. But that rush has at times reflected a narrow vision of campus improvement, with little regard for history or architecture.

Architects and preservationists have complained about the planned demolition of several Ernst Johnson dormitories to make way for generic-looking residence halls outsourced to a private contractor.

Dining services also are to be outsourced to a major corporation willing to invest in new facilities. That has drawn criticism from students and others concerned about UK’s commitment to the local food economy and worker wages.

UK also plans to demolish Hamilton House, an 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for a residence hall. Mathews Garden, a unique plot of diverse plant life managed by the biology department, along with two adjacent early 20th century houses, may be destroyed for a proposed expansion of the law school complex.

UK plans to replace Wenner-Gren with a new science classroom building. The dozen research labs now housed there will be moved to a College of Engineering building when this semester ends.

Critics have urged UK to preserve all or some of Wenner-Gren as part of the new science building. One good idea: Turn it into a cafeteria, café and coffee shop whose architecture and illustrious history could help inspire future scientists.

But UK administrators have shown little interest in investing much imagination or money in such adaptive reuse projects. So far, the architecture of the new buildings is nothing special.

You would think that, in their master-planning process, UK administrators would have involved their in-house experts, the College of Design professors who train most of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists. Well, no.

“I find it extremely disappointing that UK, as the flagship state university and our state’s keeper of culture, is letting accountants make decisions about what is architecturally and historically significant,” said Robert Kelly, a Lexington architect and longtime UK adjunct professor who has advocated for preservation of Wenner-Gren and other significant Ernst Johnston buildings.

“I find it analogous to asking your hairdresser how to perform cardiac surgery,” he said. “Hmm, that doesn’t look important — you can probably remove it.”

Two men’s passing a reminder of small gestures, big impact

February 26, 2014

I was interviewing a prominent business leader  Tuesday for a future column, and we got to talking about the important role adults in a community play in young people’s development.

Of course, there are parents, teachers, scoutmasters, coaches, close friends and mentors. But there also are men and women who children encounter regularly and who do nothing more than take a few moments to notice, take an interest and talk with them.

With that discussion fresh in my mind, I noticed in Wednesday’s Herald-Leader the obituaries of two men who played such roles in my life. They were people I didn’t know well, but I will always remember them fondly.

The first was J. Wiley Finney, a prominent Lexington engineer who was one of many adults important to my young life at Southern Hills United Methodist Church. In recent years, I saw Mr. Finney a couple of times when I spoke to his Kiwanis Club, where he was a faithful member at age 102. I also received several emails from him about columns he especially liked.

The other obituary was for someone I probably haven’t seen since I was six or seven. Chester Goins, 92, managed the A&P grocery on East Main Street (where Goodwin Square is now, across from the Herald-Leader building). My mother took me to the A&P every week until we moved to the country when I was in second grade. Mr. Goins always had a few minutes to stop and say hello as I rode in the front of the grocery cart and to ask what I had been up to.

These two men’s passing is another reminder for me that, so often in life, it’s the little things that count.

Learning about code already pays off for one Lexington school

November 25, 2013

I recently wrote about the upcoming Computer Science Education Week and how a technology industry organization is encouraging every school to spend at least an hour the week of Dec. 9-15 introducing every student to the language of digital technology: code. Plans to do that have already paid off for one Lexington school.

CSEWCode.org, the non-profit group organizing the Hour of Code event, has awarded $10,000 to Southern Elementary School. The school’s planned activities include creating a life-size version of the popular cellphone game Angry Birds in the gymnasium Dec. 6 to get students excited about learning code basics the following week.

School officials plan to use the award money to buy equipment for the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) laboratory, said Lisa Deffendall, spokeswoman for the Fayette County Public Schools. She said Code.org was donating $10,000 to one school in every state, and Southern Elementary is Kentucky’s winner.




Wendell Berry partners with college on sustainable farm program

October 1, 2013

130920BerryAg0094Jonas Hurley, right, owner of River Run Farm & Pottery in Washington County, shows students in St. Catharine College’s new Berry Farming Program his array of solar panels, which provide about 60 percent of his farm’s power and should pay for themselves within a dozen years. In the center is the Berry program’s director, Leah Bayens. Photos by Tom Eblen 


SPRINGFIELD — Agriculture economists have been sounding a death knell for the American family farm for decades. Since World War II, farming has been all about machinery, chemicals and the idea of “get big or get out.”

More recently, though, the sustainable-agriculture movement has shown an alternative path. It is based on creating new markets and innovative farming techniques rooted in the wisdom of nature.

The movement has been fueled by consumers who want fresher, tastier produce and meat that isn’t sprayed with chemicals and pumped full of hormones. Many consumers are willing to pay more for better quality.

Sustainably produced local food nourishes communities as well as bodies. Many farm families want to stay on their land, finding that the rewards are worth the hard work. They also want to make sure the land isn’t poisoned and eroded, so future generations can keep farming.

With its fertile soil, temperate climate and central location, Kentucky would seem to be a great place to capitalize on this trend. Plus, Kentucky is the home of writer Wendell Berry, one of the global gurus of sustainable agriculture.

This fall, St. Catharine College, a Catholic school founded by the Dominican Sisters in Washington County, started offering bachelor’s degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism.

St. Catharine’s Berry Farming Program incorporates Berry’s sustainability philosophies and was developed in conjunction with his family’s Berry Center in the Henry County town of New Castle.

(Berry’s alma mater, The University of Kentucky, where he taught English for many years, has developed a respected sustainable agriculture program. But Berry had a very public breakup with UK in December 2009, when he withdrew his papers after the university named the new basketball players’ dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge in return for millions of dollars in coal industry donations.)

Assistant Professor Leah Bayens developed St. Catharine’s four-year Berry Farming Program, which combines interdisciplinary study in agriculture, ecology, business, marketing and community leadership with hands-on farm internships.

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Bayens launched the program this fall with four students in the introductory class, which uses as a supplementary text Berry’s landmark 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which helped spark the sustainability movement.

Three international students will join the program in January, thanks to scholarships from Eleanor Bingham Miller, whose Louisville family once owned The Courier-Journal. Bayens will choose those students from the more than 60 applicants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America, where sustainable agriculture is desperately needed.

