When school begins at the Carter G. Woodson Academy, the first order of business is a uniform check.
The academy's 100 scholars line up in the gym, then take a moment to make sure their crisp, navy blue blazers are neat.
Maliq Trigg, a 7th-grader, turns around and helps classmate Donovan Richardson straighten the knot on his black and lavender necktie. The boys then make sure their Sperry Top-Siders are properly tied. Sloppiness is not tolerated at Woodson, an all-male academy.
Next, the boys get a briefing on the Word of the Day, "reveler," which each scholar must master. To help the boys prepare, their parents have pledged to post the word at home on refrigerator doors or other places the boys are sure to see it.
Next, the scholars recite Woodson's student creed, pledging to give their very best, to be disciplined and learn all they can, asserting that "there is no limit to what I can achieve."
Every day at Woodson starts this way: with an unswerving emphasis on purpose, discipline, achievement, neatness and responsibility. To further underscore the serious task at hand, students are called "scholars," and teachers formally address them as "Mr. Smith" or "Mr. Compton."
"We're trying to establish a culture of academic excellence," explains Woodson Program Director Jaynae Laine. "The uniforms, the structure, the discipline, the high expectations, the parental involvement, the engagement with the scholars — they are all important in creating that culture."
Woodson, which the Fayette County Public Schools opened this year at Crawford Middle School, is unique in the district. It is closely patterned after "Black Males Working" or BMW, a private educational enrichment program for young black males that was launched in 2005 by First Baptist Church Bracktown. BMW, which the church continues to operate, has helped many young black males boost their grades in preparation for college or careers.
Fayette County schools officials are hoping Woodson Academy can produce similar results and help the district close persistent achievement gaps, particularly among young black males.
Despite overall achievement growth in recent years, young black males in the Fayette schools continue to trail their white counterparts.
For example, 69.43 percent of white males in grades 3 through 9 scored at or above grade level on the "MAP" reading test last spring, compared to 34 percent for black males. In reading, 71 percent of white boys were at or above grade level, compared to about 36 percent among their black counterparts.
Fayette County isn't alone. Black-white achievement gaps are common across the country, and they are one of most vexing problems facing educators trying to prepare kids for life in increasingly competitive world.
Unlike the BMW program, which is exclusively for black males, the Woodson Academy accepts applications from all boys in the Fayette Schools in grades 6 through 9 regardless of race.
Fayette Schools officials already plan to expand the program to include 10th grade next year. An additional grade would be added each year after that, eventually including 6th through 12th grades, with total enrollment reaching about 200.
Like the BMW program that inspired it, Woodson demands much of kids and their parents.
Every scholar is expected to read for 60 minutes each day; attend after-school tutoring if needed; take extra tutoring on Saturdays if needed; maintain a 3.0 GPA to participate in extra-curricular activities; constantly strive for excellence; and adhere to the Woodson creed.
Parents are expected to ensure that their sons finish homework and come to school prepared; limit TV time and social media use; visit the academy at least four times a year to confer with teachers; and help with fund-raising.
Woodson officials say their rigorous approach already shows promise.
"If you compare kids' grades this year versus their mid-term grades in regular public schools last year, there's improvement in quite a few kids," says Roszalyn Akins, a retired Fayette County teacher who is the academy's academic dean. "We're already seeing more seriousness among the kids, more of a sense that 'we have to do this,' that this is expected. I think the grades reflect that."
Akins said it is only a hint of what Woodson can accomplish.
Akins founded BMW at First Baptist Bracktown where her husband, the Rev. C.B. Akins, is pastor.
Long concerned by consistently low reading and math scores among young black males in the Fayette schools, Roszalyn Akins was determined to do something. About 2005, she started inviting black boys to the church each Saturday for intense tutoring in math, reading, history and languages, plus healthy doses of discipline, motivation and personal responsibility. Eventually, more than 100 kids signed on.
All the work paid off.
