Starting Gate, an afternoon program at Leestown Middle School, tries to ensure students have a strong foundation in literacy skills and language arts by providing homework help, enrichment activities, field trips and college/career counseling.
Most of the participants aim to improve their grades; many also have individual goals such as “talk less and listen more,” keep a positive attitude and be nice to more people. For seventh-grader Seth Felts, the one-on-one attention has meant the most.
“I was having trouble understanding my homework once I got home. Now I get a lot of help from the interns and older students. It’s easier to understand face-to-face than on the Internet at home,” he said.
The college prep program is under the umbrella of Race For Education, which historically has offered scholarship assistance to families in agricultural areas and the equine industry. Its focus expanded after a donor in New York suggested a mentoring and tutoring program for middle schoolers. Lexington-based Starting Gate, which also operates two days a week at Winburn, has certified teachers and a cadre of education majors from the University of Kentucky serving as interns. The typical student/teacher ratio is 4:1.
At Leestown, students like Seth and classmate Alyssa Jones reap the benefits. Applying new reading strategies, such as making connections with her own background, has bolstered Alyssa’s confidence.
“My MAP scores went up 15 points. Now I’m reading on the ninth-grade level, and I was on the fifth-grade level,” she said, referring to the Measures of Academic Progress (districtwide tests given in the fall, winter and spring).
Leestown initially focused on students in the 25th percentile on math and reading scores. In its second year, the program includes a new batch of sixth-graders plus the seventh-graders who all opted to continue. Starting Gate, which covers the cost of bus transportation home, now enables about two dozen students to stay after school and log some extra study time. Within the structure, the relaxed atmosphere allows them to sit with their friends and break for snacks.
“It’s been a very positive program for our students, and they really enjoy it,” said Associate Principal Joe Gibson. “We hope it will improve those skills they have deficits in. Reading seems to be a big problem, so ideally we hope to make gains in reading. For kids struggling with reading, it’s hard to do science, math or anything else.”
This semester Leestown expanded the program from two to four afternoons a week and added a more specific literacy curriculum. One piece that has proved popular is Kidz Lit, which involves reading aloud, making real-world connections and predicting the story line.
“They get the reading, they get the thinking, they get the writing. We also have a lot of discussion where the kids get to participate and offer their opinions. They’re part of the generation that’s going to fix whatever needs to be fixed. I listen to all their opinions and don’t judge,” said Jacqueline McNaughton, who guides the seventh-graders.
The Starting Gate staff met with Leestown teachers at the start of the year to explain the program, gather details on each student’s academic history and ask for continued collaboration. They also follow up periodically to make sure the youngsters are up to speed in class.
“We don’t want to be just a continuation of the classroom. We want to be a continuation of their education and make them kids of the world,” McNaughton said. “We want to make them think further, higher, bigger. I want to instill the desire to better themselves and dream big.”