The Berry Farming Program’s first four students represent an interesting mix of the sons and daughters of Kentucky farm families.

Freshman Marshall Berry is Wendell Berry’s grandson, and he is trying to figure out whether he wants to make a career of farming, as his father, Den Berry, did. Does he feel any family pressure? Maybe a little, he said.

“I know I want to live and work on a farm,” said freshman Winifred Chevront, who grew up on a Taylor County farm. “I think this could help me achieve my goals.”

Pamela Mudd, a junior who transferred here after studying food science at UK, comes from a large Washington County farming family.

“I want to get some new ideas for keeping our family farm in the family,” she said.

Jacob Settle, a junior, comes from a Washington County farm family and has built a regionally successful freezer-beef business with his brother, Jordan. Rising Sons Beef sells locally bred, born and raised beef that is free of antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

Bayens has taken her class on several field trips to see area farms. Last month, I joined them on a tour of Jonas and Julie Hurley’s River Run Farm & Pottery near Springfield.

The Hurleys raise sorghum and vegetables, hogs, chickens, goats, turkeys, ducks and sheep. They also have a dairy cow and a llama. They produce almost all of the food they and their two young sons eat, selling the surplus at a local farmer’s market. Jonas Hurley also sells his pottery and teaches classes.

A few months ago, Hurley installed solar panels that produce about 60 percent of his farm’s power. The $14,000 investment should pay for itself within 12 years, he said.

“I want the students to get opportunities to meet, mingle and work side by side with different kinds of farmers so they can see what kinds of creativity and inventiveness are at work,” Bayens said. “There is a lot of opportunity out there for farmers willing to find it.”

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Thirty years after closing, Hazel Green Academy lives on in memory

August 13, 2013


More than 100 people attended Hazel Green Academy’s annual reunion in the Wolfe County town of Hazel Green. They signed in by decade on an old classroom chalkboard. The boarding school for Eastern Kentucky children closed 30 years ago. Photos by Tom Eblen 


HAZEL GREEN — As we drove into this Wolfe County town of 228 people, Bob Tutt asked me to pull the car into a hillside cemetery so he could find Henry Stovall’s grave.

Beside the headstone stood a granite monument that former students had erected to the memory of the longtime director of Hazel Green Academy.

“He had a big influence on my life,” Tutt said of the tall, tough Mississippian who instilled character and discipline in students without ever raising his voice.

“The first time you got in trouble, you had to talk to Mr. Stovall.” said Tutt, a student in the early 1940s. “I had to talk to him one time, and if there had been a crawdad hole I would have gone in it. I’ve never forgotten it, and I’m almost 85.”

At the boarding school’s old campus Saturday, we found more than 100 other former students. Many had their own stories of long-ago teachers, mentors, life lessons and life-changing experiences.

Founded in 1880 by local residents, Hazel Green Academy was one of the few comprehensive schools available to young men and women in this part of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains.

The Disciples of Christ adopted the school in 1886 and operated it as a mission, with tuition and boarding costs offset by outside donations and work scholarships for students. The academy’s motto was, “Where we find a path or make one.”

When they weren’t in the classroom building or dormitories, or studying industrial arts or home economics, Hazel Green’s boys and girls worked on the school farm, in the dairy and around campus. There were basketball and baseball teams, and folk dancing was a popular pastime.

As public schools were established in the area, the academy stopped teaching the first six grades in 1929. But under Stovall’s leadership in the 1930s and 1940s, course offerings and community services grew.

The school had its own water and power plants, which supplied electricity to the town into the 1930s. At various times, Hazel Green Academy also provided the community with a library and a small hospital. When World War II ended, the school’s farm donated more than six tons of food for European relief.

“It was the lifeblood of Hazel Green,” said Ralph Locker, 93, who moved to the town and opened a store after serving in the war under Gen. George S. Patton.

But the academy’s role declined as roads and public schools improved. In 1965, grades 7 and 8 were discontinued. The high school closed after the class of 1983 graduated.

Over the years, many students went on to college, especially Berea College, which was similarly designed to educate the children of mountain families of modest means. Hazel Green produced many teachers, doctors and community leaders.

The Bickers brothers — Don in South Carolina, Bob in Idaho and Jerry in Winchester — came back to the reunion because Hazel Green Academy was much more than a school to them.

“We came from a broken home in Owenton, and this became our home,” said Bob Bickers, a retired AT&T technician. “Three meals a day, a bed and friends. It turned our lives around. We all went on to make something of ourselves.”

Since the academy closed, the denomination and Hazel Green Christian Church have managed the campus, which is now used for conferences and events. The buildings had fallen into disrepair over the years, and that bothered Rita Rogers, whose husband, Roy, attended the academy.

“Even though I went to the rival high school,” she said, “I recognized what a special place this is.”

Rogers helped organize an alumni effort to restore the main classroom building. Now, each room has been “adopted” by groups of alumni, cleaned and decorated with old school memorabilia. She and others eventually hope to restore other campus buildings.

“Hazel Green Academy was just a special thing to be a part of,” said Scott Lockard, who graduated in the last class in 1983 and is now Clark County’s public health director. “It was so much more than a place to fill your mind. My spirit was filled here, too.”

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Teacher finally ‘graduates’ from pre-school she started 43 years ago

March 19, 2013


Carol Neal started Little Elks Pre-School at South Elkhorn Christian Church. Photos by Tom Eblen


As a trained educator, Carol Neal was picky when it came time to look for a pre-school program for her son and daughter. When she couldn’t find one she liked, she convinced her church to let her start one.

Now, after working with 33 fellow teachers and more than 3,000 students, Neal is retiring as director of the Little Elks Pre-School at South Elkhorn Christian Church.

“It was my calling, but I never thought I would be doing it for 43 years,” she said. “I tell people I’ve never been smart enough to get out of pre-school.”

All of those former students and teachers are invited to a reunion honoring Neal from 1-3 p.m. on April 14 at the church, 4343 Harrodsburg Road.

After months of searching for addresses, the staff has sent reunion invitations to 1,400 former students and teachers, but is still looking for more. RSVPs for the reunion are requested by April 7 to Littleelkspreschoolreunion@gmail.com.

