, Corbin, KY

September 13, 2013

‘Bobby’ and his ‘illegal’ charter school

The Times-Tribune

CORBIN — Taylor County Superintendent Roger Cook proudly announced to everyone’s surprise during a recent meeting of the Interim Joint Education Committee that he was operating an illegal charter school in his district.

I dare any politician to try and stop him — especially considering the fact that not a single student has dropped out of his district during his four years as superintendent, and that more than 60 districts nationwide have already contacted him to find out how he’s doing it.

Cook’s track record in preventing kids from dropping out cannot be credited to some governor’s campaign to spend additional millions of tax dollars to force kids to stay in school until they are 18 years old. Rather, his success is based on the fact that he doesn’t easily give up on a single kid.

Instead the superintendent from Taylor works to tailor the education they receive to the way they learn.

“Nobody for two years has come to ask to drop out at all — and if they did, I would say ‘No, you can’t’ and I’d put them in my charter school,” Cook told the surprised committee members. “Yeah, I have a charter school; it’s illegal but we still have all the rules and regulations.”

(But just imagine if they didn’t “have all the rules and regulations.”)

In the past, whenever students have come to him wanting to drop out, Cook told the committee he put them “in this special school — it’s Taylor County Virtual School,” where the educational program is created and adapted with children’s interests in mind.

He told about “Bobby,” who struggled with Algebra l in the traditional classroom setting, but thrived when math was taught in relation to an internal combustion engine.

Bobby couldn’t succeed with Algebra in the traditional classroom setting, “but he can take a cylinder off an automobile and bore it to 1/100ths of a thousandth (inch),” Cook said. “We tailor his educational needs in our illegal charter school to what he needs to survive. He doesn’t want to drop out.”

The assumption that formed the basis of Gov. Beshear’s age-18 dropout bill offers nothing new from government-types, who assume kids want to drop out of school.

However, here’s a superintendent who bases his whole approach on a very different premise: Kentucky students neither want — nor need — to drop out of high school, and that it’s up to the adults in the system to form educational approaches that interests and challenges them and gets them a cap, gown and meaningful diploma.

It’s ironic that Cook testified about his “illegal” charter school before a committee co-chaired by House Education Committee chairman Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort — who has made it known that he staunchly opposes charter schools in Kentucky.

This despite the fact that one of Kentucky’s seven “dropout factory” high schools is Frankfort Independent High School — right smack dab in the middle of Graham’s district. Frankfort Independent High School last year graduated only 58.4 percent of the seniors who entered the school as freshmen four years earlier.  

The question now is: After hearing Cook’s testimony, will Graham relent and do his part to help the “Bobbys” of Kentucky by removing “illegal” from the status of charter schools?

It depends on whether Graham, a retired public-school educator, believes, like Cook, that no child need drop out of school, or whether he holds to the soft bigotry of low expectations that keeps kids — especially those already down for life’s count —trapped in failure and devoid of a real future.

By engineering history’s first charter-school vote in the Kentucky House of Representatives, Graham could not only be a political hero in the moment but he would leave a lasting legacy.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at