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    Where are the best schools in Louisville? That is the question that everyone asks when enrolling their children. For the most part, the majority of Louisvillians would probably consider schools in the East End (or at least east of 9th St.) to be the top schools, and this is technically true. The top schools in Jefferson County and in Kentucky are east of 9th St., including Dupont Manual High School, Ballard High School, and Male High School.

    So how can West End schools compare? More importantly, how will attending a West End school affect students?

    I decided to visit a few of these West End schools and afterschool programs to see firsthand what they were like in addition to what life in West Louisville was like.

    My first stop was at the West Louisville Youth Space (WLYS), an after-school program held every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon at the Portland Memorial Baptist Church. I spoke to William “Bill” Green, the evening supervisor, to learn about the effects of this program on the students enrolled. WLYS offers participants tutoring, classes on sewing and life skills, a computer lab, a place to hang out, and an evening meal. Green said that the staff at WLYS are “able to keep kids off the streets,” and in some cases, provide the only meal a child will get for the whole day.

    WLYS helps fill the gaps in the children’s lives, and this type of community support is a major factor in the quality of schools and education of the West End. Green explained that, “it is not where you live, it’s how you live. It’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going in life. You make good and bad choices; it depends on where you’re headed.”  

    Joyce Jeten, a helper at the West Louisville Youth Space, added in her opinion on what the lack of community fellowship from family and friends can do to a child’s education and direction in life. “As adults, we’re supposed to reach out and help these kids. A lot is missing in their home lives. They don’t know it. They get things, but they don’t get the physical contact of someone loving them. People can be misleading to them [the kids] and put on a false facade. They act like they love them and have them do the wrong things. They won’t get all the kids, but they’ll get some.”

    One student, Ashley (14), from the West Louisville Youth Space, spoke to me about the school she currently attends, Western Middle School. Ashley described her school as “more strict now” with good teachers. She explained that the students at Western Middle School had all the necessary materials: school supplies, textbooks, computers, and modern technology. Ashley thinks many would say that Western Middle is a “horrible school and there’s no learning.” However, Ashely added that her school is improving; there is learning going on, and she’s seen a decrease in fights at school. Ashley attributed these positive changes to her new principal, Kymberly Rice.

    Another impactful principal I spoke to was Robert Gunn Jr. of Foster Traditional Academy, who has been principal for 3 years. Over 95% of Foster’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch service, so JCPS provides free breakfast and lunch at Foster Traditional. During my visit, I witnessed students walking to their classrooms in an orderly manner while Gunn stood in the center of the lobby, greeting every student possible (his goal is to learn each student by name). Upon Gunn’s start at Foster, he composed a “Foster Creed” to be read by a student at the start of each day:

    Foster Creed

    I will rise to the highest expectations.

    I will take responsibility for my actions.

    I will never give up; therefore, I cannot fail.

    I am successful.

    I am smart.

    I am college-and-career-bound.

    Gunn’s goals are to build up students and to create a safe environment for them to thrive in. Gunn explained his three-year plan to improve Foster: the first year’s plans were focused on creating structure, this included imposing a dress code. The second year’s plans were focused on fostering a higher level of academic achievement within the school.

    Gunn informed me that two years ago, Foster was in the bottom 1% of all Kentucky schools on state testing. However, in 2014, Foster had moved up to the 21% and has had double digit gains in reading and math. The upcoming third year in Gunn’s plan is meant to “breakdown barriers and define the expectations of the kids’ education in West Louisville. It’s what we can do, not what we can’t do.”

    Gunn is also working daily to teach kids that “it’s cool to be smart, to be intelligent.” He has begun a program to award students who achieve good report cards, “proficient/ distinguished” on state testing, or good behavior with special t-shirts, pins, ties, and jackets. This pushes students to be their best, academically and behaviorally; during my visit, I saw many students sporting these t-shirts, pins, ties, and jackets.

    As for the teachers selected to educate at Foster, Gunn says, “I look for a teacher who asks themselves what they can do to help that student who is unsuccessful. A teacher with grit who knows that they will be challenged, but will still come back everyday to make a difference for the kids… we control what we can control. Teachers come to Foster to be great teachers. We want to put kids in the best situation to get the best outcomes.”

    First-grade teacher, Lynn Riedling, who has been at Foster for 28 years, spoke warmly of her experiences at Foster. “Teaching is my passion, and my calling is at Foster. Foster is like a diamond in the rough. I see the students’ faces light up when they get to school; they want to be here and the staff wants to be here. There is a sense of family at Foster. There was a Career Day in January and community members of all fields came to talk to the kids. It gave the kids a sense of the importance of staying in school and making wise decisions.”

