By many standards, Louisville’s Jacob Elementary is a low-performing school. According to data from the evaluation site School Digger, it ranked worse than 98.7 percent of Kentucky elementary schools for its student’s average reading and math scores is 2014.

science centerYet there’s something happening in the school that’s extremely positive, says principal Michael Terry. A select group of the school’s fourth-grade students are enrolled in an innovative after-school partnership between Jefferson County Public Schools and the Kentucky Science Center aimed at not only raising student science literacy, but also their math and English scores.

The six-week program is called the JCPS After School Enrichment Program, and it’s designed to help district fourth-graders lagging behind their peers get the extra help they need to meet, or exceed, grade level. The program is in its third year; this year’s edition started in March and will run through early May. It’s offered at 10 JCPS schools, including Jacob.

“It lets me know my kids are college- and career-ready,” Terry says. “The parents appreciate that we’re offering a program to help their kids succeed.”

The program is aimed at fourth-graders because that’s when the state’s K-Prep science testing starts for elementary school students, and this year 100 JCPS fourth-graders will take part. After the initial pilot run in 2012-2013, JCPS tested the program’s results. Given that the initial 52 students were all from comparatively high-needs elementary schools, like Jacob, the district-wide results spoke volumes.

Of the students in the program that first year, 65.4 percent scored as “proficient/distinguished” in science after being in the program. The control group scored 38.5 percent. The average for JCPS fourth-graders was 58.3 percent, while the state’s average was 68.5 percent.

The students in the program also did well in reading, with 46.2 percent scoring “proficient/distinguished,” versus 25 percent for the control group. The JCPS score was 44.4 percent, and the statewide score was 48.7 percent. In math, 40.4 percent of the program’s students scored “proficient/distinguished,” versus 28.8 percent for the control group. JCPS students scored 41.8 percent, and the statewide average was 44 percent.

KSC dataOf those students enrolled in the program that first year, 97 percent said they would probably or definitely recommend it to a friend.

The JCPS schools using the program are: Byck Elementary, Foster Academy, Cochran Elementary, Shelby Traditional Academy, McFerran Preparatory Academy, Gutermuth Elementary, Mill Creek Elementary, Wheatley Elementary, Roosevelt-Perry Elementary, and Jacob. The programs are taught via 10 Science Center educators who travel to the individual schools each week.

Mellisa Blankenship, senior manager of fee-based and partnership initiatives for the Kentucky Science Center, says the program is presented to the kids as a cool club, rather than remedial help. “And they’re kind of this elite group in their school,” she says. “They feel like they’ve got this extra push from us.”

Mira Gentry, coordinator of offsite and fee-based partnerships for the Science Center,  adds the programs are after school, so as to not take away from regular school work. And this year, the program is focused on teaching students about varied fields including energy, earth science and physics.

The program’s curriculum is based on areas JCPS students are struggling with the most. One way educators get around this is by helping the students build things. Electricity, for example, is hard to visualize; creating a circuit makes it obvious. “When they’re actually able to use conductive elements to make something light up, it flips the switch for them — that was a bad pun,” says Blankenship.

Last summer, the Science Center expanded the program to teach reading to struggling Oldham County kids about to go into first grade. Oldham County officials were impressed by the strong results for the fourth-graders in that first year’s cohort.

“We had the proof, and that’s what helped expand the programs even more,” says Blankenship.

To further market the program, the Science Center hosts a sort of graduation for the program and invites all parents and faculty from each school to attend. Blankenship says this has led other parents to want their kids in the program, even if their child is not struggling.

In addition to scores, Blankenship believes the program has made its students more eager to want to visit the Kentucky Science Center and show all they’ve learned. “Now instead of going to a movie or going to a park they want to do something educational,” she says. “And bring their parents along for that ride.”

David Serchuk
David Serchuk is a staff writer at Insider Louisville. He is a former editor at Forbes.com, and an ex-reporter at Forbes magazine. He's written for NPR, CNBC.com, New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville and other publications named for places. He enjoys writing about business, music and other things as well.