David Clark, a social worker at Tates Creek High School, used to go to Lexington restaurants and see former students who'd had grades good enough to go to college but who were flipping burgers.
Clark says he used to ask them: Why didn't you go to college? The former students would say they didn't know they could.
That's not the case at Tates Creek these days.
On Saturday morning, more than 65 students are expected to board a bus headed across town for the ACT college admissions test at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.
Saturday's trip is the culmination of a program led by Clark to improve ACT scores and give more students chances to receive college scholarships.
"I'm trying to get these kids to dream, to believe in academics ... that they can push themselves and be anything they want to be," he said.
Fayette County Public Schools chief academic officer Lu Young said high schools across the district have geared up to ensure that students are more successful on the ACT, which she says is the cornerstone measure of college readiness in Kentucky. Lexington's high schools have provided additional support for students who historically are not as well prepared for the ACT as traditional college-going students, Young said.
Clark said he talks to students who could be susceptible to the achievement gap — which includes ethnic minorities, those considered to be in poverty and those with limited English proficiency. However, the program is open to students from all socio-economic situations and all races. Most students maintain a grade point average of at least 2.5 on a 4.0 scale, he said.
Clark said he has about 69 students — 55 black, three Hispanic, about seven white and four Arab American — this year. He estimates that at least 85 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.
Miles Dunn, 16, a junior, said he has learned from Clark's program how to manage his time for the 2½ -hour test. Since he joined Clark's group, Dunn said, he has new strategies to raise his score and "to improve on certain subjects."
He got one of the highest scores in the group on a recent practice test.
When Clark started the program 10 years ago, he said, some students were getting a score of 16 and 17 out of a possible 36. Over the years, he has learned what works and what doesn't, and the scores have improved. Last year, a few students earned a score of a 33, he said.
To prepare the students, Clark holds five workshops with the help of Kaplan Test Prep, which offers classes on standardized tests. After the workshops focusing on math and English, students take a practice test.
Kaplan ACT instructor Steve Bartley said ACT classes can cost $700 per student, but he's working with Clark's program for free. "As a public service, we do some volunteer work," Bartley said.
As a foundation for his program, Clark uses a concept that he learned as a University of Kentucky football player in the 1970s: "practice, practice, practice." He also tries to get students in the group to think of themselves as a team. Clark said that he helped UK athletes with academic achievement in the 1990s, and he used that experience in building Tates Creek's ACT program.
Dominique Heckard, 17, a senior, said her ACT scores are "getting better than when I took it last year."
In addition to the program at Tates Creek, Young said, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School's Principal Betsy Rains has said that all juniors at Dunbar High were given a diagnostic practice ACT test in September, and those results have been loaded into an online practice ACT website that's available to students 24 hours a day.
The site provides students with a summary sheet highlighting their strongest and weakest skills. There are corresponding lesson plans and quizzes linked to students' weakest skills. Dunbar also plans to begin weekly after-school tutoring sessions starting in November.
Juniors will take a final prep practice test the week before they take the ACT on March 3. In addition, a Dunbar social worker sponsors a "Leaders in the Making" group whose members receive additional ACT tutoring and support from a Dunbar science teacher.
One of the district's smaller programs, at the Family Care Center, received a grant to provide a certified teacher who is fluent in Spanish to be a tutor and ACT prep teacher for students in the morning hours (all students, but especially Hispanic students, in small groups and one on one).
Young said the additional attention that schools are paying to ACT prep, along with the aligned end-of-course assessment process and the adoption of the common core, have resulted in consistent gains on the ACT across the district.
"We believe that improved performance on the ACT will likely result in more students seeing themselves as college-ready and, in turn, increase the number of students from every demographic group who pursue postsecondary training after high school," she said.