Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna R. Kelly
When Owensboro Innovation Academy opened its doors in 2015, just 79 students had signed up for the new project-based learning high school created by a collaboration of Owensboro Independent and Daviess County Schools.
“The second year it grew a little bit, but really by the third and fourth year we were doing a stratified lottery to place kids in the program,” said Nick Brake, Owensboro Independent superintendent.
This fall Owensboro will open Innovation Middle School. The schools are part of the district’s commitment to what Brake calls a split screen approach to education – traditional schools for the students who want it and schools that “turn school on its head and do it differently to serve the group of kids that want that,” Brake said.
The Innovation Academy is part of the New Tech Network, a California-based nonprofit funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The network now includes 207 schools in 25 states.
Owensboro opened the school with a nearly $400,000 grant from Owensboro’s Public Life Foundation which allowed teachers to visit other New Tech schools and learn how to become facilitators who guide students’ learning as they complete projects. Students are then graded on communication, presentation, agency and academics.
Both teachers and students initially struggled with the new way of teaching and learning, Brake said.
“It was hard and exhilarating for both,” he said, “because the students love learning that way, the teachers love facilitating instead of teaching, but it also was a lot of work and it was different.”
The school added a grade level of 100 students each year and, in May, 60 seniors became the first students to graduate from the school.
“It’s really too early for us to declare complete victory in our test scores with the Innovation Academy,” Brake said. Students who perform in the top level do as well at Innovation as they would at a traditional high school, he said. The school has the seen its biggest success in improving the performance of students who had previously scored at the lowest or second lowest level on state tests.
“So the students who were maybe not very engaged in school while at a traditional school or were performing below apprentice (level on K-Prep), those students tend to be performing higher using project-based learning,” he said. “I think it’s engagement. I think they are more engaged and the curriculum is more real for them.”
The way teachers must work closely with students to guide the projects also helps build relationships, another factor that impacts student achievement, he said.
“A lot of our students say project-based learning also helps them communicate and also builds a level of civility with one another because they work in groups, they have to be collaborative and they disagree civilly,” he said.
Those are among the many soft skills today’s employers are looking for, he said, in addition to responsibility, public speaking, creativity, problem solving and time management.
“You really can’t create a better workplace learning model that’s any better than the way this is working,” he said.
While Owensboro and Daviess County share management of the school, students from Hancock and McLean counties can also attend Innovation.
“The multi-district component and the multi-school component is challenging, and I have advocated to the state that we need to have a classification system in Infinite Campus, a designation for innovation schools,” he said.
Owensboro Board Chairman Jeremy Edge said working across districts has been relatively seamless.
“Matt Robbins over at Daviess County is a phenomenal superintendent,” he said. “He’s a community-oriented type of guy, too, so he and Nick have a great relationship and we’ve got a great relationship with their board. From that standpoint, it’s been easy.”
The boards already had a good relationship with open enrollment between the two districts, he said. Because of the options including Innovation Academy, high and middle, Edge believes charter school operators may not be interested in Owensboro.
“This basically takes the place of that, so there’s not really a need necessarily for a charter school here,” he said. “It’s open to the city and the county and tax dollars are paying for it.”
Edge admits he was skeptical about Innovation Academy when the school opened nearly five years ago.
“As a traditional kind of person it’s a little bit hard to wrap your head around because it’s a little bit abstract to some degree with project-based learning and teams and that kind of stuff,” he said.
But the schools’ ACT scores and early college completion convinced him it is working, Edge said.
“From an education standpoint it works, in my opinion,” he said.
He’s so convinced that his daughter will be one of 250 students at the new Innovation Middle School when school starts Aug. 7.
“She’s pretty excited about it because she’s very intelligent and a straight A student, but she’s also kind of an outside-the-box thinker so she’s excited about doing teamwork and project-based learning,” he said.
At the middle school, the curriculum will focus on arts integration and civic engagement, Brake said. Students who attend the Innovation Middle might go the Innovation high school or choose to attend the traditional high school.
It’s all part of the collaboration between two districts to give their students more options. Brake believes more districts across the state will follow Owensboro and Daviess County’s lead.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of stories out there where you have independents and counties collaborating on things together,” he said. “I think that is important and it is a model worth sharing and I’m hopeful that that’s what you see in the future.”