Roger Cook, a superintendent in rural central Kentucky, took a risky path to becoming a champion for academic success.
By his own admission, this former high school football coach says some of his methods broke the rules. He believed his students needed personalized help to be successful in school – and in life – and took action to make that happen. He says he refused to give up on any student. He boasts that none of his students drop out. He convinces them to stay, he says, by tailoring their education to their interests.
Cook, who leads the Taylor County School District, was named one of the top “20 Educators to Watch” last year by the National School Boards Association and the Consortium for School Networking, both nonprofit professional organizations for educators. He told The Hechinger Report how his childhood influenced his style of leadership in schools.
Q: Why did you decide to do personalized learning in your district?
A: I grew up in a family in rural Kentucky of 10 siblings. Eight of them dropped out of high school. Two of my brothers, and my daddy, didn’t have a high school diploma or education and they ended up in prison for various reasons. I was one of those bitter kids and troubled kids. I had to move to the housing project. I wasn’t Albert Einstein, but I was a pretty smart student, especially in math. I was also rambunctious, easily bored and got into a lot of fights. I’m not proud to say all of that now. It always bothered me how I could get the math concept, but I had to wait until 29 or 30 other people learned it before I could move on.
Q: And that influenced your work as an educator?
A: I started [to work with] kids that were troubled, kids like I was in school. I wanted to do things differently. It wasn’t a standard or norm or approved of by the Department of Education. But I kept kids from dropping out of school. It’s a personal issue for me.
My goal as a principal was no kid is going to escape me. I became a superintendent in a district in Russellville, Kentucky. They were 33 percent minority and 80 percent free-and-reduced lunch or poverty. The test scores were horrendous. I looked at that like a football coach: ‘Okay, I’m taking over a losing team, and I’m going to see what we can do with it.’ I went in there, and I decided I’m going to make some rules that are non-negotiable. The rules are: no kid will fail, no kid will be allowed to drop out — even if I have to go to court and get a judge’s court order. And no kid will be held back based on their chronological age. And [in four years] we went to the top 30 in test scores in the state of Kentucky. This garnered attention by the state of Kentucky.
Q: What did they say?
A: I was summoned to Frankfort, the state capitol, to sit in front of the House and Senate. They said, ‘You tell us how you are doing this.’ They were really wanting to push charter schools in Kentucky. The commissioner of education was sitting on my right. He said, ‘Well, this is the guy that’s got the illegal school.’ I said, ‘I ain’t Doc Holliday.’ And the state superintendent goes, ‘Well, just tell them the truth.’ At this point, I had about 30 years in education and I could retire. So I thought, what the heck, I’ll just tell them what I’ve been doing. I told them, ‘Well, you know, public schools don’t need charter schools. All you need to do is take and untie our hands.’ I started talking about things that I did with kids to keep people from dropping out. For one example, if you wanted to drop out of my school, you’ve got to come to me. You cannot go to the high school counselor. You’ve got to sit in front of my desk. With your parents.
Q: How do those conversations go?
A: For one example, someone’s daddy came to me and said, ‘Well, I work on cars behind my house in a garage. My daddy worked on cars [too]. All he wants to do is work on automobiles. He is 16 and we are dropping him out of school.’ I listened. And I said, ‘You are not dropping out of school. I tell you what I will do. I will let you work on cars all day, and you can get your math based on the internal combustion engine. You can get your science as it relates to an internal combustion engine. You can get your reading as it relates to a technical manual. But you’re not dropping out.’ He asked, ‘You’ll let me work on cars all day?’ I said, ‘Absolutely will, and you are going to get all your courses as it relates to that.’ Obviously that’s not legal, but I’m telling this to the House and Senate. I thought, well, you know what, if I hadn’t done that — this kid would have dropped out and been standing on a street corner without a diploma.
Q: What happened to that student?
A: It makes a difference for kids if you can get all your subjects while doing something that you are interested in. This kid graduated, and ended up going to a national diesel college. And now he is a great diesel mechanic.
Q: So what did the state lawmakers do when you told them this?
A: The State of Kentucky decided to pass a Districts of Innovation law. I went home and pretty much wrote that bill for them. It passed. We were the first designated District of Innovation in Kentucky. Four years later, there are 13 Districts of Innovation.
Q: How does this make you feel?
A: I look at these kids and think about how somebody gave me a second chance. I will not let them drop out of school. They are going to pass these classes. People say, ‘You dumbed down classes for some kids.’ Okay. Maybe I do make it easier for some of them. A different path — so what? At least they have got a diploma and I put them where they can get a job.