When McCracken County's Board of Education members watched Michael Ceglinski take the podium Thursday night for a routine school report, they should have known it'd be anything but routine.
"It's a big night for me, gentlemen," Ceglinski told them. "So big that I actually wore real shoes."
Ceglinski, principal of McCracken County High School, stood in dress shoes before the board, press and public and gave a glimpse of the high school's first year, which by many measures was a success.
"We really were trying to unify a county," he explained. "We were trying to bring three schools together, three communities together. And ultimately what we wanted to do was build a school culture at McCracken County that was one like none other."
If the numbers are any indication, it's a culture in which McCracken County students are thriving.
In the high school's first year, its junior class achieved the highest average ACT scores the district has seen. With an average composite score of 20.3, an average score of 20.0 for English, 19.5 for math, 20.7 for reading and 20.5 for science, the school beat the district's bests, as well as state averages.
The percentage of students meeting college readiness benchmarks on their End of Course Assessments improved even more markedly than the district's ACT scores.
For example, 41.1 percent of students met their benchmarks for algebra II in their first year at McCracken compared to 31.9 percent of students districtwide when students were split into Lone Oak, Heath and Reidland. Their success rates in English, U.S. history and biology jumped by 2.2, 7.7 and 10.2 percentage points, respectively.
McCracken also saw a significant increase in the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses.
In 2010, 158 students took 243 AP assessments districtwide (across Lone Oak, Heath and Reidland high schools). Last year, 407 students took 672 AP assessments at the consolidated county school. This year, 475 McCracken students have enrolled in AP courses and plan to take 903 AP assessments.
As for enrollment, that number is also up. As of Thursday, McCracken had 1,942 students, compared to 1,894 at the same time last year - 48 more Mustangs.
Looking forward, Ceglinski plans to stay the course.
"When I get asked, 'Mr. Ceglinski, what are you guys doing this year?': the same thing we did last year," he told the school board. "
We're not diverting from anything other than keeping our kids at the core of our heart and trying to do things for their benefit."
Regarding his choice in footwear, Ceglinski said he doesn't wear Chuck Taylor sneakers to school every day because they're fashionable. He wears them because the kids love them. He wants to keep the focus on the kids, making them feel loved and at home in their new school.
He acknowledged that as a school their successes will often be determined by their trophies and test scores - and they want those things too - but that their first year's success runs deeper.
"All of the opportunities that have been created because of unifying the three schools, and the things that we're able to do: Kids are finding a place," he said.
Perhaps the best indicators of the school's success are the students themselves. Several days before Ceglinski's presentation to the school board, three McCracken seniors - one formerly of Lone Oak, one of Heath, and one of Reidland - gathered to discuss their family, the "Stang Gang."
When asked how being a Mustang feels in comparison to being a Flash, a Pirate or a Greyhound, senior Madison Gleen answered, "I would absolutely hate to be anything other than a Mustang."
"I feel like it's different than before, because there was so much tradition," senior Madison Lane added. "But now we're making our own tradition. Before it was already made for us, but now we can make it ourselves."
"I feel like there's a little pressure to set the standard high," Gleen said.
"But even last year we set it so high!" senior Jason Armstrong completed the thought.
"Even if we set the bar high, we'll just keep it high," Lane said, "and we'll stay there."
Contact Genevieve Postlethwait, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.