Kenton Co. students immersed in innovation, tech

Teenagers say they want to be treated like adults, and that they want more responsibility. But what happens when you give it to them in the classroom?

Turns out they like it. They REALLY like it.

This past school year, the Kenton County School District began a major shift in how it educates its most motivated, tech-savvy high school students. The school created the Kenton County Academies of Technology and Innovation in Edgewood, in the the former J.D. Patton Career and Technical Center.

The building houses six career-based academies, all centered on in-depth study, collaboration and project-based learning. They include:
  • Biomedical sciences
  • Engineering 
  • High performance production technology (HPPT)
  • Informatics 
  • Media arts 
  • Sustainable energy technology engineering 
The district chose these areas of study based on regional job growth potential over the next several decades, says Academy Director Francis O'Hara.

"Those jobs of the future are here, especially in the Commonwealth," he says. "These areas are where we're going to see the most growth."

Students spend half a day in the classroom, and the other half at their respective academy. Kenton County is embarking on this new approach in order to energize a student body that is more technologically savvy than any before them, O'Hara says.

"These students are digital natives,” he says. “They don't know a time before the Internet and computer technology. But they are also digital introverts; they don't usually demonstrate their knowledge. What we're doing through the academies is motivating the students to take ownership of their education and exposing them to different professions.”

In its first year, 230 students (all 10th and 11th graders) from the district's three high schools worked in the academies. All were chosen through an application process. Next year, more than double that number are expected to take part, O'Hara says.

Project based learning
During their half-day in the academy, students relate their career field of study to math and English. As part of their learning, academy students must complete and present a project related to their learning, and they're required to incorporate math and English skills into their project and presentation. 

Students have been welcomed by the business community and higher education communities, both of which have members that sit on presentation panels. They've sponsored scholarship competitions and offered summer internships to many academy students.

"The whole point is to get kids accelerated without them even realizing it—it really motivates them to enjoy high school,"  O'Hara says.

In the classroom, students in HPPT have built and programmed robots. In biomedical sciences, students have used college level medical equipment. And some media arts students decided to create a documentary film. 

The academy also shows a clear link between school work and career path, which keeps students learning.

"You're introduced to a more professional experience," says 11th grade engineering student Zach Mehuron, from Scott High School. "The course work is more rigorous and driven toward the career path you want to pursue."

The hands-on, teamwork nature of learning also better suits these students.

"It's not just listening to your teacher all the time," Mehuron says. "It's learning from your classmates and collaborating with your classmates. In a regular classroom, I would usually sit and listen to the teacher lecture for a long period of time and probably wouldn't much learn of anything, to be honest."

In a round of interviews with Soapbox, student after student counted off the surprising plusses of academy learning. Among them were dealing with pressure, working in teams, spending hours perfecting projects, presenting their work to professionals and being pushed past their limits.

"Instead of trying to meet the benchmark, you try to beat the benchmark," says Simon Kenton High School 12th grader Jake Lucas, a student in engineering. "There is a lot more intellect, and a lot higher skill level required. You have a lot more freedom, but a lot more responsibility as well."

Just last month, 11 HPPT students competed for scholarships that pay for up to 24 credit hours at Gateway Community and Technical College. Students can take college courses will enrolled in high school.

Students say they spend far more time working on projects in the academy than the traditional classroom. They don't seem to the mind the long hours, the competition or the nerves. In fact, they thrive on it.

"It puts a lot more responsibility on you," says Lucas. "We have our regular classroom work and our academy work, so it's work stacked on top of more work. But it makes you prepare for the future."

As the Academies of Technology and Innovation mature, they're designed to be three-year programs and include sophomores through seniors. The Kenton County School District wants to build on the Academy and is one of 17 districts across Kentucky applying to become a "District of Innovation," which is a new designation that allows districts to waive some established education statutes to bring more non-traditional learning to the classroom.

The district should find out if it is approved later this month.

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