“It has been a big part of my mother’s life for as long as I can remember, obviously,” said Neal’s son, Rick, who is a lawyer in Louisville. “My wife’s a pre-school teacher, too, and I know it’s hard work and you take a lot of it home with you.”

The school has about 30 3-year-olds in four classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and about 65 4-year-olds in six classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. About 10 current students are second-generation Little Elks — one of their parents attended pre-school there.

“I had gone there, my niece had gone there and I wanted my son to go there,” said Carolyn Sandusky Slone, whose son Grant turns 4 next month. “The education they provide is outstanding. It’s a loving and caring environment.”

Slone works with medical data, but when she was studying early-childhood education at Midway College in 1993, she did an internship at Little Elks.

“At least three of the teachers I worked with are still there,” she said. “I think that says a lot about the program.”

LittleElksNeal agreed that the pre-school’s strength has been being able to hire and retain good teachers. The current staff members, who all have education degrees, include Marsha Salmon (28 years), Kim Wemyss (26 years) and Vicki Garrett (25 years).

“Kim Skidmore, who’s taking over for me, is the newest kid on the block; she’s only been here seven years,” Neal said. “I have never advertised for a teacher in all those years. They just magically appear when I need a teacher.”

Although many of the teachers attend other churches, Neal has been an active member of South Elkhorn Christian Church, which knows a thing or two about longevity. Founded on the present site in 1783 as a Baptist congregation, it affiliated with the Disciples of Christ in 1831. The current sanctuary was built in 1870.

“A lot of people know about Little Elks and have a positive impression of our church because of it,” said the Rev. Mickey Anders, the fourth senior pastor at the church since Neal started the pre-school. “She has led it with such expertise.”

Neal plans to remain active in her church, but retirement will give her more time to spend with Bill, her husband of 47 years, her son and daughter, Missy Watts, and her five granddaughters.

Still, Neal said she will be available as a substitute teacher at Little Elks, where she has seen big changes in both children and parents over the years.

Parents are often more involved with their children, but less demanding of them. They also are more protective — sometimes too protective. Children often come to pre-school now with less discipline and a shorter attention span, but more academic knowledge and comfort with technology.

“Kids are like sponges. They’ve always been smart, but they are exposed to so much more,” she said. “They can pick up the iPhone, they can pick up the iPad. That’s the way they’re used to learning.”

Neal said one thing that hasn’t changed in 43 years is the bond that forms between a young child and his or her first teacher.

“They think you are wonderful, that you rule the world,” she said. “They’ll just be walking by and grab you and hug you on the leg. Where do you get that kind of unsolicited love other than from a 3 or 4 year old?”

Carnegie Center celebrates 20 years of after-school tutoring

March 12, 2013


Lewis Mayberry, 8, a third grader at Picadome Elementary School, works at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning with his tutor, Mark Molla, a financial analyst at Lexmark. They have been working together each week since August.  Photos by Tom Eblen


Every Wednesday afternoon, I stop writing long enough to spend an hour at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, helping a kindergartner learn to read.

Saniya Harris, 6, is sweet, smart and eager. When we began our weekly meetings last fall, she already knew her letters. Now we work on phonics and sight words by reading books about her favorite things: animals, princesses and Barbie.

The Carnegie Center is housed in the building that was the Lexington Public Library from 1905 to 1989. The cheerful tutoring center upstairs, with its tall ceiling and big windows, was the children’s room where I read some of my first books when I was Saniya’s age.

Now, I am one of 150 adults who tutor and mentor 180 school kids each week in a program that has helped more than 3,000 children since the Carnegie Center opened in 1992.

The center is planning a 20th-anniversary reunion on March 27 for current and past tutors, students and parents. The event honors Phyllis MacAdam, who started the program and directed it until her retirement as the center’s assistant director in 2003.

“We always knew there was going to be some kind of a tutoring program,” MacAdam said of her fellow Carnegie Center founders, whose vision was to transform the outgrown library into a place that fostered community learning and the literary arts.

MacAdam had been a teacher in Massachusetts before earning a doctorate in literacy education at the University of Kentucky. She started the Carnegie Center’s tutoring program with a few UK and Transylvania University students as tutors and a dozen students from schools in nearby low-income neighborhoods.

“I brought in all of my children’s books, all of their dead Monopoly games,” she said. “The first two kids we tutored were the sons of our custodian. Then, by word of mouth, the program grew and grew.”

The program’s goal is to give students, especially disadvantaged students, a little extra help. Kids also benefit from having an adult mentor who isn’t their parent. Children with learning disabilities are paired with tutors who have special training.

“It’s not like you’re making massive educational changes,” MacAdam said. “You’re just helping them with their needs and giving them some special attention.”

The program’s priority is students from low-income families, but it’s open to anyone. Slots fill up quickly on registration day. Parents who manage to get their kids into the program tend to be motivated to get them there each week and reinforce the lessons, said Carol Bradford, the center’s current tutoring coordinator.

Tutoring is free, but there is an annual registration fee of $50, or $5 for students on free-or-reduced lunch at school. The volunteer tutors, who must be at least 16 years old, include college students, working professionals and retirees. Over the years, a few Carnegie Center students have grown up to be tutors.

“It’s also a great opportunity for the tutors, and they just love it,” Bradford said. “It helps build relationships in the community among people who might not otherwise get to know each other.”

Last year, Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center’s director, tutored a young Korean girl who needed help with English while her family was living temporarily in Lexington.

“It was such a relief from the workday,” said Chethik, who has continued to correspond by email with the child since her family moved back to South Korea. “It’s an hour when all you have to think about is this one little kid.”

Tiffanie Holland said her three sons — ages 8, 10 and 12 — have benefitted enormously from the tutoring program.

“The Carnegie Center has been very important to my family,” she said. “Everyone’s friendly here, and they’re rooting and cheering you on. They want every child to succeed.”

Mark Molla, a financial analyst for Lexmark International, has been tutoring Lewis Mayberry, 8, in math and reading since August. At their meeting last Thursday afternoon, they talked baseball as the enthusiastic third-grader read aloud from a book about pitching great Satchel Paige.

“It’s something I always wanted to do,” Molla said of tutoring. “And I’m probably learning as much as he is.”

If you go

Tutor Appreciation and Reunion

Who: Current and former Carnegie Center tutors, students and parents.

