At W.E.B. DuBois Academy, it’s all about “the pride”

W.E.B. DuBois Academy’s students embrace brotherhood, pride, technology and access courtesy of Verizon Innovative Learning.

By: Taiia Smart Young

Technology inspires this middle school brotherhood to pursue STEM studies and careers

A slow, but eager, smile spreads across Leslye Hardbin’s face as he stops to share what’s he’s working on in math. This is Leslye’s second year at W.E.B. DuBois Academy DuBois, a new, all-boys middle school in Louisville, Kentucky. The seventh grader taps on his device’s screen to open IXL, an app with immersive math, science, Spanish and language arts experiences.

Last year, Leslye and his classmates received fully loaded devices courtesy of Verizon Innovative Learning. DuBois is one of five schools (out of 155) in the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) district to receive devices and access as part of the program. Verizon addresses barriers to digital inclusion by providing free technology, access and a next-gen technology infused curriculum. This transforms the learning experience and enables students to develop the skills, knowledge and capabilities needed to thrive in the digital world.

Standing in front of a poster of civil rights activist, educator and author W.E.B. DuBois, the school’s namesake, the seventh grader describes himself as a “half good and half bad” student. Sometimes he gets into trouble for laughing and talking too much in class. However, when it’s time to knock out his math homework, Leslye gets down to business on his device. “Right now we’re in section J, ratio rates and proportion. I got an 86. And I got 85 in unit rates,” Leslye says, enthusiastically pointing to his scores in the app.

While Leslye doesn’t share this same level of excitement for some aspects of science—“I’m not the type of guy to touch dirt and stuff. And I don’t like bugs”—he is into technology, especially robotics. Leslye enjoys controlling Spheros (a sphere-shaped robot ball) with his device. “I like to drive them around, make them talk and change colors,” says the future University of Kentucky student. Leslye has his heart set on UK because of their robotics program. “I want to be an engineer because it’s hands-on and I like making and building stuff.”

Principal Robert Gunn Jr. chats with students in the cafeteria.

Do what’s best for the kids

It’s hard to keep up with the energetic Principal Robert Gunn Jr. He strides purposefully around DuBois’ bright orange-and-blue colored hallways—wearing the same uniform, a blue blazer, tie and khaki pants as his students. A two-way radio rests on his hip. Principal Gunn confers with dedicated staff and offers an encouraging word during lunch when a student shares artwork on his device. He seems to know all 293 young men in his “pride” by name. Principal Gunn’s passion for educating and advocating for marginalized youth is infectious. He reminds everyone: “It’s a great day to be alive!”

To the outside world, these young men are seen as “deficits, not assets,” says Principal Gunn. But when students enter DuBois as sixth graders they are “lions” and when they graduate they are “kings.” The words “One Pride. One Brotherhood” are emblazoned on the wall as a reminder that they are in this together. It’s also part of the staff and student call and response during their vibrant morning meeting. This gathering is a spirited assembly where each group competes to make the most noise and show some love to their fellow brothers with a gesture or kind words. And a heavy-weight championship style belt is gifted (for the day) to a student with high academics or noticeable growth.

Engineering teacher Troy Duncan shows student ambassador Dallas Jennings the bridge project. 

Students voted for an engineering class 

Although DuBois opened in the 2018-2019 school year, they know a lot about growth. Fifty percent of the students show higher scores in reading and math and some students that were performing below grade level are on their way to becoming proficient. The school had the highest percentage of growth for black males and was ranked one of the most improved schools in the JCPS district. As the school pursues more technology opportunities for its students, DuBois will continue to be one to watch. 

Last year, students voted on their special area classes and 90 percent wanted more STEM courses. 

“They said, ‘Mr. Gunn people are saying some jobs and technology don’t even exist yet, but we’re going to be the ones to create the new tech jobs—we need an engineering class,’” says Principal Gunn. He and Verizon Innovative Learning coach Denette Brown took that request seriously. Now, sixth grade teacher Troy Duncan leads the engineering class (which is supported by a partnership between Verizon and Project Lead the Way) and his students are learning how to build miniature bridges. 

“I challenged the teachers to do it the way that you want to do it. As long as you think it’s going to be good for kids. I’m not going to tell you no here,” says Principal Gunn, heading outside to participate in dismissal. “I think Mr. Duncan is just scratching the surface on what he’ll be doing.”

Da’Quan Bell greets a DuBois staffer before the morning meeting begins.

Rising to Meet the Challenge

It’s hard to believe Da’Quan Bell had a behavior problem in elementary school. Fighting fellow classmates caused his grades to slip, but today, he’s a thoughtful, self-aware straight-A student. He warmly greets staffers and gives bear hugs to his fellow “brothers” when it’s time to show love during morning meeting. These days, when Da’Quan loses his cool, he does push-ups to relieve stress. Plus, knowing that Principal Gunn and Mr. Duncan (who reminds Da’Quan of his loving, but no-nonsense dad) have his back makes a huge difference.

Like Leslye, Da’Quan was part of DuBois’ inaugural sixth grade class. But before it was official, the seventh grader worried about securing a spot in the coveted school.

“Everybody wanted to be here. And then it was like, it’s an Afrocentric school and there’s a lot of black people who don’t want their kids to be statistics,” he says, grateful to be part of the brotherhood. “I thought a lot of people want their kids to be here, and they do.”

Da’Quan works hard to distance himself from his old habits. He takes AP courses and is mastering proportionality in math. “At first I really didn’t get it, but there were two teachers in the room to help me. I’m better at it now. I like to be challenged, but I don’t like to be pushed to the point where I don’t know it at all,” says Da’Quan.

Rising to meeting challenges head on is good practice for his future career. “[People] ask me if I want to be an architect,” Da’Quan says, heading to a trip to the Speed Art Museum. “I want to be that, but I also want to be an artist. I want to see my stuff in a museum.”