LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- Four years ago, Josh Wooldridge's grades weren't up to par and he was struggling to stay afloat. 

But in the fall of 2012, Fayette County Public Schools opened Carter G. Woodson Academy at Crawford Middle School and Wooldridge’s mother decided to take a chance on the district’s new approach – a school offering an advanced and rigorous curriculum through the lens of African American history, culture and culturally responsive teaching and learning strategies.

“It has been a life-changing experience for me,” said Wooldridge, one of 15 seniors who will be among the school's first graduating class this year. 

In a short period of time, Fayette County school leaders and state officials say they have been pleased with Woodson's Academy early results and the school's approach has caught the attention of not only lawmakers, but also officials in other districts -- including those in Jefferson County Public Schools.

A report on JCPS’ recent efforts at improving performance at the middle school level will be shared with the Jefferson County Board of Education during a 5 p.m. work session on Tuesday. According to the agenda set by Superintendent Donna Hargens, officials will discuss “new, research-based approaches to middle school turnaround” that could soon be implemented in JCPS.

But details of those approaches will not be shared before the school board meeting, according to district spokeswoman Allison Martin. However, an attached to the work session agenda is a PDF report about the Carter G. Woodson Academy.

Martin says "Carter G. Woodson is a middle school concept that's been successful in Fayette County," she said. "The information on its success is being provided to the board."

Martin told WDRB on Monday it would be “premature to comment publicly before the school board briefing takes place.”

But Fayette County officials confirm that Hargens and John Marshall, the district’s chief equity officer, have visited Woodson Academy throughout the past year, as have a team of principals, alternative school teachers and community members.

On Tuesday, WDRB went to Lexington to get a closer look at the alternative approach the school is are using.

Although the school is open to all males in grades six-through-12, 86 percent of the 184 students in the traditional college-prep program at the Woodson Academy are black and 6 percent are Hispanic. Of the school's entire enrollment, 60 percent qualify for free and reduced price lunch.

Throughout the day, students are called scholars and they wear uniforms consisting of a navy blue blazer and a purple tie. There is a strong emphasis on academics, structure and expectations, but also the importance of family and community involvement.

Roszalyn "Rosz" Akins, the school's dean of students, says the goal is to "establish a culture of academic excellence."

"We have something that everyone wants," Akins tells WDRB. "Young men who are being successful, young men who are making good grades and doing well on the ACT. So instead of having a pipeline to prison, we have a pipeline to college."

Woodson Academy is patterned after the "Black Males Working" program, a private educational enrichment program for young black males that was launched by Akins and her husband, C.B. Akins, at their church, Lexington's First Baptist Church Bracktown in 2005.

C.B. Akins, is pastor of the church and a former Kentucky Board of Education member, while Rosz retired in 2004 after teaching for 27 years in FCPS.

"We started with 40 young men on a Saturday, 11 years ago and met with them primarily to do math science and reading," Rosz Akins said. "They were also the young men in the principals office having some difficulties. The average ACT score for African American men in 2010 was 15.8; our average ACT score was 22."

Former Fayette County Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman took notice of the program's success and the school board decided to launch the program as a school-within-a-school inside Crawford Middle School. 

The district spent an entire year planning and invested about $700,000 to get the school running; it opened in the fall of 2012, said Lisa Deffendall, a spokeswoman for Fayette County Public Schools. "It started with 25 students in grades 6 through 9; we have since expanded to twelfth grade."

Although housed at Crawford Middle, the academy has its own entrance, its own classrooms and its own teachers. According to the school's handbook, Woodson Academy has "high expectations for all its scholars and scholars of the academy will be well disciplined at all times."

Students are expected to read every day, attend after school tutoring or tutoring on weekends (if necessary) and maintain an acceptable grade point average in order to participate in sports or other extra-curricular activities. In addition, parents are expected to ensure that their sons come to school prepared and to visit the academy at least four times annually to talk with their sons' teachers, Akins said.

In addition to offering a strong curriculum that meets the new common core standards, the school also partners with colleges and universities and arranges trips so students may visit out-of-state colleges, she said.

Last year, 60 percent of Woodson Academy's middle school students were proficient in reading -- three percentage points higher than the Fayette County average and six points higher than the state average.

In addition, 74 percent of its middle school students were proficient in social studies (60 percent in FCPS and 59 percent in the state) and 44 percent were proficient in writing (compared to 37 percent in FCPS and 39 percent in the state).

Math scores are lower -- only 34 percent are considered proficient (compared to 47 percent in FCPS and 43 percent statewide) -- but progress is being made, Akins said.

Wooldridge and a classmate were among those who testified before the House Education Committee in Frankfort on Jan. 26 where the academy was illustrated as a successful alternative to charter schools.

"There's a future for us, it has opened us up to a lot of opportunities....here during Spring Break I'll be able to go to Dubai," says Wooldridge. "We don't have to be a statistic."

Akins offers the following advice for districts interested in modeling a program similar to the Woodson Academy.

"You have to be consistent," she said. "Too often, we have people who start programs and get kids excited and then we back out. You have to be consistent."

Akins also said officials must be compassionate.

"You have to understand that these kids come from different backgrounds," she said. "You have to treat them like you would treat your own children."

Lastly, Akins says districts must seek out connections.

"We have great support from our school system, but also from our business community and churches," she said. "We have all these connections and we've learned the secret of working together...because investing in these young men will make Lexington better."

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter. Reporter Samantha Chatman can be reached at 502-585-0811 or @Sam_ChatmanWDRB on Twitter.

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