Lexington Public Schools

Teaching reading, writing, math, science and social studies is hard enough when students speak English before they start school.

But student learning is improving rapidly in Lexington, where the high school students come from 37 countries.

State test scores over the last three years at Lexington High School have skyrocketed. Reading is up 28 percentage points, writing by 19 points and math by 17 points. This, at a time when statewide reading and math scores went down and writing scores rose more modestly.

State and national experts should study what’s producing these impressive results.

Last month, a Lexington High School delegation presented its five-year-old approach, called “Destination Graduation,” to a national group of principals.

Lexington High School divides all 840 of its students into one of 12 academic teams, each led by different teachers and administrators.

Younger students spend a period a day learning how to succeed academically in high school. They’re taught leadership skills. Older students have a daily focus period where teachers, counselors and coaches meet with them individually to discuss grades, attendance, extracurriculars and any troubles at school, home or work.

Relationships built by checking in and following up encourage buy-in from students, says Lexington High School Principal Kyle Hoehner. It helps kids care about their own education.

“Without relationships I think you’re going nowhere fast — and they can’t be contrived relationships,” he told The World-Herald. “If you develop strong relationships with kids, it eliminates a lot of discipline problems. It eliminates the bowing out or dropping out of school. They care.”

The teams earn prizes and rewards for the best academic performance, the most academic improvement, attendance and getting involved in extracurricular activities. The school holds pep rallies for the dozen academic teams and reports the standings regularly, encouraging competition.

The main competition focuses on which team finishes with the highest graduation rate. Good grades often settle ties at the top. The winners, as seniors, take home new Apple laptops as part of $25,000 in annual support for the project provided by the Lexington Community Foundation.

The effort has posted impressive results since the district’s 2011 decision to require fewer electives and implement the new approach. The school last year posted a 91 percent graduation rate, with 95 percent attendance. Best of all, it appears to have done so without diluting academics.

Lexington is a diverse city of about 10,200 in west-central Nebraska that caters to the meatpacking industry and agribusiness. About 60 percent of Lexington’s population is Latino. About 30 percent is white. And another 6 percent is black, many of them African refugees.

Lexington High students speak 23 languages. Teachers don’t use that as an excuse. They give of their mornings, evenings and weekends to help kids learn. “I’ll put their work ethic and time up against everybody,” Hoehner said. “We go home tired every night, but with a smile on our face.”

For years, Lexington’s public schools struggled to help kids succeed who came to school speaking languages other than English. In less than three decades, the school district has seen its number of students qualified for free and reduced price lunch jump from 4 percent to 79 percent. Five years ago, Lexington High posted some of the state’s lowest four-year graduation rates, at 81 percent, and test scores among the worst.

Now, long after an influx of immigrant students followed the 1990 opening of a large meatpacking plant, Lexington’s schools are being honored for their effectiveness in helping all kids learn.

Part of that success is the natural improvement that occurs among second-generation immigrants. But the hard work of teachers, administrators and families also suggests that the effort in Lexington has a lot to teach us all. 

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