Centre College educators find fulfillment at West End School

Posted by Centre News in Alumni, News 21 Sep 2015

WESWhen Robert and Debbie Blair opened the doors of the West End School (WES) in 2005, it was with a dream of creating a new learning environment for “at-risk” middle school boys in Louisville’s historically low-income west end. They began in a small house with three students. Today, the pre-K through eighth grade residential high school preparatory school boasts more than 60 students housed in the former Virginia Avenue Elementary School, and, earlier this year, they opened the 82,000-square-foot Darrell Griffith Athletic Center.

Helping WES change the lives of a generation of under-served boys are enthusiastic Centre alumni.

Martha Nichols ’85, who teaches French and serves as the director of advancement, explains how her path led her to WES.

“My family had recently moved back to Louisville, and it was important for me to find where exciting, creative work in education was happening,” Nichols says. “My high school history teacher told me that WES had good people achieving great results. I sent in my CV that day and began volunteering the next week.”

Matthew Howell ’09 teaches science, lives in the dorms and serves as dean of students.

“A friend in the Teach Kentucky program knew that I was unhappy at my former school and urged me to go visit West End before I decided to quit teaching altogether,” Howell says. “It was serendipitous; I found a wonderfully supportive learning environment and West End got a science teacher.”

West End School is free to all all who attend—only boys living below the federal poverty level are eligible to apply. The school is funded entirely through donations and relies heavily upon volunteers. The lower school currently enrolls pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade, and the middle school students board during the week. As a testament to the school’s success, many of the boys who have attended West End School entered two or three years behind grade level, and yet they have gone on to attend some of the best high schools in Louisville and are now scholarship students in college.

The motto of the school is, “To be a man is to be responsible.” Living alongside the boys gives Howell a unique view of students making that motto a part of every aspect of their lives, including being responsible for their living/school environment.

A typical day at WES starts when Howell wakes students up around 7 a.m. to finish homework, shower or work on their free throws. After breakfast, it’s back to the dorm to make beds and brush teeth and maybe start some laundry. Classes go from 8:45 a.m.-12:10 p.m. with a short break in the middle. Lunches at WES are famous and the students (and Howell) “are exposed to some of the most delicious meals ever prepared in a school,” he says. The students also get some time after lunch for recess, with classes resuming at 1:10 p.m.. Class continues until 4:25 p.m when the students and Howell start cleaning the school. They get done with their assigned areas around 5 p.m , and then the students head to practice (basketball or track depending on the season). They eat dinner after practice and are in study hall by 7:30 p.m. The students read, study and finish homework up until lights out at 9:30 p.m.

“That being said, no two days are identical,” Howell explains, “and we’re always surprised with visitors, field trips or other opportunities for enrichment.

“While I was invested in student success before I lived here, it certainly gives you a deeper appreciation for those successes,” Howell continues. “Living here, I know how much the kids struggle with non-classroom issues, be they studying or doing laundry or the anxiety of growing up. When they do achieve success, I am all the more proud knowing the mountains they moved to get there.”

Some of those mountains translate into stand-out moments, such as when the school hosted a group of French students from Clermont Ferrand for a day in March.

“I thought a lightning bolt had hit the school,” Nichols relates. “Suddenly, it became so very important to our students to be understood in French. The boys needed the words they had been studying in class. It was a kind of coup de foudre, or bolt of lightning. The day was spent reading books together, eating lunch, playing chess, Mille Bornes and other games—all in French. One of our sixth graders said that it was the most fun he’d had in eight years!”

Howell remembers fondly when his charges served as ambassadors for WES on a school field trip last summer in Washington, D.C., to receive an award for a project the kids had completed about energy.

“In our down time, we explored the city, saw the sites,” Howell says. “Getting around we used the subway system, which was altogether foreign to our students. At one point, a stranger grabbed my arm and said, ‘Are those your kids?’ I quickly responded yes, ready to either apologize or discipline, when he pointed to a student and said, ‘He got up to give his seat to that old lady. Did you see that? People don’t do that here.’ I’m not sure I’ve ever gone from anxious to pure existential satisfaction so quickly. In fact, that man was the first of dozens to come and compliment our young men on such good citizenship.”

And these educators are bringing their Centre experience into their teaching experience.

“Centre and West End School both separate themselves from other schools in the high expectations they have for their students after graduation,” Howell says. “With such a storied history and accomplished list of graduates, Centre serves as a great example of what we’re trying to achieve at WES. We want our alumni to be prepared for the best schools and the best jobs, but we also want them to come back and enrich the community with their successes. The importance of having alumni continue to be such an integral part of a school was something I got to experience firsthand at Centre, and it continually colors my interactions with WES alumni and my desire to have them be such visible figures in our school’s culture.”

“I can help students learn French and engage them in class with a range of creative activities,” Nichols explains. “The challenge, though, is realizing that I can’t repair everything that these boys must face in their lives. Every time I walk into the classroom, I must ask myself, ‘Why French? What can this language give to West End School students that is relevant and necessary for their lives?’ At Centre, the small class size, the seminars, the connection with teachers and peers of different perspectives and backgrounds provide something fundamental—an ability to listen and to connect through telling stories. Research backs this up: strong, binding stories help us to be unshaken by conflict and struggle in life.

“At WES, I co-teach with Debbie Blair, one of the founders of West End School,” she continues. “We use storytelling in French from day one. Often class begins with the simple, ‘Il y avait un garçon…’ (‘there was a boy…’). I hope that reading, speaking, hearing a new language will deepen my students’ love for creating new stories.

“Working at West End School is great practice in staying open. The love of language with all its possibilities is a gift from my Centre education. Dr. Vahlkamp [professor emeritus of French] and Dr. Keffer [H.W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of French and German] were experts at using French in all kinds of creative ways and with great humor.”

Also serving at WES are Susan Wareham Egger ’86, office/business manager, and Chip Thomas ’06, who teaches in the summer program.

by Cindy Long
September 21, 2015