School doesn’t start for most Fayette County students until Aug. 14, but two Lexington schools that are trying longer hours and an extended year to raise achievement began classes Thursday.
Transformed this year into the district’s first ‘Promise Academy’ schools, William Wells Brown Elementary and Harrison Elementary will give students intensive instruction and enrichment activities. The two are among seven elementary schools in the district designated by the Kentucky Department of Education as Comprehensive Support and Improvement or CSI schools because of low performance. Both are also high poverty schools.
At Harrison, teacher Kara Traub told her fifth graders school was going to look different this year and that expectations would be higher because they were the student leaders in the building. Principal Tammie Franks led the class in chanting “We are the best.”
“I was talking to them about how they are a really intelligent group, however, to get to where they need to be they are going to have to work a little bit harder and to work maybe in a different way than they have before,” Traub said. “I told them I’m going to be doing everything I can to present them with new knowledge, however, it’s up to them ... to really make the knowledge mean something to them.”
At William Wells Brown, cheerleaders and football players from Lexington’s Frederick Douglass High School cheered the students as they arrived, said Principal Jay Jones Jr. Several of the district’s Central Office leaders were helping Thursday at both schools, and as of mid-morning, the principals said they had no problems.
Superintendent Manny Caulk said the Promise Academy “is delivering on a promise that families hold near and dear, which are their hopes and dreams for their children.”
“No more is it acceptable that a student’s demography determines their destiny,” Caulk said.
Promise Academies are not schools that teach students to take statewide tests, he said.
“This is a model where not only are students going to get the intervention and support that they need but they also get more exposure to the arts, to world language, to science, experiential field trips that connect to learning, project-based learning,” said Caulk.
Every weekday except for Wednesday, students will attend school until 4:15 p.m. instead of the 2:35 p.m. dismissal time that most elementary schools have.
“Our students needed time to get intervention,” said Franks. “With the regular school day, our students were growing, but not fast enough to close the gaps or to go from novice to proficient,” which are labels in the state school testing system.
This year, students at Harrison will have an enriched curriculum with dance, music and drama, Franks said, and more arts projects in collaboration with outside groups such as the Lexington Children’s Theater and the Explorium children’s museum. Learning will be deeper with the goal of kids being ready for college and careers. Performing arts and academics will be integrated throughout the school day.
On the fifth day of the week when classes dismiss at 2:35 p.m., teachers will get training opportunities, Franks said. The school year at the Promise Academies will now last about 11 days longer. Caulk said last school year, some students were already attending school until 4:30 pm in accelerated learning labs, so for them, the extra time won’t seem that different.
The academies will forge more positive relationships with families. Both schools have new family centers where family members can get their high school equivalency diplomas, search for a job, or learn about health and wellness. “Anything to equip and empower our parents,” Jones said.
At William Wells Brown, Faith Thompson, chief of Fayette elementary schools, said teachers have gone on tours of the neighborhoods where their students live and on home visits.
Outside the William Wells Brown building Thursday, grandmother Vickie Mundy who said she had family members attending the school and Toccara Douglas, whose daughter is a student, said kids are happier at the new academy.
“I love it,” said Douglas, “I think its going to be... a big change.”
The schools have new uniforms of collared shirts and khaki pants or skirts. “Everybody feels equal” and kids don’t feel “out of place” if they don’t have name brand clothing, said Mundy. That helps them put their “brains to work,” she said.
“We’re going to give access and opportunity to our students,” said Jones. “They deserve it. We want to make sure we give them the time they need to master the standards, time to get enrichment experiences and get a well-rounded education.”
Students will get more time individualized instruction in reading and math, Jones said. The school will have an equine focus because it sits on the grounds of an old racetrack, he said.
This coming school year, Caulk said, Fayette County Public Schools will try to create ‘Promise Neighborhoods’ to enhance opportunities for families in residential areas around the Promise Academies.
“We know that as the school grows and students grow,” said Jones, “the community is going to grow as well.”