Tech and Tradition

July 30, 2016
Kentucky Monthly

Owensboro Innovation Academy

When the school bell sounds its clarion call, many students will head to public schools and some to private and parochial institutions, while others will fill the ranks of the home educated. Part of what makes the Commonwealth a wonderful place to raise a family is the variety of educational opportunities open to students and the resources available to parents to ensure the best academic outcomes for their children. Among those opportunities are two very different schools: the Owensboro Innovation Academy and the Maysville Academy. With one embracing tech and the other tradition, each proves that education in Kentucky is anything but typical.

Located in the Centre for Business and Research, the Owensboro Innovation Academy encourages Kentucky’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students to approach learning from a problem-solving perspective. “All of our classes are taught through project-based learning,” said OIA Director Beth Benjamin. “Our mission is to make learning an adventure and produce citizens who can solve the problems of tomorrow.”

The Academy is the first Kentucky school to partner with the New Tech Network, a nonprofit organization that seeks to prepare students for college and tech-based careers via group-centered problem solving with an emphasis on critical thinking. Kids at the OIA work with teachers, each other and members of the community to achieve their goals.

“We have classes on the bottom level [of the Centre’s building], and the top level serves as an incubator for up-and-coming businesses in the Owensboro area,” Benjamin said. “There are also research labs located on the top floor. This provides a unique opportunity for our students to collaborate with local community partners. OIA is a joint venture of the Owensboro and Daviess County Public Schools, and was originated with the Regional Alliance for Education.”

The difference in structure and approach from that of a typical high school creates an environment uniquely conducive to learning and college preparation for those interested in STEM careers. Here, students engage in projects that reflect real-world work environments while mastering the ins and outs of functioning on a team. The faculty brings not only their education expertise to the classroom, but also their professional experiences and hungry-for-knowledge attitude toward learning. “They all hold certifications from KDE [Kentucky Department of Education] in their field,” Benjamin said. “Our faculty is committed to engaging students in the learning process. They are lifelong learners themselves and are passionate about their job. They are simply the best around, and work together as a team.”

Despite the axiomatic differences, students at the OIA enjoy the same experiences as their peers in conventional high schools. “The curriculum is the same as a traditional high school,” Benjamin said. “It is just taught in a different manner, through PBL [project-based learning]. Students will be placed in internships in their STEM field beginning their junior year. They will also begin taking college classes that will meet their high school requirements.”

Extracurricular activities are abundant, and kids are encouraged to pursue their interests. “Students are allowed to participate in sports, arts programs and clubs at their zoned high school,” added Benjamin. “They can even attend arts classes at their zoned schools during the day [band, orchestra, dance, art, chorus, etc.]. We do have a robotics team that competes across the state. Also, we have several student-led clubs like App Club, Gaming Club and Activities Club.”

Benjamin explained the admissions process, academic affinity expectations and community reaction to OIA since its opening in 2015: “The response has been overwhelming. We have partnered with over 40 community partners and businesses to work on student projects. We had 80 freshmen this year and are adding 105 freshmen and 10 sophomores to next year’s enrollment. There are no acceptance criteria; students are chosen based on a lottery. Students should be interested in one of the STEM fields we offer. Those are engineering, biomedical and computer science.”

The crux of OIA’s success is clearly support—support from parents, students, business leaders and both the Owensboro Public Schools and the Daviess County Public Schools. The commitment from all parties has given the Owensboro Innovation Academy a successful first year and a future full of promise.

“To work as well as we have,” said Benjamin, “we depended on members of the OPS and DCPS. From transportation to school administration, they have all been very supportive of this endeavor. We could not have done it without the support from both districts.”

At the other end of the Ohio River lies the beautiful campus of the private Maysville Academy. Begun more than a year ago by the Carlson family—owners of the Carlson Software Company of Maysville—the Academy offers a liberal arts education that demands not only academic excellence but also the development of physical prowess and dignified behavior.

“Maysville Academy seeks to support each and every pupil in achieving their full potential,” said Schoolmaster Brett Welch, “with an academic and rigorous knowledge-rich curriculum, and an environment that promotes moral integrity and positive competition. The school also seeks to ensure all pupils develop hard technical skills to allow them to engage with modern technology as well as promoting a strong sporting ethos.”

This combination of moral, physical and cerebral makes for a well-rounded curriculum. The Carlson family partnered with Carfax Education Group to create a school with those standards. Founded in the United Kingdom, the CEG focuses on the teacher-student relationship, the mastery of content and application of logic as a means to greater understanding and engagement, and the use of knowledge as a bridge to the next intellectual level.

“The Carfax model of education is one that is rooted in excellence,” said Welch, “and which does not compromise in pursuing this goal. Carfax believes that high expectations, excellent teaching staff and a reliance on evidence-based approaches to pedagogy—including exposure to a knowledge-rich curriculum—provide pupils with the best opportunity to excel.”

At the Maysville Academy, students are immersed in the traditional sciences, mathematics, engineering and computer science, where they will learn to write programs and eventually intern with various professional organizations. Math and science serve as the academic foundation upon which superior reading and writing skills and proficiency in history, geography and the fine arts are added. Student progress is closely monitored to ensure each child is attaining his or her learning goals.

“A range of assessment approaches are taken to ensure that the attainment and progress of pupils is gauged on an ongoing basis,” Welch said. “This includes questioning, observation, monitoring and the marking of written work. This allows for ongoing feedback to ensure all pupils are able to make good progress in lessons and throughout the year. The school also ensures that all pupils understand how to engage confidently with standardized tests and holds a series of examinations throughout the year.”

Outside of the classroom, students are expected to conduct themselves appropriately, representing themselves, their families and the school with dignity and decorum. “Pupils are encouraged to behave as young ladies and gentlemen of character and integrity,” said Welch, “behaving in a way that sets them aside as role models within the wider community.”

This standard of behavior is extended to all sporting and extracurricular activities as friendly competition at the Academy is considered de rigueur. “A wide range of activities are encouraged by the school,” Welch said, “ranging from chess to hiking, as well as competitive team sports. Pupils participate in regular outdoor play and are encouraged to excel in this regard. The school hopes to establish a rowing club on the river in the coming year.”

As a matter of principle, the Academy rejects the “participation trophy” ideology and instead views competition as a means to develop character and the essential skills necessary to function in a group environment. “The school considers that, both in the classroom and on the playing fields, positive competition is a force for good, encouraging pupils in confidence, teamwork, fair play and sportsmanship,” Welch said. “There is strong evidence to suggest that an ‘all must have prizes’ approach undermines pupil aspiration and leads to lower attainment and lower confidence.”

Though only in its second year of operation, the Maysville Academy is garnering the attention of Kentucky parents and expects a steady increase in enrollment, which is around 20 students for the upcoming school year. “Places are available [provided there is sufficient demand] from kindergarten through to the age of 12 or 13, though we would consider speculative applications from older pupils,” Welch said. “Places are awarded on the basis of interview and written examination. The school charges tuition fees but has established a system of scholarships and bursaries to allow, as far as is possible, all those who would benefit from the education that the Academy offers.”

Beyond a loving, nurturing family, the education a child receives is arguably the most fundamental aspect of his or her upbringing. Fortunately for Kentucky parents, the decision on where to attain that education is far from limited. The Owensboro Innovation Academy and the Maysville Academy are two excellent options, each providing a unique academic model.