The kindergarten class at West End School

Linda Rowan didn’t have to spend the last eight years teaching language arts to middle school boys at West End School.

She’d already retired from a 33-year career teaching at Jefferson County Public Schools. She could have found other ways to spend her golden years.

But, Rowan will stay for as long she’s effective, she said. Like so many other teachers at the West End School, she loves the mission of helping at-risk youth, the close interaction small class sizes give her with students and the sense of family and community the boarding school engenders.

Most of all, she loves watching her work pay off as students progress.

“It’s all about the students,” Rowan said. “That why I’m here.”

West End School is a free, private, college preparatory elementary and middle school for at-risk young men. Like no other school in Kentucky, boys in sixth, seventh and eighth grades board there almost year-round. It’s one of a growing number of urban boarding schools across the country seeking to narrow the nearly universal achievement gap for poor and minority students.

Like Robert Blair, the school’s founder and administrator, proponents of urban boarding schools believe students with home lives troubled by violence, drug use, incarceration, financial strain or other problems can better succeed in an immersive educational environment.

Admission is open to boys entering pre-kindergarten and sixth grade who are on free or reduced lunch, are capable of doing academic work at grade level or above and would benefit from boarding school life. The average student is at least one grade level behind.

“We’re looking for the children whose environment or circumstance keeps them from succeeding,” Rowan said.

The West End School, which is eight years old now, is showing signs of success, with the majority of its initial middle school classes earning more than $2 million in scholarships to the city’s best private high schools and others entering high-performing public high schools.

As part of a series exploring West End School, Insider Louisville recently spoke with teachers about their experiences, how their classroom and the school differ from the norm and what they think works.

In the Classroom

Rowan’s class sizes are small. When she taught at JCPS, she typically had 27 or 28 children. Now, she doesn’t have a class with more than 12 students. That allows her to more carefully target challenges and build skills.

When students first arrive, she said, they turn in work that is sloppy. She said she raises expectations as their work improves so there is continual progress.

“I tell them all the time, ‘I can’t believe how far you’ve progressed and I am so proud of you,’” she said.

The school day itself is an hour and 20 minutes longer than JCPS’s school day, and there are volunteer tutors who help students with work after school hours.

Students have two hours of required homework time each night, and there are real consequences for incomplete work, like loss of basketball time.

The Whole-Child Approach

Nancy Diaz-Metz taught at the University of Louisville’s early learning campus before teaching the West End School’s first ever pre-k class this year. She said her class focuses heavily on social and emotional skills, like how to communicate and behave in the classroom.

“If they don’t have those [skills], they can’t excel academically,” she said. “If you’re doing crowd-control 80 percent of the time, you can’t teach.”

Rowan said the older boys learn life skills too, like table manners. Mentors are facilitated through programs like “Men in the West End,” which introduces the boys to successful men in Louisville’s West End. Because the school is so small, it can afford to take numerous field trips to museums, plays, sporting events and other venues. The school helps students find camps in the summer and Blair has led classes to New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston where they saw cultural and historic sites. The kids regularly serve lunch at The Lord’s Kitchen, a food pantry in the Park Hill neighborhood, as community service.

“They get so many opportunities here,” Rowan said.  “We get them involved in activities so they can keep learning.”

Like A Family

You hear the word “community” used a lot at West End School.

“What I see are levels of community,” Diaz-Metz said. “I see the love between boys and the faculty. They care about each other and that’s very, very important. There’s joking around and sometimes tough love, all the things that come with being a tight family and a community. Some of them may have that at home, and some of them may not.”

The older boys know they’re expected to be good role models and mentors for the younger boys, she said. And the ones who graduate come back often.

“This brotherhood they get is a blessing, too,” Rowan said. “The connection is really great. When I say it’s like a family, I mean it’s really like a family.”

There are no buses for the lower grades, so parents and other family members bring their children to school, often stopping to chat. Diaz-Metz said that nearly daily interaction brings them close together and allows them to discuss problems.

“We’re sure to greet all of them by name,” said Diaz-Metz. “It’s old school. We want to know you and be community.”

Diaz-Metz said one of the joys and challenges of working at a small, up-and-coming school, which is essentially a non-profit venture, is that everyone must do a little bit of everything, from coaching to giving kids rides.

“It’s very clear we’re working shoulder to shoulder,” she said.

Rowan agreed.

“All the adults are putting their arms around these children,” she said. The kids are “highly motivated, highly encouraged and highly loved. They love all the attention they get. But they know they have to follow the rules or there are consequences.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a series exploring the West End School. Next we’ll hear from students who’ve attended and education experts about the model and whether it could be replicated. 

Niki King is a professional journalist who also co-publishes, an online magazine celebrating urban Appalachia. She recently finished her master’s degree in community and leadership development at the University of Kentucky where she studied urban planning, economic development and communication. She proudly calls a recently restored shotgun house in the Original Highlands home.