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District Profile

Danville (Ky.) Schools

Saturday School a Class Act

Kentucky kids become university students for a sixth day of school

It's 7:15 a.m. on a Saturday in January. The mercury hovers near zero. Surely the children are snuggled in front of the TV basking in the glow of cartoons. But this is Danville, Ky., and the living rooms are dark.

Dozens of kids and their parents crowd into the Bate Middle School parking lot waiting for teachers to unlock the doors to Danville Kids University.

An eight-week program, DKU started in winter 2003 with 68 third and fourth graders. Participation in this fall's fourth program session soared to 120 third- to fifth-grade students, nearly one-third of the total number of students in those grades.

Superintendent Bob Rowland says DKU breaks the routine, gets kids more interested in school and extends learning time. Each session attracts a sellout crowd with hands-on learning and an emphasis on leadership and self-esteem. "Kids that don't fit the standard mold" are a natural fit for the program, he adds.

The Show Must Go On

The staff commitment to DKU is evident. "We're trying to break down all barriers. If kids want to participate we bend over backwards to make it happen," says Superintendent Bob Rowland.

So when a sleepy DKU student misses the bus, driver Mike Swain uses his cell phone to rouse the family and returns to pick up the child. Swain, the district's retired director of pupil personnel, also phones or visits every family on his route prior to each session. The bus driver extraordinaire has even offered to work for free if program funding ever runs out.

All the School's a Stage

An opening assembly sets the tone during each DKU session. Home School Community Liaison Beth Marlowe (AKA the big cheerleader) wakens her audience with a booming cheer like, "When learning is fun, it's fun to learn!" or "I have what it takes!" Next, Marlowe transforms the gym into a veritable game show with learning contests that can reach breakneck speeds as teams race to solve puzzles and collect fabulous prizes.

Throughout the day, students might explore speed and velocity by racing cars up and down ramps in school hallways, or use colored balloons to recreate the solar system in the gym. The Lightspan Lab, where students learn through that company's problem-solving software, is another hot spot.

"We're able to talk to kids in their language," Marlowe says. "As a result they learn."

The Credits Roll

Turnarounds are commonplace at DKU. There was the classroom troublemaker who consistently earned failing grades on weekly spelling tests. At DKU, the agitator emerged as a leader and became a stellar speller. In a survey after DKU's spring 2003 session, the focus on differentiated learning got universal support, and all classroom teachers and parents reported a positive impact on students.

Lightspan software testing indicated double-digit gains in many math subskills, including a jump in data, statistics and probability from an average pre-test score of 23 percent in to 83 percent post-test.

" The kids can't wait to see what we're going to do next. We're constantly trying to top ourselves." -Sandy Embree, director of elementary education

Taking the Show On the Road

Director of Elementary Education Sandy Embree outlines this formula for a Saturday "university":

Collaborate to maximize resources. DKU's all-star cast includes multiple community partners.

Maintain a low student/teacher ratio. DKU pads its 15:1 ratio by tapping into AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers and middle school mentors.

Keep the content and delivery hands-on, fun and engaging.

Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. Look for ways to improve offerings. This year, a summer session of DKU is planned.

Use technology.

Include a parent component. DKU focuses on technology skills, study habits, English as a Second Language and GED instruction.

Center Stage

It's graduation day. Family, friends and dignitaries (including the governor and state representatives) pack the gym as students share their experiences and goals. "This is as big of a deal as high school graduation," says Superintendent Bob Rowland. "We're planting the seeds of forward-thinking--ultimately these kids are going to graduate."

" This program is the epitome of a collaborative effort for educational success in the community. It truly says we will leave no child behind." -Mardi Montgomery, deputy secretary, Kentucky Education Cabinet, and former DKU coordinator

District Stats

Danville (Ky.) Schools

No. of teachers: 161

No. of students: 1,753

Ethnicity: 65.7% white, 23.5% black, 3.4% Hispanic, 1.1% Asian, 6.3% other

Per-pupil expenditure (2002-2003): $7,233

Dropout Rate (2003-2004): 3.83%

Population: 15,477

Superintendent: Robert Rowland, since 1997

Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.

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