What: Dinner and celebration. Card-making contest for kids.

When: 6-8 p.m. March 27

Where: Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St., Lexington.

Reservations: The event is free, but register by email at tutoring@carnegiecenterlex.org, or call (859) 254-4175.

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New program to nurture Kentucky’s young entrepreneurs

January 28, 2013

Thirty years ago, Kentucky created the Governor’s Scholars Program. Twenty-six years ago, the Governor’s School for the Arts. Now, the Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs.

The idea for this new summer program is the same as with the other two: identify high-potential high school students and bring them together to boost both their development and Kentucky’s future.

The Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs is now taking applications for the first class of 50 students who will attend a free program June 9-29 at Georgetown College. The deadline to apply is Feb. 15. For more information, go to: Gse.kstc.com.

Kentucky’s economy needs more entrepreneurial thinking, said Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., which is creating the program.

“Increasingly, people are going to have to create their own jobs, figure out how to create their own value,” he said. “Entrepreneurship is a way of thinking. It’s a different mindset.”

More young Kentuckians need the skills and mindset to start their own businesses, rather than assuming they will always work for somebody else, Kimel said.

This three-week program will include tours of innovative companies and talks by Kentucky entrepreneurs. Students also will hear from lawyers and other professionals who help entrepreneurs make their companies successful.

There will be a lot of teamwork time devoted to students’ ideas for products or services that could be turned into companies. That will include learning about business plans, iteration, investment capital, production, sales, marketing and long-range strategy.

“The program will be all about creative thinking, critical thinking, innovative thinking,” said Kimel, who in 2000 started the Idea Festival, an international creativity festival now held each September in Louisville.

The program is open to 9th, 10th and 11th graders in Kentucky’s public or private schools. Students may apply as individuals or in teams by filling out an online application and submitting adult references.

They also must create a two-minute video explaining their idea for an innovative product or service, or why they would be suited to become part of a team that comes up with one.

One criteria that will not be considered for admission is a student’s grades. After all, some of America’s most brilliant innovators — from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — didn’t do well in school.

“Just because you’re a ‘C’ student doesn’t mean you’re not incredibly smart,” said Laurie Daugherty, the program’s director. “Sometimes the personality types and thinkers who make the best entrepreneurs are the kids sitting in the back of the class not really engaged in the stereotypical classroom style of learning.”

Daugherty has been traveling around Kentucky, speaking at high schools to attract applicants and raising money for the program among business people.

“There has been a lot of excitement about it,” she said. “The first application was from a student in Louisville who already has a company and wants to learn more about how he can grow it.”

KSTC has a $50,000 seed grant from the state Economic Development Cabinet. The rest of the estimated $200,000 needed for the program is being raised from businesses. There will be no cost to students.

Gov. Steve Beshear kicked off the fundraising effort recently by bringing 40 entrepreneurs and corporate leaders to Frankfort for a presentation.

“Business people get it,” Kimel said. “I think they realize this is an important part of our future, our ability to create these kinds of people and companies and jobs.”

Randall Stevens, who has started several companies in Lexington to develop innovative technology, is one of the entrepreneurs who will be teaching at the program.

“I’m a big believer in the educational process of how to become an entrepreneur,” he said.

Part of that process is learning to be comfortable taking the calculated risks needed to succeed.

Part of the program’s value will be creating a network of young Kentucky entrepreneurs going forward, Stevens said. He is trying to organize that kind of network among his fellow 24,000 graduates of the Governor’s Scholars Program.

“I want them to leave with a good education,” Kimel said of the first class of students in the Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs, “but also with a sense of empowerment that I can do this, or I can think differently.”

New Hindman Settlement School director hopes to build on legacy

January 13, 2013

Brent Hutchinson is the new director of the 110-year-old Hindman Settlement School. Symbolizing the school’s past and present are the circa 1913 log cabin, right, that houses the school’s offices, and the Knott County Opportunity Center, left, on the school’s campus at the forks of Troublesome Creek. Photo by Tom Eblen


HINDMAN — Brent Hutchinson knew he had big shoes to fill. And if he had any doubt, more than 100 people have told him so since he arrived in October to become director of Hindman Settlement School.

Hutchinson succeeded Mike Mullins, 63, who died unexpectedly last February. During 34 years as director, Mullins transformed the 110-year-old school to keep its mission relevant to changing needs.

The institution now provides arts programming and dyslexia services to schools in Knott and some surrounding counties. It also runs two acclaimed summer programs: the Appalachian Writers Workshop and Appalachian Family Folk Week.

Mullins left things in good shape, financially and otherwise. How does Hutchinson plan to build on that success? He isn’t sure yet, but he plans to do a lot of listening to the scores of people throughout the region who will help him figure it out.

“We have a lot of flexibility,” Hutchinson said of the school. “I want to figure out what people here really need more than asserting areas of interest to me.”

Hutchinson, 38, has the benefit of coming in as both an outsider and an insider.

His mother was born in Germany, but she moved here when her mother married an American soldier from Knott County. Displaced by the Carr Creek Lake project in the 1970s, the family moved to Whitesburg. He was raised in Louisa, graduating as valedictorian of Lawrence County High School in 1992.

“I grew up driving past the settlement school and never dreamed I would end up here at this point in my life,” said Hutchinson, whose twin brother, Brian, is athletic director at Morehead State University.

Hutchinson and his wife, Gwen, who is from Floyd County, graduated from Morehead State. They moved to Lexington in 1997. She earned a master’s in social work at the University of Kentucky and led an Alzheimer’s day care program. He earned a master’s in family studies at UK and worked in ministry and counseling.

They left in 2001 for Nashville, where she did social work and he was in ministry, most recently at Rolling Hills Community Church in Franklin. They have two sons: Adam, 9, and Miles, 5.

“I think it’s difficult for a lot of people who leave Eastern Kentucky to get it out of their blood,” said Hutchinson, who is finishing a doctorate in leadership studies from Dallas Baptist University in Texas. “We always thought we would come back. We didn’t expect it to be this soon.”

Hindman Settlement School was founded in 1902 along the banks of Troublesome Creek by two progressive women from Central Kentucky. Its original mission was to provide basic education and health services to people in this then-remote corner of the mountains, but its role has changed as the area has developed.

