Running 48.6 miles over four days might leave most people in a coma, but after completing the last of four races in Disney’s 2014 Dopey Challenge, Monday morning finds Louisiana’s Ken Bradford taking emails and answering questions about what keeps him running each day — the goal of empowering Louisiana students through the Course Choice program.
“I’ve got 3 kids in the public schools, 3rd grade, 5th grade and high school” said Bradford. “I’ve worked at all levels and when we do things here to try and improve education, I see it in context, from all sides, from all of my jobs but ultimately as a parent living in rural Louisiana … At the end of the day, all I’m about is trying to do the right thing for kids.”
As head of the innovative Louisiana Course Choice program, context and doing the right thing for kids has required Bradford to channel all of his experience and discipline — both as a long-time Louisiana educator and a M1 Abrams tank-driving member of the Active Duty US Army and later as a member of Louisiana National Guard’s 239th Military Police Company — marshalling those skills as Louisiana tests out a new way of serving students and preparing them for whatever comes after high-school.
Course Choice is part of the Louisiana Believes education agenda, as Superintendent John White and Louisiana have coupled high standards to increased options for students. After screening prospective providers, the program allows students to take any course for free if they attend a school earning a C, D or F. For students in A and B schools, they can take any class not offered at their home campus.
The choices are real — foreign languages, AP Calculus and even welding courses— offered by everyone from big-name providers like Amplify, well-known state entities like the Louisiana School for Math, Sciences and the Arts and a collection of Louisiana teachers who have banded together to offer classes.
After a few hiccups in early 2013 couldn’t derail the start of the program, the program just finished its first semester. Demand is high and options for students are increasing. The numbers are impressive. Over 680,000 students are eligible to take classes through the Course Choice program from approximately 60 providers offering online courses, in-person and hybrid, blended options. Due to funding constraints, the program currently enrolls 2700 students. Parents and students email Bradford daily, asking if the wait-list is going to be re-opened and the program expanded.
The man heading the Louisiana Course Choice ship may talk with a drawl, shouting Geaux Tigers! while decked out in purple and gold, but his roots are actually northern. After graduating high school from Hampden Academy in rural Maine, Bradford enlisted in the US Army straight out of high school, headed south, and never came back.
“I was stationed at Fort Polk driving M1 Abrams tanks,” said Bradford. “It taught me direction and discipline and shaped the rest of my life. Then the Louisiana National Guard offered me the chance to have tuition covered and go to college, so I stuck around.”
Influenced by a series of excellent teachers back in Maine, Bradford decided to pursue teaching and studied Social Science Education at Louisiana State University. He graduated with a love of teaching and a love of the Tigers. He taught in an inner-city school for seven years, coached a national championship track team in 1999, and then wanted to lead. He went back to school, got his Masters, then started working at the Louisiana Department of Education. Over the next twelve years, Bradford worked his way up to the State Director of Educational Technology.
When White was appointed Superintendent in 2012, Bradford’s unique background in technology and in Louisiana education made him well-suited to head up the new Course Choice program as the Assistant Superintendent of the Office of Content. This program took the existing Louisiana Virtual school and sought to expand its offering and ensure that all students in Louisiana could take the courses they needed to prepare them college or an excellent career.
“The Course Choice Program is great because it allows us to expand our portfolio of choices for students,” said Bradford. “Originally the state virtual schools only offered 30 courses and only for high school. Now we’re expanding that. We are offering real skill development for kids and much-needed courses.”
Along with the new providers and new courses, Louisiana has sought to ensure that students taking these courses receive all of the the counseling and support they might need. Five full-time Louisiana certified professional school counselors are employed by the Louisiana Department of Education and after the first semester, they’ve had over 4,000 interactions with students, via phone or email.
It’s a busy job, but when Bradford isn’t shuttling his daughters to band or glee club, cheering on his LSU Tigers, he’ll be out running, preparing for March’s Zydeco Half-Marathon in Lafayette headphones plugged in and the iPod mini cranked up, blasting out everything from Journey to podcasts to the latest Top 40 hit.
“Man, you never know what might come on,” laughs Bradford.
Bradford cares about serving kids and students because he’s rooted in his community and keeps his eyes fixed on what’s important. That’s served him well because while expanding this program, White and Bradford have faced criticism and pushback. It comes from inside the Louisiana political world and from the teachers unions, but also extends out in the far-reaches of the internet, with Twitter and blogs furthering particularly virulent strains of conspiracy theories.
But Bradford isn’t letting the criticism or controversy bother him.
“I’m an LSU Tigers football fan,” said Bradford, “Coach Les Miles (Head football coach at LSU) is famous for saying that he ignores the criticism and just comes to work and does his best job. That’s what I try to do. There are those who are not in favor of empowering students, but I’m working every day to provide equitable access, for all students, to rigorous courses preparing them for a college degree or a high-wage job. I’m about empowering students.”
About the author
Nathan Martin serves as the State Policy Director of Online and Blended Learning for Digital Learning Now. Previously, he worked as the Director of Policy and Alliances for Scantron, an education technology company focusing on digital learning and assessment. Prior to that, he worked in journalism, producing a nationally-syndicated talk radio show, working for the Washington Post and writing for various newspapers in his home state of Mississippi. Nathan received his undergraduate degree from Patrick Henry College. Contact Nathan at Nathan@excelined.org