Fayette County

Bryan Station Middle School tries all-girl classrooms and daily exercise to raise student achievement

From left, Pekorce Gabriel, Malachi Mendoza and Gerardo Sangabriel, all age 12, threw baskets during gym class at Bryan Station Middle School. The school is taking several measures to raise student achievement and close the achievement gap between disabled, minority and poor students and others.
From left, Pekorce Gabriel, Malachi Mendoza and Gerardo Sangabriel, all age 12, threw baskets during gym class at Bryan Station Middle School. The school is taking several measures to raise student achievement and close the achievement gap between disabled, minority and poor students and others. palcala@herald-leader.com

At Lexington’s Bryan Station Middle School, said principal Lester Diaz, “we don’t see test scores, we see kids.”

Nonetheless, Diaz told Fayette County school board members Monday that he is taking some different approaches to raising student achievement, including creating some all-female classrooms, having students take daily gym and wellness courses, and Saturday tutoring.

Bryan Station Middle raised its overall score in the state accountability system from 51.8 out of 100 in 2013-14 to 54.8 in 2014-15. The school is still classified by the Kentucky Department of Education as “needs improvement/progressing” rather than “proficient.” Bryan Station Middle also has a significant achievement gap between minority, disabled and poor students and others, putting it in the “focus school” category by the Kentucky Department of Education.

“Those percentile numbers worry me,” Diaz said in a Herald-Leader interview. “I’m pretty positive that our scores are going to continue to go up.”

In one effort to improve, Diaz said the school has been trying some all-female classes because boys and girls learn differently, and teachers tailor assignments to raise achievement among girls.

Renita Wilburn, director of the school’s Girls Academy, said the teachers build a rapport with students and their families. In an academic enhancement class, Wilburn teaches the girls about the importance of good character and being a leader, about how to prepare for an academic test, how to stay organized and how to study. Diaz said students in the Girls Academy are identified as being part of the achievement gap population, but as a result of the program, several are no longer considered low achieving.

At Bryan Station Middle, 46.9 percent of the approximately 664 students are white, 32.8 percent are black and 14 percent are Hispanic. Sixty percent of the school’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, according to Kentucky Department of Education data.

At Monday’s school board meeting, board vice chairman Melissa Bacon said she was impressed by the fact that the number of white, black and Hispanic staff mirror the demographics of the children.

The school serves children in a magnet Spanish immersion program in which native English-speaking students learn academic subjects such as science, social studies, math and language arts in Spanish. Those students are performing in the top tier in the state because students, parents and teachers are engaged in achieving, Diaz said.

The same building, Diaz said, serves a traditional neighborhood school for students whose homes are assigned to Bryan Station Middle through the district’s attendance zone decisions. Some of those students struggle academically, he said.

Diaz changed schedules for those seventh- and eighth-grade students this fall, introducing math and reading labs for students who need extra help.

Every non-magnet student attends academic enhancement classes that gives them support in areas where they need to catch up, he said

With daily gym classes, “we are fighting childhood obesity and we are trying to oxygenate the brain so that they can go back into the classroom with a higher degree of focus.”

Eighth-grader Bryson Fields said daily gym classes are making him and fellow students “a lot more focused” in the classroom.

Giving the students the outlet of 45 minutes of daily exercise has improved behavior, Diaz said.

“We really focus on developing those great habits of lifetime fitness,” Garry McPeek, a wellness teacher, said.

Diaz, who has been the school’s principal for four years, said the staff is trying strategies that help students grow academically.

He said the administration is working with teachers to help them engage students.

“We’re not even close to perfect,” Diaz said. He said some teachers are comfortable with teaching the way they taught 10 or 15 years ago and others take new research and training he provides and implement those new techniques fully.

In general, Diaz said, teachers are trying to let students know exactly what they did wrong on assignments and give them a chance to correct it, he said.

The more specific the feedback the teachers give, the better the students perform. Some students are getting three years of academic growth in one year, he said.

“We care about them as a person and we prove it to them,” Diaz said.

“I’ve noticed that the teachers really do care about all the students here and they want to see us do our best,” said Bryson.

Allison Peare,who teaches seventh-grade language arts, told school board members she gave her students a piece of paper on this Thanksgiving week, telling them why she was thankful for them.

If students feel valued, Peare said in an interview, “then they are going to do well in the classroom.”

Mentors from the community are also helping the students, Diaz said.

Bryson said a program called Alpha League in which adult mentors come to Bryan Station Middle to work with 18 students has helped him build leadership skills.

Christian Adair, adviser and founder of Alpha League, said the boys in his group do everything from helping teachers with chores around the school to teaching other male students how to tie a necktie.

“Our mission is to become leaders, promote excellence and provide community service to our school with class and dignity,” Bryson said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

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