Innovative Programs in Kentucky’s High Schools

December 14, 2016

by Joyce West

You might imagine a typical high school student’s day like this: Sit in class, take notes, raise your hand to answer questions, and occasionally work in small groups on assignments.

Think again. KET’s Education Matters highlights two programs – the iLead Academy in Carrollton and the Owensboro Innovation Academy – that allow students to spend much of their time working together on projects that will prepare them for jobs in technical fields. These jobs are plentiful and in demand, according to Hal Heiner, secretary for Kentucky’s Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.

“We have way more jobs available than we have individuals with the skill and education levels,” he said. Heiner said Kentucky needs 65,000 new people per year entering the workforce. “And these are 65,000 good jobs. But it’s going to take more than a high school diploma to get there.”

iLead Academy
At iLead Academy, students from five counties – Carroll, Gallatin, Henry, Owen and Trimble – get instruction in the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and math, as well as the biomedical field.

Jenna Gray, engineering and math teacher at the iLead Academy, said most of the students who apply to the school have an interest in engineering. “More than that, too, they’re just looking for a different educational experience than the traditional high school can give them,” she said.

The school uses project-based learning, meaning students learn concepts through their work on projects, such as building a catapult to learn about physics. Alexis Cook and Jalen Spaulding of Owen County and Wyatt Potter of Trimble County used ratios to determine how to make a larger catapult from a smaller model. “So we have to figure out the weight of what we’re throwing and how big of a structure we need to build,” Cook said.

If students make the benchmark scores on the ACT, they can begin taking college classes their junior year through Jefferson Community and Technical College. “The idea is that these students that have this intrinsic motivation to learn and can move at their own pace, also have the opportunity to finish high school with an associate’s degree,” said Larisa McKinney, director of iLead Academy.

The Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative operates the ILead Academy for the five county school districts. The academy uses the curriculum from Project Lead the Way, a national provider of K-12 STEM programs.

The school has a flexible environment, with no class period bells, and space for students to work on projects at their leisure, McKinney said. Students typically take only one or two traditional classes. “The rest of their time in that flexible environment they have online courses delivered at their own pace,” she said.

Initiatives that allow students to earn college credit while in high school are the future of education, Heiner said. “My hope is that within a few years here, you will not be able to graduate high school without postsecondary experience,” he said. “And I think that will cause many districts to say, ‘We need to find a new way.’”

Heiner hopes programs like iLead are replicated across the state. “We’re just headed down this technology route at a speed this world has never seen before. And education has to respond if we’re going to fill those jobs.”

Owensboro Innovation Academy
The Owensboro Innovation Academy (OIA), which serves students from the Owensboro public schools and from Daviess, McLean and Hancock counties, is the first high school in Kentucky to be a part of the national New Tech Network, a national nonprofit that offers planning, design, and implementation support for schools. The school offers a curriculum focused on STEM fields and entrepreneurship.

Beth Benjamin, director of OIA, said community involvement was key for them. “All the training for our teachers to learn project-based learning was paid for out of a community nonprofit, the Public Life Foundation. And so our community has really bought into this school because it provides students the learning for the careers that are needed in Daviess County.”

There is no typical day at the Owensboro academy, she said. Students might build a roller coaster model out of recyclable materials for a physics class, she said, or lead visitors on a tour. Students in computer coding developed an app so that elementary school teachers can communicate with English language learners in the district.

The Owensboro academy is open to any student, and students are chosen by lottery. “There are no application requirements, there’s no ACT requirement,” Benjamin said. “We really are open to all students.”

Students can network through internships and other opportunities to find out what careers interest them. “Not only does it provide benefit to them, but the entire community as well. It keeps them there in Owensboro,” Benjamin said.

In their junior year, they can go to Brescia University and Kentucky Wesleyan University for dual credit classes. The Owensboro academy also offers dual credit in engineering and biomedicine classes.

Visionary Leadership
Stephen Pruitt, Kentucky’s education commissioner, said these innovative programs put kids at the focus. “They are saying, look, actually this is better to understand [a subject] from a holistic standpoint, to understand it in context, as opposed to just learning it on a chalkboard.”

He praised local leaders for coming together to create these STEM-based high schools. “First of all, it takes some innovative and visionary leadership, from the local side, to say we want to do something different,” Pruitt said.

As far as the Kentucky Department of Education is concerned, Pruitt said, “We’re happy to support as many as want to do this. Our job is to find a way to say yes.”

The new school accountability system is designed to give local school districts incentives to collaborate so they can expand innovative programs. “The magic bullet, if there is one in education, is that the superintendents said we want to do something different, we want to do something special,” Pruitt said.

Heiner believes more students need exposure to STEM fields. “With repeated exposure throughout the school years, students can be ready to make an informed choice in high school about their career paths,” he said. “That exposure has to build in earlier years. Bring in Project Lead the Way, or similar projects, into those grades. I think it will raise the excitement level.”

Heiner said the Kentucky Department of Education could offer a template for superintendents that would make it easier to collaborate financially on regional schools. This collaboration, he said, is especially important in the rural school districts, which have limited resources and must work together to offer increased levels of specialization.

Pruitt said that the state is in line to receive a grant to incentivize collaboration for technical education. “And that will be good. Money is good. But the thing is, money runs out. So people have to really approach this from the idea of, what’s our strategy? Where do we really want to go? And then find the funds to go with it. … Money without vision doesn’t always get you where you need to be.”

Heiner said school reform is needed to prepare the next generation. “Unless we bring about reforms within our education system, our students aren’t going to be prepared for jobs to make it to the middle class or better,” he said.

Pruitt said change is needed for the future of the commonwealth. “We’ve got to get out of … worrying about how it affects us adults, and worry more about how we can guarantee that each child, regardless of where they live or what they look like, can get a quality education that leads them somewhere,” he said.

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