Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass received a close-up look at how Nelson County Schools use purpose, place and people to empower students during a tour of the schools on Nov. 18 led by the Superintendent Wes Bradley and Director of Workforce Development Laura Arnold.
“Today’s visit was a good example of businesses, communities and schools working together to provide a highly immersive education experience for our students,” Glass said. “We have been really impressed with all of programs and how the community comes together to take care of all its kids.”
Nelson County focuses on a place-based educational philosophy. Students connect with community-based experiences that center on helping them find their purpose, feel connected to a place, and receive support and mentorship from people in that community.
The day began with a tour of Old Kentucky Home Middle School (OKMS), led by Principal Melissa Case and two students, Sydnie DeWeese and Dakota Overall. The students guided Glass down a hallway featuring a photo and information about every student at the school.
To promote a sense of community, the 370 students apply for a “house” and have an induction ceremony when they enter the 6th grade. The students continue in the same house, with the same faculty leader, for their entire time at OKMS and meet daily during their care and connect class.
DeWeese was excited to share her photo and her friends’ pictures from her house with Glass. She told him that she wants to be a lawyer and someday own a diner.
“Everybody is so special and that’s the good part of the hallway, it shows everyone how special we each are,” said DeWeese.
Glass sat down with students who serve in the leadership role of “house architect.” The house architects help plan opportunities for other students in their care and connect class. Faculty and staff follow the student’s lead on ideas for activities and community involvement as a house.
“The purpose of care and connect is that you care for everyone that’s in there and you connect with them – you take a moment to bond with them,” said 6th-grader Jordan Rasior.
Rasior believes the houses allow for students to have greater accountability for themselves and to teach others.
Eighth-grader Levi Phillips and his house are working on a float for the community Christmas parade in December, one of their favorite yearly traditions.
“I never had a brother and I feel like they are all my brothers,” he said
Marliana Edlin, a fellow 8th-grader, said that care and connect gives them a chance to “hang out with people from other grades” because the houses are intermingled. She believes the dedicated space and time for connection is important to her school experience.
Bradley believes this sense of belonging helped Nelson County Schools during the pandemic, with OKMS often having 98% of students logged on at the beginning of the day for virtual instruction.
“Its’s about embracing the humanity and embracing the kid holistically. It’s something that’s an important part of conversation when you think about the future relevance of school,” said Bradley. “It’s about the power of place, not just this place, but the greater community. It’s all connected.”
Samuel’s Field Airport and Bluegrass Aerospace Experience
As the tour continued, Bradley and Arnold escorted Glass on a tour of the Bardstown-Nelson County Airport – Samuel’s Field and introduced him to students and staff that are part of the Bluegrass Aerospace Experience (BAE.)
BAE is a partnership with the Sunflower Fund, Samuel’s Field, the Kentucky Pilots Association, Nelson County Schools, Bardstown Independent Schools and Bethlehem High School. The experience provides students a foundation for advanced exploration in areas of flying, aerospace engineering and unmanned aircraft systems.
Students participate in either morning or afternoon BAE classes. Nelson County partners with Eastern Kentucky University and Elizabethtown Community and Technical College to offer a variety of general education and aerospace dual credit experiences. Students that enroll in the flight school can receive their ground school credential.
“The view [from the plane] is drop dead gorgeous. The fog makes it look really cool,” said Davis Boone, a senior at Thomas Nelson High School.
Boone completed his first solo flight this past month as a part of the flight school. He applied for the program in June and received a call in July that he was accepted. Both his dad and his grandfather were in the aerospace industry.
“It’s in my blood,” he said. “I didn’t think I would be able to [fly] in high school. I’ve always liked planes but didn’t know if I wanted to fly. I thought it would be something cool to do and now I want to fly for a living.”
In addition to meeting BAE students, Glass met retired businessman Dusty McCoy. His family’s Sunflower Fund helped purchase the first plane kit the students built and are continuing to make investments into the space.
McCoy and his wife recognized the importance of aviation in the future of the Commonwealth and wanted to give students the opportunity to advance their skills. McCoy is excited about the future growth that will come with the next two phases – an aviation maintenance school and classrooms for a STEM school.
“We think we are doing something unique in here in the state and likely in the nation and we are very focused on having it grow and continue,” said McCoy.
Guthrie Opportunity Center and Worked-based Learning Experiences
On the last stop of the tour, Glass was introduced to students in the Triumphant Transition Training program and Workforce Development Coordinator Natalie Hurst. The program is a joint venture between Bardstown Independent Schools, the Guthrie Opportunity Center (GOC) and Nelson County Schools. It is designed to ease the transition of students with disabilities from high school to adulthood. The program currently is offered to students with the most severe disabilities first, but there are plans to expand.
Starting this school year, GOC has become the main campus for the students who are in the program. A teacher from Nelson County High School comes to the GOC and teaches academic classes for part of the day. Hurst works with smaller groups in workplace transitional training, such as soft skills, self-advocacy and empowerment lessons. By the end of the program, students and their families leave with a preferred worksite placement and a family plan of action.
Hurst said that making the center the “stomping grounds” for students in the program helps fulfill the relationship-building needs of the students and families to successfully transition out of high school.
After the tour of the center, Glass sat down for a luncheon with work-based learning students and employers. More than 140 regional employers give high school students community-based work experiences tailored to their future career goals or current interests.
Braden Smith, a senior at Thomas Nelson High School, isn’t sure what he wants to do in the future but is grateful for his work-based experience as a maintenance technician at NPR of America, a manufacturing company in Bardstown. Smith works three days a week with three other technicians who mentor him.
“The opportunity shows how diverse our community is, seeing and communicating with different people on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Emily Simpson, a senior at Nelson County High School, works in the high school-based clinic. The clinic is free to all students and employs students through the work-based experiences program to provide an introductory experience to careers in healthcare.
Simpson said her experiences working with students help her “grow compassion.”
“Each student who comes in and uses our services helps me see the need of healthcare outreach in the community and the service we can provide,” she said. “It’s very enlightening to see how many people need these resources and really come to rely on them. It’s cool to be a part of that.”
Glass was excited that Nelson County Schools showcased how communities can work together to design the future of education in Kentucky, a focus of the “United We Learn: Hearing Kentucky’s Voices on the Future of Education” report from the Kentucky Coalition for Advancing Education.
“To bring this bold vision for Kentucky’s schools to life, we will need a united effort that engages every community and school in the Commonwealth, like the programs and partnerships we saw here in Nelson County,” he said. “Everybody has the capacity to start changing the lives of our students today.”