    Foster isn’t the only West End school I found to be going above and beyond to ensure the success of their students. I found the principal of Brandeis Elementary, Shervita West, to be continually working to improve her school. West has been the principal at Brandeis for 12 years. Brandeis is a magnet school with a focus in math, science, and technology that has been scoring in the “distinguished” category on the Kentucky state tests. Currently, Brandeis is in the process of transitioning to expand their focus to include S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art, math). West states that Brandeis is a very diverse school and that “makes us very different.” Brandeis has gifted kids, at-risk kids, and kids with learning difficulties; almost every zip code of Jefferson County is represented at this school. West attributed the success of her students and of Brandeis to passionate teachers, “a focus on good quality instruction, high expectations for all students, the collaborative culture within the staff, great parental support, and students who come to school everyday ready to learn.”

    West mentioned that they work hard to prepare their students for the transitions in their education. They include “practical living” classes to teach students about college and different career paths that they may pursue. Brandeis also offers extracurriculars such as chess, quick recall, Girls on the Run (a self-esteem program), fencing (in the past), and Young Rembrandts (to teach about art) that serve as enrichment opportunities. West explained that “the needs of the students today have changed drastically. Educational institutions have to be prepared to accommodate to reach and teach these students. We try to make sure that students have very real-world learning experiences so that they’re prepared for life afterwards… every child who comes in, we own. They’re our’s. We work together to give an exceptional experience for the kids and to make sure each student is successful.”

    The last school I visited, West End School, was a little different from the others; it is an independent school. West End School is a free all-boys boarding school that opened ten years ago. I spoke to Sarah Steenrod, a teacher and an administrator, as well as a couple of the students. The boarding school serves as the middle school, and the boys live there from Sunday night through Friday night. Steenrod emphasized that “our mission is to produce students who are capable of achieving grade-level work to succeed in high school and beyond. We emphasize responsibility and character; to be a man is to be responsible.”

    The parents appreciate the school’s high academic expectations and the safety and structure that it provides for their sons. Most of the time, it is the kids’, the parents’, or the guardians’ decision to apply to this school. In addition to academics, the boys are also involved with various service activities around Louisville. They have participated in the Water Step shoe drive, the Lord’s Kitchen, and the 40210 Early Childhood Education Project with the Leadership Louisville Center’s 2014 Bingham Fellows Class.

    Steenrod explained that much of the time, teachers seek them out and request to become a part of the West End School. “People find us. We’re always looking for qualified educators. The most important quality is their compassion for these boys and their ability to connect with them and to keep high expectations for all of our students.”

    I had the chance to sit down and speak to some of the students. I spoke to Nay (14), Kenjii (14), and Brent (14).

    Nay: “My favorite thing here is that they teach us about what’s outside, and they get us ready to go to high school. I’m going to Collegiate on a full-tuition scholarship. If I wasn’t here, I probably wouldn’t go there. Going here gave me a better self-image and more confidence. I’m more hard-working. I don’t think I would be as smart or as athletic if I didn’t go here. I want to be a Civil Engineer and go out of state for college. I think I learn more here and there’s higher expectations. I decided that I wanted to go here, and my family supported me.”

    Brent: “They teach us character, respect, table manners, and to think about other people besides yourself. This school has pushed and encouraged me, and I’m more successful now. I want to go to college. If I was at a different school, I would probably be more distracted. My mom wanted me to go here. It was an adjustment, but I like it now.”

    Kenjii: “I want to go to college anywhere. If I didn’t go here, I think I would be less focused and just hang out and play around. I wouldn’t learn as much, and I’d get in trouble more and hang out with the wrong people. I wanted to go here, and my family supported me. Going here has made me more successful. Now, I think I can make it through high school and college. If I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t believe in myself.”

    I witnessed the character built in these kids in the way they presented themselves, as they shook my hand, introduced themselves, and pulled out my chair for me. Steenrod reiterated, “They have high expectations here, and they get used to it. The kids will rise to the expectations placed for them, and the chances are that they will succeed if you believe in them.”

    After experiencing each of these schools and speaking to principals, teachers, and students, it is obvious that they are working to provide phenomenal support and education to increase the success of each of their students. As Robert Gunn Jr. said, “If there is a great school, especially with great teachers, any kid from any background in any circumstance can be successful.”

     

    Photo Courtesy of Irena Tran

     

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    About Irena Tran

    I studied Art at UofL and now physical therapy at Bellarmine University. I love art, sports, and good food. I'm always looking for something new to try and new concepts to photograph!

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