"We're on the verge of an epic win," Kari Kirchner, principal of Mary Todd Elementary School in Lexington, told Fayette County school board members recently.
The school in north Lexington is trying to transform student achievement with a concept called project-based learning. It is a system in which students learn classroom subjects by doing meaningful projects that relate to real situations in the community. The concept prepares students for college and careers, Kirchner said.
It is a three-to five-year process, "not a quick fix," she said.
First- and third-graders are trying the method first, and Kirchner hopes to implement it schoolwide by 2017.
The transformation is needed in part because Mary Todd is considered a low-performing school. It had a score of 52.9 out of 100 in Kentucky's testing and accountability program in 2013-14. Mary Todd is classified by the state as "needs improvement/progressing" as opposed to "proficient" or "distinguished."
It is also classified as a "focus" school, meaning it is underperforming in closing the achievement gap between poor, minority and disabled students and other students.
Twenty-seven percent of Mary Todd's students are Hispanic and about 46 percent are black.
About 94 percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. The proposed Fayette County Public Schools redistricting plan, set for a vote by the school board Wednesday, will not change the number of students attending the school who are living in poverty, said Kirchner.
She had hoped Mary Todd, which is on Parkside Drive off North Broadway, would achieve more socioeconomic balance, which had been one of the goals of redistricting.
Many students enter kindergarten at Mary Todd 31/2 years behind their more affluent peers, she said. That means at age 5, some don't know their colors or shapes.
The achievement gap between poor, disabled and minority students and other students is not going to close immediately, Kirchner said.
"Nor is it going to close based on the budget and staffing that we are given by the school district," she said. District officials have been warned by state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday to improve the district's support for low-performing schools or face state action.
Kirchner is partnering with the Center for Teaching and Learning in Louisville to implement project-based learning, and she said the school had obtained a few grants.
But, said Kirchner, "We need community partners. We need the private sector to step up."
Under the new system, students still learn important basics in a more traditional way. But it is with the project-based learning that Kirchner expects to raise student achievement.
In a joint greenhouse project with Yates Elementary, Mary Todd students grew gardens and learned a myriad of subjects at the same time.
Kirchner said the school needed funding for transportation to take students out in the community to implement project-based learning. A recent trip to Carter Caves State Resort Park was the first trip out of Fayette County for many of the children.
Third-graders did a project centered on McConnell Springs, a 26-acre nature area teeming with birds and plants, that is surrounded by an industrial area in Lexington.
Other students have raised ducklings as they studied life cycles.
Carrie Mulert, a third-grade teacher, said her students learned "how to be leaders and mentors for each other."
The school needs personal technology devices for students, because only 20 percent have access to the Internet at home.
And, Kirchner said, Mary Todd needed people to volunteer at the school to mentor students.
In addition to teaching academics, Mary Todd's administrative dean Jennifer Bell said the staff has taught students what it means to have grit and determination.
Additionally, Bell said, "We are teaching ... kindness and social intelligence and leadership."
Board member Doug Barnett said at a March school board meeting that he was amazed during a recent visit to Mary Todd to see how students interacted with one another and how engaged they were.
"This could be a model for other schools to use," board vice chairman Melissa Bacon said.