Brenna R. Kelly
There are no lockers at this high school, no bustling hallways, no bells to signal the change of classes and no tardy slips or hall passes.
This is Owensboro Innovation Academy. Here there’s exposed brick, glass walls, café tables, Chromebooks and just 79 students.
The academy, born from a collaboration between Owensboro Independent and Daviess County schools, is a new high school with a project-based curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering and math.
Here teachers are facilitators and Beth Benjamin isn’t the principal, she’s the head teacher.
“The whole point of the school is to prepare the students to be good citizens, good neighbors and to be successful in whatever career path they choose,” Benjamin said.
The school will add about 100 freshmen for the next three years and will cap enrollment at about 400 students.
“It will give our school more of a culture of a family,” she said. “I already know them and they know me, that’s very different than the other high schools just because of the sheer amount of people.”
The school is part of the New Tech Network, a California-based nonprofit founded by education and business leaders in Napa, Calif. The network, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, includes more than 180 schools in 28 states.
The academy is the first New Tech school in Kentucky and is part of the Kentucky Department of Education’s Districts of Innovation program, which grants schools waivers from certain state regulations.
“The Innovation Academy is a great example of the opportunities available to districts who attain District of Innovation status,” said David Cook, KDE’s director of innovation and partner engagement. “One of the key flexibilities in the program is to allow districts to create new school models using their own thinking or partnering with successful national school models like the New Tech Network.”
The academy is housed in an old tobacco warehouse. The upstairs houses the city’s business incubator, which includes bio-med companies and a Western Kentucky University laboratory.
Academy students follow one of three career pathways – engineering, computer science or biomedical – which were selected based on the needs of area employers, said Owensboro Superintendent Nick Brake.
“For us, this was really an economic development and a workforce development effort,” Brake said. “It was an effort to connect students with a pathway that led through the colleges here, through the local Western campus and into the local workforce.”
In addition to the STEM pathways, the skills students need to start their own businesses are woven throughout the curriculum, Benjamin said.
“We try put the entrepreneurship mindset in all of our classes,” she said. “It’s that whole idea of, let’s design, let’s create, let’s think of a problem out there that’s nobody’s solving and solve it.”
It’s not just the tech startup environment and STEM classes that make Innovation Academy different from a traditional high school – the teaching and learning at the school also is different.
And that’s exactly what appealed to English facilitator Jennifer Cecil.
“It’s my dream job,” said Cecil, who previously taught at Owensboro High School. “I did everything I could to be hired here.”
Cecil liked the idea that all classes are at the academy are taught using project-based learning, in which students develop knowledge and skills by working on a project. Students decide what they need to know to complete the project, then investigate, research and present the outcome.
“I like the idea that we are preparing them to be critical thinkers, solve their own problems,” she said. “I always tell them a teacher is not going follow you the rest of their lives.”
The first project in Cecil’s world studies/English class is creating an app that will be a walking tour of downtown Owensboro. Students have to research and write about the sites in her class, then students in a computer science class will build the app.
“It’s like we’re in a company and we’re the writing department,” she said. “Then we send it to the tech department.”
Because students are following their own paths to complete the project, lesson planning is a challenge, Cecil said. Another challenge was getting students to understand that she isn’t going to tell them what to do and how to do it, she said.
“The biggest hurdle so far is getting them out of that, ‘Just tell me what to do’ mode,” she said.
Mark Moore, computer science facilitator, said he believes students will adapt to the new way of learning just as he’s adapting to the way of teaching.
“Teachers don’t hold the information anymore, it’s all out there now,” said Moore, who also taught at Owensboro High before coming to the academy. “In my opinion, teachers’ jobs are changing. No longer do I have the information and I give it to you, but I need to help you learn where to get the information and then how to sift through it.”
To learn how to transform from teachers to facilitators, Moore and his colleagues visited a New Tech school in Ohio and spent a week training at a conference in Chicago. A New Teach mentor also has visited the school and is available to the facilitators via Skype.
The mentor predicted that within the first few weeks, students would complain to Moore that he wasn’t teaching them, he said. Sure enough, Moore’s already heard the complaint from his students.
“When it’s student driven, they are going to have that productive struggle and we want that,” he said. “If you have that productive struggle, it’s going to make it stick.”
Students also are learning how to work in groups, which means they are learning conflict resolution and other skills they will need the workplace, he said.
One of the biggest challenges for Moore, who has been teaching for seven years, is just keeping up with his students’ zest for computer knowledge. He’s having to learn new skills as his students master the software that he’s teaching.
“It’s been reinvigorating,” Moore said. “I don’t feel like I’m at a school. I feel like I’m with students who are pushing me, so that’s motivating me even more.”
Students who applied to the school were selected with a stratified lottery to ensure the student body reflected both the racial and socio-economic makeup of the district’s population, Benjamin said.
“I knew these students would be highly motivated and I knew they were interested in technology,” she said. “I didn’t know how fast we were going to have to move on the curriculum side to keep ahead of them.”
In addition to Owensboro and Daviess County, students from McLean and Hancock counties are eligible to attend the academy, although there are no students from those districts this year, she said. Students also participate in sports and take art, drama and other electives at their home high schools.
Ninth-grade student Kaylee Hibbs attends art class at Owensboro High School in the morning before coming to the academy. With more than 1,200 students, Hibbs said there are more rules at Owensboro High.
But it’s different at the academy. Students have more say what they are learning and in making sure they are staying on task, she said.
“We just have to take it on ourselves and if we don’t do it, then it’s on us,” she said. “It’s scary, but it’s nice. No one is controlling you. It’s your free will. It’s like real life.”
Beth Benjamin Beth.Benjamin@owesnboro.kyschools.us
Jennifer Cecil Jennifer.Cecil@owensboro.kyschools.us
Mark Moore Mark.Moore@ownesboro.kyschools.us