Isaiah Brents and Jordan Duff

By the time Isaiah Brents was in the sixth grade, he was getting into trouble and hanging around with the wrong crowd.

So much so, that when three people were murdered in front of his mother’s Shively home, she decided something had to be done. She didn’t want to see Brents end up like that.

She enrolled him in the newly established West End School, a boarding school for middle school boys.

Jordan Duff’s story is similar. He was performing poorly at his middle school in Indianapolis, too. His grandmother, who lives in Louisville, told his mother they could either visit him at the boarding school or behind bars.

“I wasn’t a bad kid. I was influenced a lot. I wasn’t myself yet. I was following people I thought were cool,” Duff said.

Now, Brents is a senior at Kentucky Country Day School and Duff is a junior.

Both boys have scholarships to the elite, private high school and scholarship offers to state colleges after graduation.

They both credit their time at the West End School for helping them get where they are now.

“I’m thankful for it,” Duff said. “Lord knows what I’d be into if I hadn’t been at the West End School.”

The West End School is a free, private, non-profit college preparatory elementary and middle school for at-risk young men in the Parkland neighborhood of the West End. Like no other school in Kentucky, boys in sixth, seventh and eighth grades board there almost year-round. It’s one of a growing number of urban boarding schools across the country seeking to narrow the nearly universal achievement gap for poor and minority students.

As part of a series exploring the West End School as an emerging model for education, Insider Louisville visited West End School to speak with founder and administrator Robert Blair about the school’s mission and methods. We also spoke with teachers there about how their classrooms differ. Now we hear from students Isaiah Brents and Jordan Duff about their experience at the school and how and why it worked for them.

Positive Influence

Blair and proponents of urban boarding schools believe students with home lives troubled by violence, drug use, incarceration, financial strain or other problems can benefit from a nearly round-the-clock educational environment.

Blair and his wife, Deborah Blair, live on campus. So does another administrator. There, school days are longer, classroom sizes are smaller and there is a fleet of volunteers and mentors from the community helping the boys.

The reinforcement students receive is nearly constant.

“It was more structured and supervised,” Brents said. “I had someone standing over me all the time telling me what to do, keeping me doing the right thing.”

Brents and Duff said that was new for them. Both were from homes with single mothers who were struggling to keep their boys in line.

“There was no father as a role model to put the foot down and tell us when to stop and create some order in our lives,” Brents said.

Duff agreed.

“That’s where Mr. Blair came in,” he said. “(The school) teaches you how to be a young man; it takes you from being a boy to a young man. When I was there that was one of the things Mr. Blair really focused on. He didn’t care if you were smart, or the fastest or the strongest, but when you walked out he wanted to know that you were a great young man, that you knew how to carry yourself. That’s why he teaches those values of shaking someone’s hand, looking them in the eye and saying ‘yes sir,’ ‘yes ma’am,’ sitting right at the dinner table, standing up if a lady comes to the table. He tries to teach you things that will be useful after you leave.”

The boys were in classrooms with just a few others. Duff said teachers know immediately if a student is slacking off or sleeping. At his former public school, there were so many students, teachers made students wear name tags to keep them all straight, he said.

Teachers at the West End School also push high expectations that are individualized for each student.

“I think they put you at a level they thought you could be at, not what you set your standards to, they set your standards higher,” Duff said. “They work with you, but at the same time they push you ’cause they know you can do better.”

And there is the bond that forms between the boys as they grow and learn together.

“It’s kind of like growing up with a bunch of brothers,” Brents said.

Duff said life there came to feel like belonging to a real family.

“We all had the same classes, we cleaned the school together, we got in trouble together. We didn’t do anything without one another. That’s how we formed that brotherhood. Sometimes you didn’t even want to go home on the weekends because it just felt normal just to stay there,” he said.

The Challenges

Both boys said it was hard to transition to boarding school life.

“First few days, I really didn’t like it. I missed home mostly,” Brents said. “Afterwhile I got the hang of it and started to fit in.”

The Blairs know its hard, the boys said, and allow students to call home when they want to or when they’re feeling homesick.

They said some boys simply couldn’t stay. They missed their homes and families too much.

“The Blairs weren’t mad or angry; they just understood that. It’s not for everyone, so they let them go,” Duff said.

The West End School helps students who graduate from the eighth grade transition into the area’s best high schools, private and public.

Brents and Duff have gone from the West End School where the entire student body is almost exactly like them — fellow at-risk black youth — to KCD, where they are in the minority in terms of race and background.

Ultimately, both said learning to navigate such diverse situations has made them stronger and more prepared for the real world and the work force.

The Rewards

Both boys said they know they are farther along than some friends they were hanging around with before they entered West End School. Some of those kids are not at grade level, are in jail or have even died.

They both understand that education can make for them the lives they want to lead.

“I’d say us coming here was great for us because we actually get to see both sides. We know where we came from and we see all the kids here with huge houses and nice cars. We can see what we also can have,” Brents said. “Here we’re going to school with lawyers’ children; we can see what we actually can become.”

Duff agreed, saying his mom cries sometimes out of pride in the young man he’s become.

“Here it’s not like when we were little, we thought we had to be a big drug dealer or a famous person or a football or sports star. Education can also lead you to the same road — to money and power — eduction can get you that,” he said.

Brents plans to study sports medicine or physical training next year at Georgetown College on scholarship. Duff plans to study law when he graduates and has received scholarship offers from Georgetown, Murray State and University of Tennessee at Martin.

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a series about the West End School. To read the first installment click here and to read the second installment click here. Our last and final installment will address whether the West End School is a model that can be replicated.