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Arts, chess part of plan to boost school scores

The Fayette County school board has chosen two downtown Lexington schools to receive $1.2 million to hire more teachers and offer chess, violin, foreign language and art instruction.

The extra funds will go to Harrison and the newly built William Wells Brown elementaries to improve test scores at two schools that have struggled.

“I'm extremely excited because for once I think we can truly truly get done what we need to get done with our kids,” said William Wells Brown's principal, Yvonne Peace. “You just need more help, you just need more people, that's what it boils down to.”

Schools in Kentucky face dual mandates that require academic goals to be met by 2014. Under the state accountability system, known as the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS, all schools are expected to achieve a total score of 100 out of 140 that year. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires all students to have reached proficiency on state reading and math tests by 2014.

“We're at 2008 ... We need to figure out ways to help our schools make significant turnarounds,” said Fayette Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman.

Using a review of schools nationwide that are similar to Harrison and Brown and had made quick improvements, Fayette County asked schools to come up with their own proposals. The plans submitted by Harrison, between West Short and West Second streets, and William Wells Brown, on East Fifth Street, were chosen for funding.

“There's a lot of talk about helping schools and expectations for schools and this is our time to go in and do something about it,” Silber­man said. “Not that we haven't before, but this is a significant and intensive intervention.”

School board chairman Larry Conner said he was sold by the “dynamic presentations” both school principals gave for their plans to raise student achievement.

“The populations of those schools are a lot different than those of suburban schools,” he said. “They have transient student populations, kids from single-family homes, just students with a lot of different needs.”

The $1.2 million will come from the district's general fund budget, but both schools also receive federal Title 1 funds, set aside for schools with high populations of low-income students.

William Wells Brown is a new school that will replace Johnson Elementary, which is closing and at one time was the lowest-performing school in the district. Last year, Johnson's CATS score was 71.7 out of 140, and the year before it was 58.7. The school did not meet federal No Child Left Behind goals last year.

This year all William Wells Brown students will have access to violin instruction twice a week. Students in grades two through five will have chess lessons at least once a week; and students in grades four and five will be exposed to other forms of art instruction every Friday for two hours. Also, kindergartners through third-graders will have five teachers per grade level, and grades four and five will have two teachers per class.

Peace spent eight years at Ashland Elementary, which infused the curriculum with arts education a few years ago. Ashland's standardized test scores have steadily improved in the past few years.

“There are so many connections with the arts and academic achievement,” Peace said.

Harrison has made significant jumps in the past few years, posting 75.6 on the state CATS tests last year and a score of 66.6 the year before. It also met federal targets. That school will now have two additional teachers per grade level. The additional teachers will help the 16 lowest-performing students in every grade.

All grades will have Spanish lessons; kindergarten through second-grade will have violin lessons; and third- through fifth-grade students will have keyboard lessons. Students also will have after-school tutoring in arts and humanities.

Principal Tammie Franks said this program will push students to the next level.

“The difference in this approach is the explicit intentionality for teaching each child where they are,” she said. “We are not reinventing the wheel. We are doing what other schools that have reached 100 in a year are doing.”

Both schools also will benefit from district help, with all three elementary school directors working together to assist them. Julie Hawkins, one of the three directors, said the team will be checking in on daily progress students make in reading and math.

“With two or three teachers in one room, it's really looking at education different,” she said. “I feel confident it's going to work.”

District officials hope to phase the plans out over the next few years once the schools have reached a point where they can sustain academic success.

“Schools will eventually be self-sufficient,” Silberman said. “We just wanted to figure out an immediate way to really help our high-poverty schools.”