“Being a part of social change is something that’s always been important to me,” Hutchinson said. “I knew Hindman Settlement School was a place that did that.”

Glenn Leveridge, a Lexington banker and chairman of the school’s board, said Hutchinson stood out among 34 candidates as being well-suited to both carry out the school’s missions and figure out new ones in the future.

“Every spoke of the wheel was tight,” he said of Hutchinson’s background and qualifications. “But the thing that really sent me over the moon was when he called toward the end of the process and asked, ‘Am I going to be able to dream?'”

Hutchinson eventually wants the school to broaden its scope throughout Eastern Kentucky by partnering with other organizations to enhance education, arts and heritage programs. Rather than just try to help solve problems, he wants the school to be a positive force in shaping Appalachian culture.

More immediately, Hutchinson is looking forward this summer to Appalachian Family Folk Week and the Appalachian Writers Workshop. The workshop has become famous because of the participation of such literary icons as Harriette Arnow and James Still, who worked at the school for many years.

Kentucky-born author Barbara Kingsolver will be the featured lecturer at this year’s workshop. And, despite her recently announced move from UK to South Carolina to be closer to aging parents, award-winning poet Nikky Finney will be back at Hindman, Hutchinson said. This will be the third year she has led a special workshop for young Kentucky writers.

“I was told by people that there’s some magic that happens on the banks of Troublesome Creek,” Hutchinson said. “The more I’m here, the more I realize that people really do believe that.”


New Lexington Catholic High program shows students equine careers

December 3, 2012

Alex Cox holds a bag of steel wool on a string, which is drawn by the powerful magnetic force of an MRI machine used to diagnose horse injuries at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute. Cox is part of the school’s Equine Academy, which tries to prepare students interested in pursuing careers in the horse industry. Photo by Tom Eblen

Alex Cox has been riding horses since he was 11 and hopes to be a jockey in a few years. But he wants to know a lot more about horses than just how to ride them.

So Cox, 14, decided to become one of the first 17 students in Lexington Catholic High School’s Equine Academy, a new four-year program designed to introduce young people to career opportunities in all aspects of the horse industry.

“I want to learn all about horses, how to keep them healthy and how the business works,” the freshman said. “It’s my favorite class by far. It’s really fun. When I grow up, I want to do something fun for a living.”

The program seemed like a natural for Lexington Catholic, said Steve Angelucci, the school’s president. Many students already were interested, because they rode or were from horse-industry families. Plus, the Lexington area offered an unparalleled opportunity for exposure to and partnership with major industry players.

The school has formed academic partnerships with the equine programs at the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College, as well as relationships with more than 20 local farms, organizations and companies, including Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park, Alltech, and two of the nation’s largest equine medical practices, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital and Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.

“We’re trying to create well-rounded professionals to be the next generation of leaders in the equine industry,” said Sarah Coleman, the academy’s director. The Ohio native previously was executive director of Georgetown College’s Equine Scholars Program.

“There are so many jobs out there involving horses,” Coleman said. “Being raised here, I think kids forget the novelty of this area. For a horse lover, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.”

Freshman Adriana DeCarlo, 14, doesn’t come from a horse industry family, but she has always loved them and has been riding since she was 4 years old. She thinks she wants a career involving horses, perhaps either in science or the Thoroughbred industry, but the academy has already been helpful.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “It has helped me take care of my own horse.”

The program calls for students to take eight equine courses over four years, including horse anatomy and physiology, health care, nutrition and management, reproduction and farm management, and equine business and marketing. Those classes are taught by Shannon White, general manager of Fares Farm and former hospital supervisor at Rood & Riddle.

The program includes many extracurricular lectures, field trips, speakers and shadowing, and mentoring opportunities. Students participate in service projects and must do a senior project.

On a recent field trip to Hagyard, the students got a tour of the horse hospital and spoke with several young veterinarians.

“Veterinary medicine is not a career,” Dr. Ashley Craig, a field care intern, told the students. “It’s a life choice.”

Dr. William Rainbow said he became a veterinarian after growing up in the industry and participating in Darley Flying Start, a two-year Thoroughbred leadership development program that allowed him to travel all over the world.

“I never thought mucking stalls would get me that far, but it did,” Rainbow said.

Perhaps the highlight of the tour for this group was Hagyard’s super-size, high-tech medical equipment — a walk-in hypobaric chamber for high-oxygen healing therapy and the huge MRI machine, with a magnet powerful enough to cause a bag of steel wool on a string to fly across the room.

Other extracurricular activities have included visits to Keeneland, Alltech and the Red Mile, as well as basic lessons in polo, vaulting and driving.

Coleman said horse industry people have been very welcoming to the students and supportive of the Equine Academy.

“Everybody I talk to says they wish they had had that when they were in school,” she said.


Online auction benefits program

Lexington Catholic’s new Equine Academy is having a fundraising “non-event” — an eBay auction — later this month.

Items for sale include an acoustic guitar signed by country music stars Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton; VIP events at Three Chimneys and Jonabell farms; a backstage pass to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; and a Storm Cat halter.

The auction site will go live at 8 p.m. on Dec. 9 at: Myworld.ebay.com/lchsequine. Bidding ends at 8 p.m. Dec. 16.


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New Sayre head wants to make most of school’s downtown location

November 13, 2012


The cupola of Old Sayre on the Sayre School campus is visible at the end of Second Street. Photos by Tom Eblen


When Stephen Manella became the head of Sayre School in July, he was surprised to learn that few students had ever been inside the 158-year-old school’s most visible room: the cupola atop the central building known as Old Sayre.

The fifth-floor cupola on founder David Sayre’s mansion on North Limestone is visible from much of downtown — and, from inside, it offers a commanding view of Lexington in all directions.

“It was just really dirty and full of cobwebs,” Manella said of the cupola, which Sayre added to his circa 1846 home when he enlarged it in 1854 to start a girls’ boarding school.

Manella had the cupola cleaned and painted, then opened it for alumni receptions in October. Since then, teachers have brought classes up there for art and photography projects, and lectures about Lexington history.

Sayre’s downtown location is a big part of what attracted Manella to the independent co-educational school, which has students from pre- kindergarten through 12th grade.

