By Brenna R. Kelly
Larisa McKinney wasn’t sure whether the 30 students in the first graduating class of iLead Academy would want a ceremony. After all, they were technically graduating from their home high schools and would attend those graduations.
So, she asked.
“A hundred percent of the students said they would attend an iLead ceremony,” said McKinney who has been the regional career academy’s director since it opened in 2015. “We’re pretty much family here. We are so small and they’ve been with us for the last four years.”
The ceremony was the culmination of the leap of faith students from five Kentucky districts made when they started as freshmen at the school designed to prepare students for high-demand, high-wage jobs in the state’s golden triangle – an area bordered by Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky.
“They applied to something that had never been opened and we didn’t even have furniture the first day of school,” McKinney said. “But we set off with a promise that we were going to provide them with what we said we would.”
And they did. Of the 30 students who graduated this May, 25 graduated with associate degrees in science. This fall, two more will complete associate of applied science. And most graduates have plans to attend a four-year college this fall.
One of those students is Owen County school board member Neese Chilton’s daughter. Grace Chilton graduated with an associate degree and will begin college at Transylvania University as a junior this fall. She hopes to go to medical school.
“She absolutely loved it from the time she started until it was over,” Chilton said. “What she liked was that it was self-paced and challenging, probably more so than a traditional high school because she was able to concentrate in the field she wants to go into.”
The school began with an engineering pathway, and has since added biomedical, nursing and computer science, McKinney said. It has also grown from 38 students to 116 in the 2018-19 school year.
“This year recruiting was so successful that we are sitting here with some hard decisions (for the 2019-20 school year),” said Molly Sullivan, leadership mentor at iLead.
In addition to Owen, students from Henry, Carroll, Gallatin and Trimble counties can attend the school which is governed by a board made up of those districts’ superintendents and is operated by the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative.
The school, which is next to a Kroger in a Carrollton strip mall, opened with a $250,000 appropriation from the 2014 General Assembly and continues to operate with contributions from the districts.
The governing structure of the school has worked out well, Chilton said.
“The (superintendents) make really good decisions and they are always thinking about the kids first,” she said. “And they definitely want to continue to see it grow.”
Owen Superintendent Rob Stafford keeps the board updated about what’s going on at iLead so that it’s treated just like the district’s other schools, Chilton said.
“They are still our students,” she said.
Despite the success of the first graduating class, there have been speed bumps along the way, McKinney said.
“We’ve had to learn to be flexible, we’ve had to learn to say, ‘OK that didn’t work, let’s try this,’” she said. For example, the school changed online curriculum management programs twice in the first two years. During one switch, students had to completely retake their classes.
“We wanted to be project-based, we wanted to be hybrid with a true blended learning environment and we just couldn’t do it with the number of staff that we had,” McKinney said. So they hired a teacher with dual certification in English and social studies.
Because students are coming from five districts and participate in things such as band and sports at their home schools, logistics are complicated, Sullivan said.
“There are a lot of moving parts in this school,” she said. “The environment here is very personalized, and it’s serving five districts. The kids go to the area technology centers, the kids go to Jefferson Community and Technical College, there are at least three platforms online, and then the pathways. There’s just a lot to keep track of.”
McKinney believes more districts should work together to create new ways of learning for their students, but communication and having a focus are key, she said.
“You really have to develop a vision and mission for what you are creating. Why do you want to create this school to begin with?” she said. “Is it something that your high school already offers, because you don’t want to be in competition with any home high school.”
In fact, iLead plans to narrow its focus from the multiple career pathways it has added over the years, she said.
“With the number of applicants we’re getting, we want to make sure that what we’re doing, we’re doing well and we’re not doing too many things,” she said.
Future iLead students will benefit from that first graduating class who signed up not knowing exactly what they were getting into, but persevered and succeeded, McKinney said. As she talked to students and families at the senior ceremony, McKinney thanked parents for allowing their children to be the first and not allowing them to quit.
“That senior ceremony kind of finalized the proof that iLead can do what it says that it can do,” she said. “Before we could just boast about what we thought we knew, but now we know we can graduate 25 kids with an associate of science.”