By Matt McCarty
After years of planning and dreaming, the Ignite Institute at the Roebling Innovation Center will open this month with 1,000 northern Kentucky area students.
“It’s almost one of those things where you feel you need to pinch yourself to make sure it’s real,” Boone County board chair Karen Byrd said. “We’ve talked about it for so long and dreamed about it for so long. But it’s not going to really be real to me until the students actually walk into the building on day one.”
Located in a former Toyota building in Boone County, Ignite is owned by the Boone school district but is opening in conjunction with Kenton County Schools, which Byrd described as “two boards that are really excited about this partnership and coming together and doing the best for all kids.”
In addition to students from the two districts, 10 students from Walton-Verona Independent will attend the school. The eventual goal is for 45 percent Boone students and 45 percent Kenton students, with 10 percent from other districts in the region, said Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe.
“It’s not about just Boone County Schools or Kenton County Schools, it’s about providing opportunities for children in the region for public education,” Poe said. “Public education can do it. We’re demonstrating it here at Ignite that we can be transformative.”
Ignite students will be able to earn dual credit allowing students to graduate with an associate degree and/or a workforce certification, Poe said. Teachers at the school will be college certified and are working with Gateway Community and Technical College, Northern Kentucky University and Thomas More University.
Students can choose from one of six concentrations: biomedical sciences, computer science, design, education, engineering and pre-nursing. Construction and logistics are planned to begin in 2020-21.
“This is what the region needs, this is what the state of Kentucky needs, and this could be a model for the nation,” Poe said. “But what we’ve got to do is, somebody’s got to step up to the plate and our board of education stepped up and said, ‘Look, what we’ll do is we will operate the school as a business model.’”
The project cost about $30 million, which included Toyota’s building donation, a Workforce Development grant and the district’s investment.
The 180,000-square foot school could potentialy accommodate more students. But because the pathways take up a lot of space they need to wait to see how 1,000 students fit before adding more, he said.
Ignite will have night training courses for adults in partnership with businesses. There will also be a 360-child daycare operated by Children’s Inc.
“Our pre-education kids will then be able to do practicum and education with them here,” said Bill Hogan, Boone County’s director of strategic initiatives. A different way to educate
Ignite will allow Boone County to expand its dual credit offerings, allowing as many as 250 students per year to earn an associate degree, said Byrd, who is a member of KSBA’s board of directors.
“When you extrapolate that to savings for students and parents at the collegiate level, it’s going to be amazing how much further those kids are going to be able to go with that and how many more opportunities that’s going to provide for students who may not have even considered college an option,” she said. “I don’t even think we’ve had an opportunity to think about all the possibilities that this could create” for the region.
Jerry Gels, co-principal of Ignite, said one of the strengths of the school is that it will allow for a different way to educate students. He said while Boone and Kenton counties have exceptional schools, “there are still kids and families and so forth that want something different and one way to offer something different is to pool your resources and make it happen.”
Gels, who had been director of innovative programs for Boone County, will share the principal role with Julie Whitis, who was the principal of Kenton County’s Academy of Innovation and Technology.
Whitis said a benefit of districts working together is savings. Engineering, computer science or biomedical programs are very expensive, she said.
“So what we’re able to do is offer essentially a service to the home high schools where we say, ‘You can send your scholars here to get this type of education and not have to pay for all the equipment and pay for the teacher training.’ And we want to be able to extend that to as many students in our region as possible,” she said.
Whitis said she knows students who have struggled academically will be able to excel at Ignite, because she saw it happen at the Academy.
“The best part of my job is watching a D average student become an A average scholar at the Academy just because they’re interested in what they’re learning for a change. Personalized learning, I think, is where it’s at.”
Ignite will be a combination of Boone County’s approach to personalized learning and Kenton’s career-based curriculum, Poe said, but it will also include ideas Boone officials found while visiting schools across the state and country.
“Ignite is a combination of the best practices we’ve seen from all the different schools,” he said.
One of the schools was iLead Academy, which opened four years ago as a regional career academy in Carroll County operated by five districts. Hogan was superintendent at Carroll County when it opened.
“I think the similarities is it’s a collaborative effort among districts to try to meet workforce demands and preparing students for their future or the workforce they’re going to enter vs. what you might call a traditional classroom setting,” he said.
The goal is when a student graduates from high school, their experiences will help them understand what their passion is and what would be the best route to continue their education and work skills.
Byrd said when Ignite opens this month, it will not have begun to scratch the surface of what it can be.
“I think it’s just going to be astronomical the potential it might have on what it will be able to do for students across this region and I hope it will become a pilot,” she said. “I know there are other areas that are doing similar things and frankly I hope the state will create these types of grants and replicate them all across the state and replicate this model and give these types of opportunities to students so regions all across the state will be able to do this.”
Toyota hired a national marketing firm to come up with a name and branding for what would become the Ignite Institute.
But the district wasn’t excited about the names the firm sent them, said Superintendent Randy Poe. So they asked media design students at the district’s Imagineering Academy to try. The name they choose: Ignite Institute.
Then the district asked students to vote on what name they preferred from five options – Ignite Institute and four of the names from the national firm.