Leestown Middle School in Fayette County has suffered persistently low scores on statewide tests, so last year, the staff decided to take a new yet traditional focus: reading and vocabulary.
The school organized literacy teams across every content area, created new schoolwide vocabulary tests, and taught students skills such as annotation, so they would get more meaning out of what they read.
It apparently worked. Leestown gained six points on the statewide K-PREP test according to results released Friday. It was one of the biggest gains in Fayette County.
The school has a long way to go, moving up to only 44.2 out of 100, but principal Cynthia Lawson said the results will help her students — 90 percent of whom receive free and reduced lunch — think they can achieve.
"They didn't start out with all the advantages, but with hard work and understanding, they can do it," Lawson said. "We know we can do better."
Leestown was part of a generally successful day for Fayette County schools. Overall, the district moved from a "needs improvement" status to a "proficient" one, with an overall score of 59.8.
The overall district met its goal, as did 27 individual schools — including all five high schools. But 25 schools failed to meet the state goals.
Twenty-eight schools made some progress, and four moved up into the "proficient" range: Dixie, Lansdowne and Sandersville elementaries, and Southern Middle School. Four schools also moved into the "distinguished" range: Wellington Elementary; and Henry Clay, Lafayette and Dunbar high schools. Ten others held on to that top tier from the year before.
"We did make good progress," Superintendent Tom Shelton said at a news conference Thursday. "We're excited about the progress that's been made; we know we have a long way to go. As we continue to move forward in this new accountability system, we know we'll do better and better."
Although still a "needs improvement" school, Bryan Station High School moved up 5 points to 52.9. Principal Mike Henderson said he thinks students are beginning to understand that it's not enough to get a high school degree, that they have to come out of school ready to excel in higher education or a career.
"Every day we spend time talking to the kids, changing the attitude they have toward school," he said. "The academic culture is a huge part of how they will do," Henderson said.
Deep Springs Elementary moved up almost 10 points, and although it is still considered to need improvement, it was deemed a "high progress" school for being one of the biggest gainers in the state.
Principal Adam Kirk said his teachers are core content experts.
"I'm so proud that test scores are showing the effort they've put forth," he said.
Fayette's usual highlights continued this year, with Veterans Park Elementary and Bluegrass SCAPA listed in the top 10 schools in the state. But Shelton said concerns remain, with 21 schools deemed as "focus schools," because minority, low-income or special-needs children underperformed compared with peers statewide.
"We have to make sure we continue to try to do different things to close those gaps," Shelton said.
Booker T. Washington Academy made a three-point jump and was put in the progressing category, but it remains a focus school.
William Wells Brown Elementary is among the lowest-scoring elementary schools in the state at 38.9.
Shelton said Fayette's central office was reorganizing "to better serve and support those schools."
Shelton says that with the new system, he thinks children are spending less time on testing and more time on mastering core-content standards "that are deeper, that are internationally benchmarked and that are more rigorous."
He said the district will continue to work on areas that are no longer tested, such as the arts, which Fayette County parents want to see expanded across the district.
Top 10 districts
Anchorage Independent 80
Beechwood Independent 76.4
Fort Thomas Independent 74.3
Murray Independent 72
Marshall County 68.3
Jackson Independent 68
Science Hill Independent 67.7
Corbin Independent 67.2
Walton-Verona Ind. 67.1
Pikeville Independent 67Bottom 10 districts
Newport Independent 41.6
Silver Grove Independent 43
Caverna Independent 43.1
Covington Independent 44.3
Russellville Independent 46.2
Monticello Independent 47.5
Robertson County 47.5
Elliott County 48.7
Fulton Independent 48.7
Frankfort Independent 48.8
Source: Kentucky Department of Education
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.