Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article said that Hensley was a graduate of Paintsville High School. He was a graduate of Sheldon Clark High School in Martin County.
Dr. Dewey Hensley, who has focused his career on directly helping students achieve success, will retire from Second Street School on Aug. 1.
Hensley became the school’s principal in May 2016, after leaving Jefferson County Public Schools, where he served as chief academic officer.
Hensley, a native of Johnson County in eastern Kentucky, coached basketball for younger students, worked with summer camps and wrote for the sports section of his hometown newspaper while a student atSheldon Clark High School in Martin County. He said the idea of becoming a teacher became a dream when he studied English and philosophy at Berea College in 1982. He joined a group called Students for Appalachia, which allowed him to tutor students and help low-income families in rural areas, shaping his desire to teach.
He said his upbringing shaped the way that he views education. He recognizes that for some students, a good education can change their whole lives. Berea offered free tuition for Hensley, who went to college with “absolutely nothing.” When registering for classes, the woman helping him tried to give him money, he said. He sees teaching and assisting students from low-income backgrounds as his way to give back to his own public education.
“For many students, public education is not ‘a’ difference. It is ‘the’ difference,” Hensley said.
After graduating from Berea, Hensley moved to Louisville and started graduate school at the University of Louisville. He said that the special education program he was in was very influential for him and, while in the program, he started teaching in the classroom. The program was an alternative for college graduates who did not originally study teaching.
His first teaching job was ninth grade English at Fairdale High School in Louisville. He only stayed at the school for one year, as it was a temporary position. Hensley then accepted an offer to teach at Eminence High School in Henry County, where he was an English teacher and the girls basketball head coach for five years. At the time, the high school had low academic performance and a high poverty rate among students.
“In my career, while it hasn’t always worked out that way, I’ve sought the biggest challenges, the places that I felt that I can be the most significant and make the greatest difference,” Hensley said.
Hensley also taught at South Oldham High School in Crestwood. During his tenure there, he was on staff with current Frankfort Independent Schools Superintendent Dr. Houston Barber. Hensley said that working at South Oldham wasn’t his first choice. He had been trying to join the staff of Western High School, another Louisville school, which at the time was also a school with many students living in poverty, but in an urban setting, which was a new challenge for Hensley. Western’s principal did not show for Hensley’s interview and South Oldham gave him a call.
Hensley initially thought that he wouldn’t leave the classroom, but the Kentucky Department of Education recruited him to be part of the Highly Skilled Educator program, an initiative that sought to improve Kentucky school districts’ instruction to increase students’ success. The program taught him that administrative roles lead to more impact on students, help teachers stay on track and keep schools on their mission to educate all students, he said.
After leaving that program in 2002, Hensley sought out principal positions and continued his goal helping of low-performing schools in Kentucky. He was principal at Bates Elementary for two years and then JB Atkinson Elementary, which was the lowest-performing school in the state at the time, for five years. He said one of the biggest changes the school experienced during his tenure was the change in attitudes of students about their own success and where it could take them. Students who thought that college was only accessible by playing basketball or performing rap music realized that it could be a more tangible goal for them, Hensley said. The school also started from zero National Board-certified teachers to 14 and began a partnership with the University of Louisville while Hensley was principal.
Former Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday then asked Hensley to join his staff as an associate commissioner after Holliday visited Atkinson. Holliday charged Hensley with leading an office devoted to turning around schools across the state. Hensley also helped instill more trauma-informed approaches to discipline and data gathering for discipline. He also helped write a waiver for No Child Left Behind. Hensley said the experience taught him a lot about leadership and organizing big school systems.
He then returned to Jefferson County Public Schools as the district’s chief academic officer in 2012, which was a new position at the time for the district. He said that it “had my name written all over it” as the position was charged with improving the district’s academics, teaching and schools. He wanted to ensure that the interaction between students and teachers was strong, which is one of the most important relationships in schools, he said. He ultimately resigned three years later, saying that he felt JCPS was more focused on politics and its own image than supporting students. He wanted to finish his career “doing real work” — helping children and changing the trajectory of their lives.
Hensley looked for the next step. He gave up opportunities to be a superintendent or to work with companies and ultimately chose Frankfort and Second Street School as the place to finish his career. He said that the school district and its board of education are focused on the needs of students. He also said that Barber is “a bright, young leader” who began talking with FIS employees and looked at local demographics.
He said that he is leaving now because he believes SSS has built a great capacity of teachers and staff members who help students grow and that his stepping away can give the school and its staff “more opportunity to shine.” He said that Frankfort has shown him that a community can wrap itself around a school to help students and their families.
“Being here in Frankfort and ending this phase of my career here was a wonderful decision on my part. I appreciate the people and the kids,” Hensley said.
At a November FIS school board meeting, Hensley presented K-PREP test scores from the school for math, reading and writing, according to a previous State Journal article. For the 2017-2018 school year, SSS students from kindergarten to fifth grade increased scores 21 percent and sixth through eighth grades increased 8.5 percent. Social studies scores decreased 14 percent, but Hensley told The State Journal at the time that changes were made to improve scores this year.
Barber said that Hensley will be “sorely missed” when he retires from SSS. He said that he has built a foundation for the school’s future success in the past three years and that Hensley leaves a strong legacy.
“Dewey is one of the greatest leaders that I’ve worked with in my lifetime,” Barber said.
As for what’s next for Hensley, he’s thinking about it. He said some opportunities to train superintendents, principals and teachers as well as some nonprofit work are on the table. He also wants to write, which has been a lifelong passion, and consult with schools that are looking to improve literacy and instruction and build scaffolding to assist students who have great needs.