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High school innovation: it’s all in the timing

High school innovation:  it’s all in the timing The pot is beginning to boil on high school reform in Kentucky after simmering for the past five years since the issue first came to the fore.

More districts are now in the early years of new high school models or launching innovative ways to approach high school education.

The uptick in innovation rests with 2009’s package of education reforms in Senate Bill 1, which emphasizes getting Kentucky students college and career ready.

With that, “along came a lot of strategies for our high school graduates and that’s where all these new initiatives and strategies are coming from,” said Carole Frakes, a consultant who works in the state education department’s college and career readiness branch.

The pledge that districts signed committing them to increase the number of college- and career-ready students by 50 percent by 2015 has contributed to the push, Frakes said.

The high schools that have implemented new models over the past year or two “have been at the forefront” of the expected changes, she said.

For Bullitt County school board Chairwoman Delores Ashby, launching a math and science academy last year was just part of the business of improving student achievement.

“I think everybody on the board was really excited about the opportunity to expose our gifted students to some of those deeper-thinking connections they can make,” she said.

The Bullitt County approach is not unusual. “Most of the innovative strategies that are out there are having to do with pathways, whether they’re on an IB (International Baccalaureate) track or early college, those kinds of things,” Frakes said.

Advance Kentucky, which aims to increase AP class enrollment and performance, also is playing a big role, she said, as are models from national sources like Project Lead the Way. All these dovetail with the state’s own school turnaround program, academic career advising tool and other measures.

Examples of this year’s inaugural programs: accelerated academies for high-achieving students in Shelby County, emphasizing advanced placement and science, technology, engineering and math courses; an early college program in Boyle County that partners with two universities and a tech school but uses its own teachers; another early college program in Washington County for juniors and seniors; and a redesign of Covington Independent’s high school into career clusters as part of its turnaround plan.

Boyd County: Year 1

Boyd County: Year 1 Boyd County High School’s science and technology program launched this year with a full-blown, project-based STEM curriculum in the morning and regular electives in the afternoon for 24 carefully selected students.

But this high school program has not been designed solely for what Principal Rhonda Salisbury calls “brainchildren.”

While the students must meet a grade minimum, “We felt the commitment and the desire to learn and succeed and make a future for themselves (was important); we saw that hunger in these students,” she said. “You just can’t accommodate the elite.”

Picture - Boyd County High School teachers Mary Leigh Lewis and C.J. Perkins attended training this summer to prepare for the school’s new STEM program. Blake Greisinger, in the background, from The STEM Academy conducted the training.

Science teacher Gary Coffman, who is coordinating the program, said even though the students are at different levels of learning, “We’re going to push them all to the honors level” so they have greater technological and engineering literacy.

Seventy students applied to the program. Parents were part of the student interviews, so they would understand what was involved, since the course work is demanding, Salisbury said.

The high school’s STEM program is beginning with five core courses integrated with the state’s core content and heavy on engineering. It combines self-paced interactive computer-based learning with project-based classroom activities.

“It’s based on the premise that engineering, period, is an excellent framework or springboard for a better understanding of the other components of STEM,” Salisbury said.

The curriculum and model were designed by a group of STEM instructors and purchased from the STEM Academy, a national nonprofit organization. It costs about $50,000 per year and includes training and resources. The high school has cobbled together money from its annual allocation, professional development funds, local sponsorship and corporate grants to pay for the program, Salisbury said.

The STEM program dovetails nicely with the school’s agreement with Morehead State University to allow students to take MSU courses without having to leave Ashland. Seventeen of Boyd County High School’s teachers are certified to teach at the college level.

“These classes, eventually we’re hoping to have 21 and offer any child that enters our school 70 tuition-free hours before they leave,” said Superintendent Howard Osborne. “That, along with our STEM academy, has improved our educational opportunities for our students and enabled us to get more of our students college and career ready.”

This program also is a precursor to what the district is planning for its new high school, scheduled to open in January 2013. The entire school will revolve around career academies – tentatively STEM, marketing/business, communications, international studies, arts and humanities and hospitality services.

Bullitt County: Year 2

Bullitt County: Year 2

What started as an experimental high school program last year in Bullitt County has snowballed.

“It’s no longer experimental,” said Superintendent Keith Davis.

In fact, educators from Shelby, Spencer, Oldham and Nelson county districts visited the Bullitt Advanced Math and Science program last year, said Kelly Cleavinger, who teaches and oversees the program.

The highly selective, four-year program began its first year with 20 freshmen; this year 25 more students will be added – out of 116 applicants – along with a second teacher. BAMS began when administrators hit on the idea of establishing a program like the residential Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science at Western Kentucky University, but would allow students to stay in their community.

“I think we finally realized we were underserving our gifted and talented kids a great deal,” Cleavinger said.

Students are accepted based on the kind of rigorous application process used by private universities, including requisite test scores, teacher recommendations, interview and essay. Once accepted, they find the course work is equally tough, Cleavinger said.

Picture - Bullitt Advanced Math and Science program student Marty Brand studies an anatomical model during an open house.

“Some have never worked that hard,” he said.

The program uses the same computer-based program as the Kentucky Virtual High School, along with classroom lessons and hands-on projects. Students do advanced research in astronomy through partnerships with University of Louisville and the University of Queensland, Australia. BAMS works with Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, for which students have been monitoring stream water quality and wildlife.

The program also relies heavily on the local branch of Jefferson Community and Technical College.

“They’ll walk out of here in four years as a junior in college and we will have paid for everything,” Cleavinger said.

This year another specialized program is joining BAMS in the same building. Sixty incoming freshmen and sophomores will attend the Career Readiness Center, spending half-days with online learning and half days at the vocational-technical center, Davis said.

Besides learning a trade, students, who also must go through an application process, will be trained in entrepreneurship, money management and work skills.

The district also has dismantled its central alternative high school program, returning those students to their home schools and creating a Flex School in each. This arrangement allows students to work online at their own pace. They, and other regular students, can also attend JCTC classes at half-price tuition.

Picture - Eric Rawlings, a student in the Bullitt Advanced Math and Science program, uses a Vernier LabQuest to electronically record and analyze data from an experiment. Photo by John Roberts/Bullitt County Schools

“There are multiple pathways – and that’s what we’re really trying to get at as much as we can – individualize the process so kids can decide what they want to do and get prepared for college or career by the time they get out,” Davis said.
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