By Drew Bergman
Editor’s note: this story was originally published in the April 21, 2021 edition of the Lake Cumberland Current.
Kentucky Senate Bill 128 is a short piece of legislation, clocking in at two lines past two pages. It is a simple bill with a simple directive: to allow for a supplemental year of education for Kentucky K-12 students who feel they would benefit intellectually from supplementing the work they did during the 2020-2021 academic year.
In that simplicity is where Kentucky families – parents and students, as well as educators and journalists – have found confusion. Social media and social gatherings are awash with bad impressions made in good faith. The bill has been called a second chance and a do-over for Kentucky students and, naturally, that wording has instilled in people a sometimes vague, sometimes specific hope for what the bill could be, rather than a clear realization and understanding of what it is and what it offers.
Despite the confusion that has arisen in the interpretation of SB 128, the bill’s chief sponsor, State Senator Max Wise, remains enthusiastic about the options it opens up for Kentucky students.
“It’s an opportunity bill for those families that want to make the family choice,” Sen. Wise said. “It’s not for everybody, but it is for those families that think, ‘You know, we could use a do-over, we could use a supplemental year of education.’
“And even if that’s in primary grades, middle school, or high school, I think everyone individually needs to look at how COVID affected their learning. How did COVID affect opportunities that weren’t given, or maybe some things that were cut short?” Those things cut short could be core classes like history or English, or the type of hands-on experience gained in trade or technical courses or, yes, extracurricular activities.
“I really believe 128 can give school districts the opportunity to be creative in coming up with an individualized plan for each student going forward,” Sen. Wise said. “I think we can look back at this and say it helped some families somewhere with an opportunity.”
The language of the bill has been a sticking point, particularly the interpretation of the word ‘supplemental,’ and how districts intend to run with it.
“The Kentucky Department of Education has given out guidance, but simply it’s just guidance. KDE does not have the authority to tell a district that their plan does or does not work. There are no regulations on that at all. So what I’m hearing from superintendents from across my district and beyond is we’re really getting creative on some things and it could change some educational opportunities.”
For this year’s seniors, the plans would likely have to be more individualized. While K-11 students would be repeating 2020-2021 materials as returning students, seniors graduate when their educational requirements are fulfilled, meaning the vast majority of those who would come back would be doing so as graduated students.
“For other students, I think it’s a great opportunity to look at,” Sen. Wise said. “I encourage local districts, I encourage superintendents and school boards to really think how we can specialize in opportunity and do [something] that’s not been done before.”
Sen. Wise sees SB 128 as an opportunity for schools to get creative in how they deliver materials in person next year, just as they were given the opportunity to get creative in how they delivered materials online this past year. And just like how 2020-2021 was a chance for all teachers and schools to try new approaches to materials via online delivery, SB 128 gives 2021-2022 the chance for innovation in the classroom. In both cases, what is being done could impact how lessons are delivered for years to come.
“I’ve had some superintendents that are talking about students that have not done a pathway in agriculture who may decide to come back for a supplemental year and maybe dabbling in some vo-tech [vocational-technical], some ATC [agricultural technology center]-type work. If we can get creative with what may be individualized and can help a student when they do come back, if something is supplemental or reasonably close to a previous class, then I’m all for it.”
What the plan offers is a chance to get what was lost or unlearned or un-experienced in school done right for those who think they would benefit more from the second shot than they would from moving forward.
So far in Russell County, about 45 students across the five schools have expressed interest.
Answering misconceptions: Russell County
The key section governing the application of Senate Bill 128 is as follows:
“Section 2 (1) Notwithstanding any passing grades a public school student may receive during the 2020-2021 school year, any student enrolled in a Kentucky public school in grades kindergarten through 12 during the 2020-2021 school year may request to use the 2021-2022 school year as a supplemental school year to retake or supplement the courses or grades the student has already taken [emphasis added]. A retaken high school course under this subsection shall not count as an additional credit towards graduation unless the student failed the original course. Retaking a course under this section shall count towards the full-time enrollment for the student.”
The Supplemental School Year Program was written into law in response to the concerns of parents and students over the 2020-2021 school year. With the COVID-19 pandemic swelling across the country, Kentucky schools went to Non-Traditional Instruction in March of 2020 and finished out that school year on emergency packets.
