Education

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School tries new approaches to cut student achievement gap

Holly Link worked with her English Language Learning, or ELL, class at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School on Friday. Some students are not literate in their native languages.
Holly Link worked with her English Language Learning, or ELL, class at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School on Friday. Some students are not literate in their native languages. Herald-Leader

One in 10 students at Lexington's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School can't speak English fluently.

That's a significant shift from 2007, when only 18 students were learning English. In 2014-15, that number had grown to 211.

Dunbar is known for its status as a "proficient/progressing" school in the state accountability system and for its prestigious Math, Science and Technology Center for gifted and talented students.

Perhaps less known is that Dunbar has a significant achievement gap between minority, disabled and poor students and others, classifying it as a "focus school" by the Kentucky Department of Education.

Principal Betsy Rains said about 177 of the students learning English are Hispanic. The school also has seen an increase in refugee students "with limited or no formal schooling," and a number of students are "coming to us from other countries rooted in conflict and war," she said.

Some students are not literate in their native languages.

An estimated 50 percent of all students at Dunbar are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. About 168 students are in special education classes.

In all, 1,000 of the 2,377 students at Dunbar are considered minority, disabled or living in poverty, Rains said.

Of one group of 526 students who were tested in 2013-14, 137 tested in the "novice" category instead of "proficient" or higher; 127 of the 137 were considered "gap" students.

Rains and her staff told the school board in September that Dunbar has an aggressive plan to reduce the number of novice learners and to close the achievement gap.

The number of novice learners increased from 2013 to 2014, according to Rains.

"That is obviously not what we want," she said.

Tonya Merritt, an administrative dean at Dunbar, said the number of novice learners had fluctuated over the past three years but had not decreased.

Dunbar is trying to fix that with a schoolwide literacy plan, smaller algebra and English classes, and small group and individual instruction.

However, Merritt said, "It's very challenging to move a student out of novice when they enter high school performing at, or below, the fifth-grade level. "

As part of the plan, Elizabeth Pelphrey, also an administrative dean at Dunbar, said several teachers had opted for a new grading system that showed what students know and can do rather than a traditional grading system.

Associate principal Andrea Tinsley said the school had hired two extra teachers to help students struggling in English and math.

One school goal is to increase the proficiency among gap students in reading from 39 percent to 59.2 percent.

Erin Adcock, a behavior coach, said Dunbar had opened a night school. But she said a lack of transportation was a barrier.

Antonio Blackman, another associate principal, said Dunbar had teamed with Leestown Middle School and Bryan Station High School for a program called L-STEAM, in which Latino students take college-bound courses in science and math.

And Dunbar staff has reached into the professional Hispanic community to find mentors.

Associate principal Nancy Hill said a program called Gear Up Kentucky also was helping all students who might be the first in their families to attend college.

Dunbar social worker Steve Duerson is working to get students with a high number of unexcused absences back in class.

Meanwhile, Dunbar has had a program for about five years that essentially eliminates out-of-school suspensions in favor of an in-school suspension program.

Rains said Dunbar hasn't had any repeated offenses this year that would require an out-of-school suspension.

Some of the barriers in closing the achievement gap at Dunbar include the school needing more support for students with mental health issues and more support for students learning English, Rains said.

Dunbar's student-to-teacher ratio for teachers specialized in helping students learn the English language is 65-1.

School board member Melissa Bacon said she thought the board could help provide more support for students learning English.

And board member Doug Barnett suggested the board would work on the after-school transportation issues, perhaps in conjunction with the Urban County Government.

Board chairman John Price said the Dunbar staff had been proactive in trying to close the achievement gap.

"We as a district haven't been as successful as we want to be with our gap students," Price said.

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