“This is a school in the city that actually takes the kids off campus and utilizes the resources,” he said. “When I interviewed, I saw that that was in place, but I also saw there was a tremendous potential to do even more.”

A sixth-grade class recently walked to Shorty’s Market for a math class on units and measures. A fourth-grade class walked to the courthouse for a mock trial. And while having lunch recently at a restaurant on Limestone, Manella noticed other diners staring at a group of Sayre first-graders walking single-file down the street carrying large banana leaves.

“It brought a smile to my face,” he said. “I thought, they’re probably either doing a science project or an art project, and they went off campus to get the material and they’re bringing it into their classroom to work on it.”

Manella, 46, came to Lexington after being a teacher and administrator at prep schools in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Greenwich, Conn. Before that, he worked in undergraduate admissions at New York University and earned a master’s degree in English education.

Manella, who grew up near Chicago, first went to New York to work in publishing for Simon & Schuster after earning an undergraduate degree from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

His wife, Anne, also is an educator. When they lived in New York, she taught kindergarten and first grade. One of her kindergartners was Stefani Germanotta, now better known as the singer Lady Gaga.

The fact that Sayre is a downtown school “struck a chord with me because that’s what I saw at NYU,” Manella said. “The NYU experience was very much about taking advantage of what the city had to offer.”

Manella now walks to work each morning from the late 1800s home he and Anne share with their three daughters. “We’re enjoying life in the city,” he said.

Sayre recently began a five-year strategic planning process. Among other things, Manella said, the school hopes to increase enrollment by about 100 students from the current 506.

One challenge is that Sayre is expensive, with annual tuition and fees ranging from $13,000 for a kindergartner to nearly $20,000 for a high school student. But, Manella said, Sayre awarded $1.2 million in tuition grants during the past year.

“One of our goals is to make sure this experience is something that’s accessible and affordable to a wide range of our population,” he said, noting that 24 percent of Sayre students are people of color.

Manella is looking for partnership opportunities with nearby Transylvania University and the University of Kentucky, including ways to attract international students during regular terms or for summer programs.

He also wants to partner with more downtown businesses. Each Sayre senior does a business internship, and takes part in a mentoring and guest-speaker program focused on financial literacy and civic responsibility.

Manella also wants to raise Sayre’s profile in the community. Next year, Old Sayre will become a regular Gallery Hop location.

This month, Sayre is partnering with Lighthouse Ministries to provide Thanksgiving dinner in the school’s lunchroom Saturday for about 450 homeless and poor people. Students have brought in food items and socks to give as gifts. Alumni and parents’ organizations are buying turkeys.

“We want to have a vibrant role in the downtown community,” Manella said.

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I now have fewer National Geographic magazines, more appreciation for dedicated teachers

April 11, 2012

I spent the morning at Estill Springs Elementary School in Irvine, speaking to third-grade students and delivering four big boxes of old National Geographic magazines.

In a recent column about moving, I wrote that I needed to part with five decades’ worth of those wonderful magazines because I didn’t have a good place to put them. I offered them to readers who had the best reasons for wanting them.

In the end, I gave some to artist Whitney Withington and divided the others between Estill Springs Elementary School and the alternative high school for pregnant teens and young mothers at the Family Care Center in Lexington.

I took four big boxes to the Family Care Center on Tuesday afternoon, where teacher Laura Zimmerman said she would put them to good use in the school’s library. Director Joanna Rodes gave me a tour of the facility and told me about the impressive work the Family Care Center has been doing for two decades to help some of Lexington’s most vulnerable residents.

Teacher Stacey Kindred of Estill Springs Elementary wanted the magazines so she could choose especially interesting articles to make into reading packets that third, fourth and fifth graders could read in class or take home to read with their parents. The reading packets take a lot of time to put together, but I would guess they have a big impact on the young students who use them.  Kindred thinks including National Geographic articles in the packets will help open the world to her students.

While I was at Estill Springs, I met Principal Lorretta Cruse and talked with some bright third graders from classes taught by Kindred, Julie Raider and Kim Fallen. The students asked me a lot of good questions.  I hope they enjoyed the visit as much as I did. And I hope those National Geographics inspire them the way they inspired me when I was their age.


Dwarf to toad, I’m a Children’s Theatre fan

April 11, 2012

Since the first time I was involved with Lexington Children’s Theatre more than four decades ago, my acting career has taken me all the way from playing a dwarf to playing a toad. Fortunately, LCT has had much more success.

The non-profit organization, now in its 73rd year, has grown into one of the state’s largest children’s enrichment programs. LCT says it reaches 130,000 children throughout Kentucky each year with its resident and touring performances, classes and workshops.

If you want some good laughs for a good cause, LCT will have its annual Celebrity Curtain Call fund-raiser at 7 p.m. Saturday at the organization’s headquarters, 418 West Short Street. After a reception and a silent auction, there will be a series of short theatrical scenes starring well-known local people. Some of them actually have talent.

Lyndy Franklin Smith has performed on Broadway in the musicals A Chorus Line and The Little Mermaid. State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr has quite a good singing voice. Others onstage will include former Vice Mayor Isabel Yates; actor and Herald-Leader music writer Walter Tunis; and TV newscasters Marvin Bartlett, Kristi Runyon Middleton and DeAnn Stephens.

I will appear in the role of Toad in a scene from Wind in the Willows. It is sure to be as riveting as my portrayal of Dwarf No. 4 in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs during LCT’s 25th anniversary season, 1966-67, when I was 8 years old.

My most memorable line in that play — “Dust? What’s that?” — was delivered after Snow White politely offered to tidy up the dwarfs’ cottage. My wife says it still reflects my attitude toward housekeeping.

I asked to try out for Snow White after my mother took me to see an LCT production of Treasure Island. It was the first time I had ever seen live theater, and it inspired me to somehow persuade my third-grade teacher to let me organize a classroom production of Treasure Island, costumes and all.

Appearing in Snow White was fun. Looking back, I realize that I was with an amazing group of talented kids.

Lydia Hodson, who starred as Snow White, went on to become America’s Junior Miss and a Kentucky television personality before her untimely death in 1991. Jay Bolotin, who played the prince, became a Nashville songwriter, artist, playwright and filmmaker.