When the current school year began last fall, it began online for all Kentucky students and stayed that way for most of the 2020 fall semester and the beginning of the 2021 spring semester. The curriculum offered was not last year’s NTI, but rather the academic lessons that were to be originally designed to be taught in-person and were modified for online instruction.
The Supplemental School Year Program was not written to give students a free pass on this school year. The grades earned this year will be the grades earned this year. They will be on the students’ transcripts, they will be calculated in their GPAs, they will be on their college applications, they will be used to determine eligibility for college admittance and scholarships (as well as for athletic eligibility heading into the fall 2021 KHSAA sports season).
The Supplemental School Year Program was not written to give students a bonus year to bank for later. Students electing to take advantage of the program will be repeating their lessons from this year. Juniors would remain juniors with junior-level curriculum. First graders would remain first graders with first grade curriculum.
“A key point that KDE points out is that school districts should communicate with parents is that students who utilize the 2021-2022 school year as a supplemental year will be enrolled in coursework the student has already taken or in courses that are closely related to the content and standards of the previous content,” Superintendent Michael Ford explained.
There will be no additional K-12 credits earned from what the student would have earned this year (failed courses do not confer credits). Two years of sophomore language arts do not equal a sophomore and a junior year of language arts. Two years of sixth grade science do not equal a seventh grade year of science.
“The point is pretty clear in the law,” Ford said. “If you’re needing this supplemental year because this year was not good academically or however for you, then you don’t need enrichment in next year’s coursework, you need to repeat this year’s coursework.”
Student-athletes (the group of students who have so far shown the most interest in utilizing SB 128) will still be required, for purposes of attendance requirements regarding eligibility, to attend four hours of school per day of lessons and courses the student has already taken.
“The only thing that’s going to change a lot is what happens with our seniors that graduate this May of ‘21,” Ford said. “They will come back, not as seniors, because once you graduate you have graduated, your transcript is locked. You no longer qualify for dual credit because you are no longer a high school student.” At that point, while returning seniors might elect to take additional college courses, they would be taking them at the rates set by the colleges or universities who are providing the courses.
“One thing that there’s not a lot of clarification on is how are colleges going to view those students,” said Anthony Darnell, assistant principal at RCHS. “Are they going to view them as graduates and who just like every other person who graduates this year is expected to pay full tuition.”
More questions, and more options exist for this year’s seniors than for any other group.
“One of the big questions that was asked the other day in terms of academics was what does that schedule look like,” said Darnell. “Are we going to bring kids back and have them repeat the same courses they’ve just taken? There are other options that can be considered such as auditing courses.”
“Their coursework would obviously look a little different and that’s where we really have to get in and look at supplementary coursework,” Ford said, “especially if they’re playing sports, because they will still be required that four hours of academic classes to be eligible through the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. As long as they meet the age requirements.”
The age requirements get tricky at two levels for students involved in athletics, as do the concerns over eligibility coming out of this spring and heading into next fall.
“You need to finish the year in good standing as far as academics so that you can be eligible for the KHSAA for the next year,” said RCHS athletic director Michael Carpenter. “You could still do open gyms, open fields, or open cages, but as far as official activities, you have to be in good academic standing when you start the season on the grade level that you are on.”
As far as the age requirements go, students who do not turn 19 before August 1 would be eligible to return for an additional year while repeating their coursework from the previous year.
Another snag in aging could hit middle schoolers in high contact sports like football and soccer. Students age out of middle school eligibility if they turn 15 by that August 1 deadline.
Regulations also prohibit students from playing up to the high school level in those sports. So, a student turning 15 before August 1 would cost themselves eligibility in 2021-2022 (having aged out of middle school and being ineligible to play up to high school) as well as their senior year.
“A lot of research supports the fact that if you’ve already been retained once, it’s not always ideal that a 19 or 20-year-old is in high school, simply because it increases the dropout rate,” Ford said. “So, we are cautioning some parents to look at the long-term effects of what that may mean for their child. It’s one thing when the child’s in third grade and they’re 11 or 12, but then years down the road and they’re a senior and 19 or 20, that may have implications that we don’t think about right now.”
Among the students most apt to benefit from a return would be those in primary grades. “My thought is that this would be really impactful for K-3 or K-4 kids,” Darnell said. “If you look at the studies, most of your new information is gained in those early primary years, that’s where you really need to have that good, solid foundation for the rest of your life. Your brain is still growing, you’re still acquiring new information, it would be really good for that group, but above that it gets really complicated.”