Christopher Harris

When I moved to Pulaski and started school here, I went to Science Hill. There was a reason for that: It was one of a kind.

I needed an environment that was small and intimate. A place where I wouldn't get lost in the crowd. A place where I could receive lots of individual attention from teachers. A place that did things their own way.

Everyone who's ever been associated with Science Hill has surely realized there's something special about it. 

I'm proud that current superintendent Jimmy Dyehouse recognizes that too, and is willing to stick his neck out to defend the single-facility district's decisions. It may be a smaller fish in the larger ocean, but it deserves to swim right along with the big fish without getting devoured whole.

In this area, Science Hill already stood apart. Pulaski and Somerset Independent, two larger school districts, planned on opening school on August 24, with the option for students attend in-person classes or do "distance learning" from home (the vast majority of families in each case chose the "in-person" option) because of COVID-19 virus concerns. Science Hill planned to hold back a little bit and start September 9.

A lot of thought and planning by Science Hill went into this plan, clearly. Dyehouse said the later start date would strategically allow his school to observe what works and doesn't work at other schools, and have that knowledge going in. To make the instructional hours come out right, 30 minutes were added to each school day. 

Then here comes Gov. Andy Beshear on Monday, recommending that school districts wait to begin in-person classes until September 28. This would change a lot of plans that have already been carefully constructed, for Science Hill and all other districts.

When asked for comment, the superintendents of the other local districts expressed that they weren't thrilled with the development and noted how starting on the same date but making every student do distance learning could hurt families. They were more measured in their comments, your typical "let's be diplomatic about this" sound bite. Nothing wrong with that.

But it seems very few people in these positions just come out and say it like it is these days. And Jimmy Dyehouse did. He was unafraid to be politically incorrect, to say what was on his mind, and to speak truth to the power in Frankfort.

"I think it's time school districts and superintendents take a stand for students and families," said Dyehouse. "Let's let government officials know we are tired of being told what is best for us is the same as what's best for Jefferson, Fayette, Madison, and every other district statewide. It's not a one-size-fits-all problem that we're dealing with."

He also said that if there's a "a huge spike in positive tests, then we will adjust as needed. But let each district decide what that is. Not the governor." And noted that while surveys have suggested many Kentucky teachers are opposed to in-person classes right now, "when I surveyed all 56 of my employees, 100% said they feel safe coming back with the guidelines and precautions that we have in place." Other teachers, he added, seemed to be comfortable out and about this summer, going places from the store to vacation, but may now say they don't feel comfortable in a classroom with numerous COVID-19 precautions in place. 

"It's come time for us to get off the couch, out of our pajamas, and get back to school so kids can get back to normal and back to being with their friends," said Dyehouse.

Make no mistake, this wasn't the reporter just catching Dyehouse off-guard and pressing him into saying something he might have thought differently about with a chance to catch his breath. This was texted to me. I asked Dyehouse for comment, and he took a lot of time to write this all out. He knew he was coming in hot, and did it anyway. Very few officials in his position would do such a thing. I found it refreshing, to be honest.

Personally, I don't have any skin in the game here. I'm not a teacher that will be in the classroom, and I have no kids. Whenever schools start, however they do it, I don't really care. It doesn't affect me one way or the other. 

But I know that however Science Hill planned for the school year, they did so thoughtfully. They know what they're doing, what's best for their own district, and that may not be the same as what's best for larger school districts. And it's clear that Dyehouse is beginning to feel as if these best-laid plans are beginning to go awry because of powers-that-be looking more at the needs of the big guys than the little guy.

Some may take issue with Dyehouse's comments about teachers. As we saw with the former governor Matt Bevin, one is wise to watch carefully what they say about teachers. In this case, however, I think Dyehouse is referring to more of a David-and-Goliath dichotomy. Teachers from larger school districts having influence over what his district does. I don't believe Dyehouse would ever denigrate the profession itself. He has plenty of examples of excellent teachers there at Science Hill (shout out to my one-time art and history teacher Hanna Young in particular). He knows very well what they're worth.

It would have been very easy for Dyehouse to just roll over and not put up a fight, but instead he's looking out for what's apparently best for his district — and saying so. He says the employees at his school want to be there. I don't know what his conversations with them were like, but if that's the case, then Science Hill deserves to follow through with the plans they've had in place — as does every other district, including Pulaski and Somerset. I believe that they know what's best for that particular school, and are working hard to make it an environment everyone can feel as comfortable as possible being present.

Is he right or wrong? Ultimately, only life experience can say. Nobody yet knows — not even in Frankfort. But kudos to Dyehouse for saying what wasn't easy to say and sticking up for the little guy — for sticking up for Science Hill. It's a unique school with unique voices — and I'm prouder to say I went there now even more than before. 

CHRISTOPHER HARRIS is a Staff Writer at the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at charris@somerset-kentucky.com.

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