The Dark Queen was played by Margaret Price, now a successful playwright, author, actress and lawyer. One of my fellow dwarfs, Skip Hollandsworth, is an award-winning writer for Texas Monthly magazine.

LCT was started in 1939 by young members of the American Association of University Women. Despite being an all- volunteer organization until 1971 — changing directors and performance venues almost every year — LCT sank deep roots in Lexington, thanks to tireless organizers and patrons including Marilyn Moosnick and Lucille Little.

In the 1970s, LCT transitioned from an organization that put on plays with child actors to an acting company that exposed children to professional theater. Plus, there were classes to teach kids dramatic skills without the pressure of performance.

It was a controversial change, but it has proven successful, said Larry Snipes, LCT’s producing director since 1979. In addition to after-school and Saturday classes, children may take summer workshops that culminate in a performance, or they may join one of LCT’s teen acting troupes.

“We weren’t trying to take it away from the kids but to give them more,” Snipes said. “There are probably 20 or 30 times as many kids onstage here now as then.”

LCT’s programming has exploded since it moved into permanent performance and classroom space on Short Street in 1998. The organization now has a $1.1 million annual budget, about 60 percent of which comes from performance revenue.

Snipes’ next goal is to create an endowment to support educational efforts without having to rely so much on ticket sales. Nurturing young creativity is what LCT has always been about.

“We’re not here to create the next Jennifer Lawrence,” he said, referring to the young Louisville-born star of the new movie The Hunger Games. “We want to give average kids an experience that will help them be more creative and more confident no matter what they end up doing in life.”

Celebrity Curtain Call

When: 7 p.m. April 14

Where: Lexington Children’s Theatre, 418 W. Short St.

Tickets: $60 in advance, $75 day of show. (859) 254-4546, Ext. 247, or LCTonstage.org

UPike plan should lead to discussion about raising coal severance tax to improve Kentucky education

January 15, 2012

The political wild card in this year’s General Assembly is a high-powered proposal to make private University of Pikeville a state-supported school.

The idea is being pushed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former Gov. Paul Patton, who is now the University of Pikeville’s president. The idea has solid support from southeast Kentucky legislators and community leaders. Gov. Steve Beshear has ordered a thorough study.

Like many ideas that sound good but get complicated as you dig into them, this proposal needs thorough study. But it also provides an excellent opportunity for broader public discussion about how more educational attainment could improve life in Kentucky and how we should go about paying for it.

Having the state assume ownership of a private school is a very Kentucky thing to do. That is how five of the state’s eight public universities came to be: Western and Eastern in 1906, Murray and Morehead in 1922 and the University of Louisville in 1970.

“This sounds like the same thing: We’ve got a campus here and all we have to do is make it a state school,” said Bill Ellis, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University and author of the new book, A History of Education in Kentucky. “It all comes down to politics and who has the votes.”

Creation of those state universities was generally a good thing for Kentucky, Ellis said. It made education more accessible and brought economic development and culture to communities across the state.

Many people in southeast Kentucky argue that their region — with some of the state’s highest rates of poverty and lowest levels of educational attainment — has been shortchanged.

Southeast Kentucky is part of the service areas of Eastern and Morehead state universities, but both campuses are a long way from many of the region’s towns and hollows. Pikeville and surrounding areas would no doubt benefit economically and culturally by having a state university.

But for years now, the General Assembly has cut state support for higher education. Given that, can Kentucky taxpayers afford another university mouth to feed? Stumbo and Patton say that is not a problem: Rather than using general fund money, state support can come from Eastern Kentucky’s coal severance tax revenues.

At this point, let’s step back and look at the big picture. What do legislators really need to do to help Appalachian Kentucky catch up with the rest of the state — and Kentucky catch up with the rest of the nation?

Let’s begin with the notion that more state support for education is essential. That is because nothing has more power to improve Kentucky’s economy and society than educational attainment.

Regardless of whether Pikeville becomes a state university, lawmakers should find ways to reverse the budget-cutting trends that have contributed to skyrocketing tuition at Kentucky’s state universities and made them less affordable.

The stated goal of the University of Pikeville proposal is to make higher education more affordable and attainable for mountain students. But are there more cost-effective ways to do that?

Rather than taking on another campus, would Kentucky get more bang for the buck by using coal severance tax money to finance scholarships for mountain students at Kentucky’s existing public and private universities, including Pikeville?

Perhaps those scholarships could be supplemented with loans from severance tax money that would be forgiven if students lived and worked in the mountains for a few years after graduation. That could curb the region’s historic “brain drain.”

But let’s not stop there. The Pikeville proposal creates a perfect opportunity for a broader discussion about the severance tax that Kentucky has levied on the coal industry since the 1970s, and how that money should be used.

The severance tax rate of 4.5 percent, which hasn’t changed in decades, is among the lowest of major coal-producing states. It generates more than $200 million a year. But over the years, much of that money has been wasted on building vacant industrial parks and other political pet projects, plowed back into subsidies for the coal industry or gone to benefit parts of Kentucky nowhere near the coalfields.

If the severance tax’s goal is to improve life and create a new economy in the coalfields for when all of the coal is gone, there could be no better use for that money than improving educational attainment.

So regardless of whether the University of Pikeville receives state support, the General Assembly should take this opportunity to raise the coal severance tax to national norms and focus the money on education. That’s right: Turn this political wild card into a trump card for Kentucky’s future.

Seedleaf grows gardens — and gardeners, cooks

October 19, 2011

A seed leaf is the first sign that a plant might take root and flourish. It seemed like an appropriate metaphor for what Ryan Koch hoped to do in Lexington.

Koch’s idea began germinating in 2007, when a farmer donated a garden plot to Communality, a small Christian faith community to which Koch and his wife, Jodie, belonged.

The experience led Koch and others to form Seedleaf, a non-profit organization with this goal: “Nourish communities by growing, cooking, sharing and recycling food.”

Seedleaf now sponsors eight community gardens in the East End and north side neighborhoods, plus one in Gainesway and another at Sayre School. The organization works with 16 restaurants and caterers to collect pre-consumer waste food to turn into compost to nourish those gardens.

