UK Community Helps Turnaround Academic Performance at William Wells Brown

By Whitney Harder, Elizabeth Adams

(Dec. 7, 2015) — A student falling behind in math class at William Wells Brown Elementary counted figures on a color-coded worksheet aloud with help from a guest tutor on Oct. 23.

On her first day as a volunteer, Jenna Hatcher, a University of Kentucky College of Nursing associate professor, pulled a chair up to the young girl’s desk in the hallway of the school, providing individual attention as they solved problems as a pair. For Hatcher, who is more accustomed to teaching students at the doctoral level, working with a young mind was a refreshing reminder of the curiosity and enthusiasm at earliest stages of learning.

“The most special thing about reaching out to local children at a young age is the ability to work with them while they are still so open and innocent,” Hatcher, who serves as the college’s director of diversity and inclusivity, said. “They are full of hope and believe they can do anything. I think it is critical that they see people like me, who look like them, doing something like this.”

Working one-on-one with children at Williams Wells Brown, as well as other elementary schools struggling in the area, became a priority for faculty members and students across the University of Kentucky’s campus after the school was listed at the bottom of statewide rankings during the 2014-2015 academic year. With assistance from the United Way and support from Dean Janie Heath, Elizabeth Salt, a professor in the UK College of Nursing, organized a cohort of faculty members from her department to spend one hour a week working with students at the school. Salt believed it was unacceptable for an elementary school within the vicinity of the state’s flagship university to suffer from low academic scores.

“It occurred to me that the incredible resources available at the university were likely not being accessed at their maximum capabilities,” Salt said. “I started to brainstorm on what I could do to help. I thought I could likely recruit my colleagues in the College of Nursing — the college has an awesome group of faculty and staff with so many unique talents and an incredible capacity to give and care for others.”

The College of Nursing is joined by other UK groups in their work at William Wells Brown. Currently, pre-practicum students studying elementary education and special education are earning clinical hours at the school. Future plans include students being paired with a second grader through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters School Plus Program to improve their reading and math skills.

A group of graduate students studying applied behavioral analysis, led by Allan Allday, associate professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education and Rehabilitation Counseling,also partners with the school to make behavior observations, collect data and support WWB staff with behavior interventions.

While what goes on in the classroom is paramount, for some students, their experiences outside the classroom can be just as significant. That’s why students and directors from LEXengaged, a UK Living Learning Program, work with WWB students in its after school program. Visiting the school about once a week, the group is focused on "helping WWB students develop an appreciation for their neighborhood," said Rosie Moosnick, LEXengaged co-director and UK College of Arts and Sciences lecturer.  

"Bringing back the incredible, African-American history of the area can give new insight into what Lexington has been built from," said Jacelynn Sturgill, a LEXengaged student and biology major from Jessamine County, Kentucky.

Celebrating Isaac Murphy Week was part of that effort. Murphy, a legendary 19th century African-American jockey, lived in Lexington's East End neighborhood. Sharing his story with WWB students, the LEXengaged group led art projects, helped host Patsy Trollinger, author of a children's book about Isaac Murphy, and read the book with WWB students. The group also met with Pellom McDaniels, author of the "Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy."

In addition to hearing from McDaniels on Murphy and the rich history of the East End, WWB students presented art work depicting their neighborhood to him. To wrap up the celebration, LEXengaged and WWB students took part in unveiling art panels at the Isaac Murphy Memorial Garden.

"Having learned about the history of the East End, I think it's really important for these kids to know and appreciate the story of where they live," said Michael Riggs, a LEXengaged student studying political science and sociology from Norman, Oklahoma.

The group also provides homework help and tutoring during their visits, and sometimes just friendship.

"Every week I get excited to see them; they greet me with smiles and hugs, and before we can begin to get anything done we have to ask one another how each of our days/weeks have been," Sturgill said, who is planning to be pen-pals with a few of the students once the semester ends.

The LLP will continue to partner with WWB and its after school program next semester with a new group of LEXengaged students. Moosnick and Lynn Phillips, LEXengaged co-director and assistant professor of geography, have encouraged this semester's students to continue volunteering and maintaining their relationships, suggesting they become Big Brothers or Big Sisters.

"It's clear that our students really enjoy the interaction with William Wells Brown students," Phillips said.

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