After five years, district officials say, BMW students were 36 percent more likely to score at proficient level in reading and 26 percent more likely to score proficient in math than their peers who didn't participate in BMW. Students in BMW also scored 7 points higher on the ACT than peers who didn't participate.
In addition to rigorous tutoring, BMW tried to inspire its students by taking them on visits to colleges around the country.
This year, 30 of 34 BMW graduates are enrolled in college.
One of them is James Guyton. When BMW flew about 30 students to visit Prairie View A&M University in Texas in 2010, Guyton took along his trumpet. On his own, he arranged an audition at the school's music department and promptly won a scholarship. He's now on the dean's list at Prairie View, Roszalyn Akins says.
"He did this all by himself, and this is a young man who was very quiet and shy when he started in BMW," she said.
Because of such success stories, Fayette County Schools officials started looking for ways to duplicate the BMW model in the public school system about two years ago, said Stu Silberman, who was then superintendent.
"We looked at what was Bracktown doing and saw the results they were getting with a one-day program on Saturdays," Silberman said. "Our thought was that if you could do that with a one-day program, what results could we get if it was five days a week?"
The Fayette Board of Education authorized creation of the Woodson Academy in June 2011 as Silberman was retiring. Tom Shelton, who succeeded him, quickly bought into the concept.
"Once I saw the success of students who'd been in BMW, it made perfect sense," Shelton said. "To me, it was an incredible opportunity."
According to Shelton, Fayette allocated about $700,000 to get Woodson up and running. If it produces the results hoped for, that could prove to be one of the district's smartest investments.
There was immediate interest when officials announced the new academy at Crawford. Families applied from across the district, and all 100 available slots were quickly filled.
The academy functions as a school-within-a-school at Crawford, which was selected as the program site because it had available space. The academy has its own entrance to the building, its own pod of classrooms and its own faculty and staff.
Fayette schools officials say Crawford has the space to accommodate the planned expansion of the Woodson Academy over the next few years.
Meanwhile, Shelton says, the Fayette schools already have received inquiries from other districts, including Jefferson County and Christian County, interested in creating similar programs.
"We've already seen the success BMW has had," Shelton said. "Now, having a complete program based on BMW at Woodson, I definitely think it's going to be a big part of how we close our achievement gaps."
An adjustment period
The first few weeks at Woodson were a cultural shock for many students.
There was homework every night, community service to perform, teachers who cut no slack for anyone.
Every day at Woodson had a name — Motivational Monday, Tenacious Tuesday, Wise Wednesday — all stressing hard work. Mottoes such as "Zeros Aren't Permitted" decorate the wall, designed to challenge the scholars.
"We had boys saying, 'You all are so hard, we've never been pushed like this, we've never had homework every night,'" Roszalyn Akins said. "The hardest part was helping them see that what we're doing is for their good. We are going to push you. Even if it's kicking and screaming, you are going to be pushed."
Students like Leander Ridgeway, 14, and Dion Compton, 13, both of whom previously were in the BMW program, caught on quickly.
"At first, everybody was kind of questioning whether to stay or not because it's different from a traditional middle school," Leander said. "But now I think everybody is getting comfortable here."
Adds Dion: "We're all on the same page now — everybody knows what's expected. The teachers really care for you, they treat you as if you were their son. They make sure you succeed."
Parents are pleased.
Danielle Sanders says her sons Darius, 11, and Donovan, 13, have made good progress since coming to Woodson
"Darius had some behavior issues and needed somebody who would kind of stay in his face; this year I haven't had any calls about him," Sanders said. "Donovan needed academic help. Now he's taking Chinese and loves it. He comes home every day and wants to tell me what he's learned."
Woodson students take regular core content classes with world languages, arts and humanities and culture-specific electives available.
David Cozart's son, Zachary, 14, attends Woodson. Zachary previously was in BMW.
"The first few days I asked him how he liked the academy, and he said pretty emphatically that he didn't," Cozart said. "I wasn't alarmed, because if a teenage boy loves the environment he's in, it probably lacks some elements that he needs. The components that I think he needs in the education system are here."