Seedleaf also partners with other non-profits to do educational programs aimed at restoring local food culture, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

“I want us to serve as a reminder,” said Koch, a Californian who came to Kentucky to study at Asbury Theological Seminary. “There was a time when we wouldn’t have needed a Seedleaf because people knew how to grow and cook their own food.”

Seedleaf celebrated the end of its fourth growing season last weekend with a picnic Saturday to thank volunteers. Koch estimated that 1,200 volunteers — many of them college students — have helped with gardens and programs.

“We’ve come to be trusted in Lexington as a place where volunteers can come in and be well-used,” he said.

On Sunday, there was another picnic for six young people who completed this summer’s SEEDS program. Service Education and Entrepreneurship in Downtown Spaces is a training program for fifth- through eighth-graders, sponsored by Blue Grass Community Foundation.

Each student spent more than 70 hours working in the gardens and taking classes, said Rebecca Self, Seedleaf’s education director and only other employee. After asking neighbors what kind of produce they would buy, the students planted, raised and harvested vegetables and sold them at the William Wells Brown Community Center. The most popular items: tomatoes, collard greens and green beans.

What the students enjoyed most, though, was learning to cook and eat what they grew. They were taught cooking skills by Self and chef Ouita Michel, who owns the Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station and Windy Corner restaurants.

Twin sisters Rosa and Petra Navarro, 15, said they like fresh vegetables a lot more than they did before their work with SEEDS. So does Jawuan Walker-Brown, 12.

“I really enjoyed myself,” he said “I got to cook and eat — I really like to eat.”

The largest of Seedleaf’s spaces is the London Ferrell Community Garden on East Third Street, between Lexington’s main fire station and the Old Episcopal Burying Ground. The garden is named for a prominent minister in the early 1800s who is the only black person buried in the all-white cemetery next door.

The London Ferrell garden includes 40 plots that neighborhood families can rent for $5 a year. Plus, there are plots for SEEDS participants and a community plot with produce for anyone who helped tend it.

Seedleaf provides meals to Kid’s Café at the East Seventh Street Center, using its produce and food from God’s Pantry.

The organization also teaches cooking classes at the Florence Crittenton Home on West Fourth Street, one of the nation’s oldest shelters for pregnant girls.

“They’re going to have to feed themselves and a baby, and this points them toward independent living,” Koch said.

Koch and Self are pleased with how their seed leaf has flourished, but they have bigger ambitions.

Seedleaf’s annual budget of about $70,000 comes equally from grants, donations and money earned from composting and other services. Koch said he would like to add another staff member or two to help manage the growing corps of volunteers.

In addition to making people healthier and more self-sufficient, learning how to grow and prepare food can promote generosity and neighborliness, Koch said.

“We want to grow more gardens,” he said. “But more than that, we want to grow more gardeners and teach people how to cook. We see a lot of opportunities to partner with people and organizations that are doing good things in Lexington.”

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Prichard Committee a new challenge for Silberman

June 4, 2011

Stu Silberman said he had no plans to work again after he retired in August following a successful seven-year run as superintendent of the Fayette County Public Schools.

The day he announced his retirement, in February, Silberman said he received several emails about possible jobs. Only one made him pause: Cindy Heine of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, which advocates for public education at all levels in the state, wanted to know if he might be interested in succeeding the late Robert Sexton as executive director.

Silberman begins that new job Sept. 1 — three weeks after his 60th birthday —although he already has spent a lot of nights and weekends preparing for it. He will be taking a vacation day to attend the committee’s spring meeting Sunday and Monday in Carrollton.

“Filling Bob’s shoes is tough,” Silberman said. “I think it’s an opportunity to continue to make a difference in a different way.”

Sexton had a background in higher education when he became the first executive director of the citizens group in 1983. Over the next 27 years, before his death from cancer last August, Sexton was a tireless advocate for improving education in Kentucky. During those three decades, Kentucky has risen from near the bottom of various national education rankings to near the middle.

Sexton set a goal of Kentucky being a “top 20″ state by 2020. “I personally believe that goal is very attainable,” said Silberman, who was superintendent of the Daviess County Public Schools in Owensboro before moving to Lexington.

Next school year, Kentucky schools will implement “core curriculum” standards and a new assessment system in what Silberman said will be one of the biggest changes since the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. A Prichard Committee effort called Ready Kentucky is trying to help prepare everyone for the changes.

Those changes will include such things as end-of-course exams in high school with minimum standards, so, for example, algebra II will be the same in Jefferson County and Martin County. “It really is a common sense kind of thing,” Silberman said. “Part of our job is going to be to educate people about what that means.”

Other Prichard Committee initiatives include the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, which has trained 1,700 Kentucky parents to be more knowledgeable advocates for their children’s education. It also has championed early-childhood education — preschool programs and all-day kindergarten, which the state still does not fully fund.

“As soon as funding becomes available, that’s the next direction that needs to take place in education,” Silberman said. Studies consistently show that early childhood education helps students do better throughout their school career.

The Prichard Committee, with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is working on efforts to improve teacher skills. Silberman also wants to build on education partnership with such groups as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which is launching a new leadership training program for school principals.

Silberman said academic excellence requires good school leadership, good teachers and involved, informed parents. It also requires convincing state politicians to make the investment.

“Our role is to advocate for excellence in education, and it takes funding to make that happen,” Silberman said. “But lots of businesses have had to re-engineer, and that’s what I believe has to happen with schools, too.”

Silberman hopes to emphasize closing achievement gaps for poor and minority students. A self-described technology geek, he also wants to bring more technology into schools, both because it is required for modern employment and kids naturally become more engaged in learning when they use it.

While core academics are essential, Silberman said he also is a strong advocate for arts education, both because it gives students a wider view of the world and because the arts are closely tied to brain development. He noted, for example, that research that shows a strong relationship between music and math.

While Kentucky has lost out on some federal grants because it doesn’t have charter schools, Silberman said he agrees with the Prichard Committee’s view that charter schools are not a magic solution.

“Just like with public schools, you have some (charter schools) that are strong successes and some that are miserable failures,” he said. “We want to encourage innovative approaches, and there are some really great things that are taking place right now across the state … that are charter-like but are not separate from school systems; they are partnerships.”

And, Silberman said, partnerships are what the Prichard Committee is all about.