PTA, residents push for improvements at Lexington's William Wells Brown Elementary

DeShunta Wright-Fields, president of the William Wells Brown PTA, with her daughter Alexiah, 6.
DeShunta Wright-Fields, president of the William Wells Brown PTA, with her daughter Alexiah, 6. Herald-Leader

In the fall of 2013, DeShunta Wright-Fields initially did not want her daughter to start kindergarten at Lexington's William Wells Brown Elementary, a school that would rank in the bottom 10 elementary schools in the state that following spring.

But when Alexiah Fields did not get into a magnet program, Wright-Fields said she had little choice. A teacher at William Wells convinced her to stay and work to make things better.

That was a difficult decision for Wright-Fields, who said she had attended Cassidy Elementary and Morton Middle School, schools with higher test scores. She wanted her daughter to receive that same kind of educational experience.

The news got worse for William Wells Brown when test scores were released in October, and it received the lowest score in the state among elementary schools.

Now as the president of the William Wells Brown Elementary PTA, Wright-Fields is part of a fight to help the school improve. She said the PTA is reaching out "to get parents involved and to help students succeed."

Wright-Fields is an example of dozens of people who are stepping forward to help William Wells Brown.

For the 2013-14 year, William Wells Brown received the lowest score among elementary schools in Kentucky's testing and accountability program at 34.4 out of 100. When that was announced last month, the United Way of the Bluegrass began working on a program to bring in about 400 adult volunteers to mentor each student.

Last week, Fayette County Public Schools officials met with teachers, and a service team was at the school to begin implementing an intensive plan, said Chief Academic Officer Lu Young. The district team also has been meeting with parents, students and neighbors.

Young said "there is a coordinated, boots-on-the-ground effort to infuse the school with the support that they need to move forward."

Other Lexington leaders say they have reached out to principal Jay Jones Jr., who first came to the school in the fall of 2013 and who has told the Herald-Leader he has the hardest working teachers in town.

As of Oct.1, 89 percent of the students were eligible for free and reduced price lunches. Of the approximately 430 students, 67 percent of the students were black and 12 percent were Hispanic.

The state test scores struck a chord for people all over the city, but especially in northeast Lexington, an area near the school stressed by extreme poverty. Residents who don't have children at the school are trying to help. Tanya Torp, president of William Wells Brown Neighborhood Association, said her group and others will be going door to door to assess what the community's greatest needs are in order to help the students at William Wells Brown.

"We believe that the scores are indicative of systemic justice issues, not merely one cause," said Torp. "We are dealing with a lack of affordable housing, a lack of living wage jobs, and we are always looking for partners that do not merely parachute in with ideas of change, but those who are willing to engage and empower residents through long-standing relationships and action. Systemic issues cannot change overnight."

Torp said members of the neighborhood association want "to partner with other efforts, additional to what is already being done in the school, to help improve the test scores at William Wells Brown."

High hopes

There were high hopes for William Wells Brown when it was envisioned about 10 years ago.

It was intended to be an innovative school with state-of-the-art equipment that anchored the redevelopment of an area northeast of downtown. The school, which is about six years old, is at the center of an area that was transformed from rows of project houses in Bluegrass Aspendale to dozens of privately owned single-family homes.

William Wells is described as a community school — a place that focuses on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement. The vision was for the school to blaze a path for student learning, stronger families and healthier communities.

Billie Mallory, who lives near the school and is a member of the neighborhood association, said William Wells Brown has yet to live up to those expectations.

"It's never reached its potential," she said.

Mallory, a former teacher, said there needs to be a better plan to make it a community school.

"Achievement scores is not the only measure of success," Mallory said. "Parental involvement would be a measure of success."

Engaging more parents is among the goals Wright-Fields wants to accomplish.

The PTA is soliciting donations of books and holding fundraisers, Wright-Fields said. The PTA is creating night events so students can concentrate on math or reading.

Until now, Wright-Fields said, the school has had a fledging PTA because it was hard to get parents involved.

But she said the PTA is growing. On Nov. 13, the PTA board is having a meeting to talk about membership and "what we can do to bring those test scores up."

Jones told the Herald-Leader last month that he and his staff had some help from the district last year in an effort to raise test scores, and he saw gains in both math and reading scores. He made some staff changes over the summer. A stronger teacher force is working on improving daily lessons, he said.

Young said there will be volunteers working with students after school and that students from the University of Kentucky College of Education have started helping out since the test scores were announced. Schools of public policy, nursing, law and agriculture at UK have also offered their services, according to United Way officials.

Moving forward

Gary Cremeans, United Way Volunteer Engagement Manager, said at least 30 people have asked the United Way how they can help. The short-term goal is to establish training with Fayette County Public Schools.

Jones, the principal, said Friday that the school was creating a plan to train the volunteers and "equip them to be successful with our students."

"We want the help and we appreciate all the love and support that people want to provide for our school. We just want to make sure that everyone is prepared," he said.

The United Way wants to get background checks completed quickly on 50 to 100 people and get them started on training. People might be able to choose a number of ways to participate, including academic mentoring and tutoring and spending time with students, said Cremeans.

The United Way is putting together a plan for businesses, the faith community, the University of Kentucky and others to help. Volunteers will be asked to help out for at least one hour each week.

"I think there is a certain sense of urgency that this project has brought as it relates to health and human services issues in this community," said Bill Farmer, president of the United Way of the Bluegrass. "I think that this was a wake-up call, a clarion call, to the community as a whole. ... We can do better and will do better as a collective community."

Farmer said there should be a strong adult advocate for every child."

There are several other schools in Lexington that are rated as "needs improvement" in the state testing system, Farmer said. The ultimate goal, he said, is for William Wells Brown to become a model; then the program could be replicated at other schools.

Meanwhile, Young said she thinks the district's efforts in regard to William Wells also can be a model in how to mobilize resources, including volunteers, in a purposeful way.

Farmer said there are parents who want to be engaged in their child's education but can't because of work. Hopefully, mentors will provide assistance where the parent can't, he said.

Lexington police Sgt. Rahsaan Berry, who heads a community effort called "We Care," said he told principal Jones that he would personally help parents and students in any way possible to raise test scores.

"Whatever it takes," said Berry. "I want to be more involved with that school."

Sharon Chiles, a member of Shiloh Baptist Church, which sits about four blocks down from the school, said the church recognizes students who make straight A's and makes other donations.

But Chiles said she wants to volunteer as a mentor as well.

"There are some bright students there, but evidently that's not influencing the test scores as much as we'd like for it to, " Chiles said.

KET producer and host Renee Shaw said she is a member of a service organization called the Frankfort/Lexington Chapter of the Links Inc. that wants to help. "What we want is training," said Shaw. "Teach us how to be mentors. Help us be good ambassadors of Lexington and to help these young people. I'm a benefactor of people who took time with me. ... It's time to give back."