Walk into the West End School and you get the immediate impression things are different here.

The halls of what was once the old Carter Elementary building in the Parkland neighborhood of the West End are pin-drop quiet. Each large, airy classroom has only a handful of students who are often clustered in small groups, working directly with teachers.

The students, dressed sharply in khakis and navy fleeces, are all young boys. And nearly all of them are African-American.

They greet visitors with a firm handshake, direct eye contact and an impeccable introduction.

“Hello, my name is ….” each student says. “Nice to meet you.”

They are accustomed to welcoming people to their home.

The West End School is a private boarding school or “a year-round education experience,” as founder and administrator Robert Blair describes it. It’s the only one of its kind in Kentucky.

It is a homegrown version of a growing trend in cities across America exploring urban boarding schools as a way to close the achievement gap between poor, minority students and their white counterparts.

The problem is as pervasive throughout the country as it is local.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported last year that not a single participating school district had more than 21 percent of black eighth graders who were proficient in reading or math. In Jefferson County Public Schools, black eighth graders had an average score that was 28 points lower than white students in math and 24 points lower in reading.

Only 39 percent of black students enrolled at JCPS graduate high school, Blair said.

Like Blair, proponents of urban boarding schools believe students with home lives troubled by violence, drug use, incarceration, financial strain and other problems can benefit from an immersive educational environment.

“A lot of what public education is up against has nothing to do with the classroom,” he said. “If that’s the fabric in their life, they need support in ways other kids don’t.”

Sameer Rholds, 12, of the 7th grade studies Roman history in class Wednesday

More than 30 urban boarding programs have been developed in cities such as Brooklyn, Philadelphia, San Diego, Minneapolis and St. Paul since 2006. The most well-known and studied is the highly successful SEED Schools of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

Most, like the West End School, are private, but some are public. Their approaches differ, but all are trying to make good on an unfulfilled promise of equality in education.

“The point is, there shouldn’t be an achievement gap,” Blair said. “People realize in a just and equitable society all kids should be on a level playing field.”

What then, could the West End School teach us about leveling the playing field in Louisville? Could, or should, the model be replicated? If so, how and by who?

Insider Louisville will explore these and other questions in a series covering the West End School. Over the next few weeks, we’ll hear from teachers, students and education experts.

Just the Facts

The West End School has about 20 boys boarding in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades and 30 boys in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten day school. Plans are to expand the day program by a grade a year, through the 5th grade, until there are about 125 students enrolled.

The school is only a few years old, so it’s hard to gauge its success just yet.

But almost all of its initially-enrolled students are moving on to the area’s best high schools, either on scholarship at private schools like Louisville Collegiate, or in advanced-placement programs at JCPS schools like Ballard High. Some of the boys live with host families. The first high school graduate from the program has a scholarship to attend Georgetown College this fall.

It’s also garnered tremendous support from corporations, community leaders and grant-makers like the James Graham Brown Foundation, which gave $420,000 to renovate much of the aging building.

The school receives no public funding and donations, small and large, fund its operating expenses. Blair estimates each student costs about $15,000 for a 42-week school year, whereas a student at JCPS costs $9,000 for a 36-week year.

What keeps costs down, Blair said, is that that much of their food is donated from places like Panera Bread in the Aegon Center and The Horton Fruit Company. Also, teachers volunteer their time or work for a fraction of the salary they’d make elsewhere.

“The real story is the willingness of this community to give these boys a hand up,” Blair said. “This is a mission-driven place.”

Education Philosophy

Blair’s life has ended up as it began, in a boarding school. He and his wife, Deborah Blair, now live in a few cozy rooms in the residential wing of The West End School.

Blair studied at the New Hampton boarding school in New Hampshire and in his 30-year-career as a teacher also taught at a boarding school in Asheville, N.C.

“There are some real benefits to boarding school life,” he said. “It creates a culture in the confines of education.”

Pinch, a golden retriever, lives at the West End School and wanders in and out of the boys’ dorms.

He started the West End School out of his home with just three students, thinking that middle school is a time of transition, when students can be caught before they fall through the cracks.

There is only one TV in the school and students aren’t allowed smart phones. Removing such distractions encourages reading, studying and focus, he said.

“Boys will tell you they don’t miss it. Their day is too full,” he said.

The academic day is two hours longer than average. The school’s smaller class sizes allow teachers to give extra attention and make sure mastery of skills is accomplished before students move on.

Blair emphasizes expectation of achievement and coaxing the boys to work hard now so they can build the type of life they want later.

“The whole issue is raising those expectations,” he said. “You change the world of expectations and you change the child.”

Blair and teachers act as mentors, coaches and advisors to the students, building relationships with their families and keeping close contact once they leave.

“It takes appropriate structure, discipline and you hold them to high expectations in their lives and you love them,” he said. “If you do that, most kids succeed. We try to do that here.”

Niki King is a professional journalist who also co-publishes thehillville.com, 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.