A head-and-shoulders picture of Robin Kinney.

Interim Commissioner of Education Robin Fields Kinney

Standing in a classroom at the Kentucky School for the Blind back in March, I listened to students explain a project they were working on while their teacher looked on, filling in some of the details as the students went over each aspect of their work.

The project itself involved robotics and was part of Kentucky’s career and technical education offerings. The students, led by senior Brandon James Marini, programmed a robot to follow a map that was modeled after an archaeological site, displaying their engineering skills. The lessons they were learning were certainly important, but what was just as important to me was the joy each student had on their faces as they explained their work and talked about what they hoped to do once they graduated. The pride the teacher, Roy Limpawuchara, had in his students was noteworthy as well.

The project was one of countless examples of vibrant learning experiences that are happening in Kentucky’s schools. As I wrap up my time as the interim commissioner of education, seeing the work of our students firsthand was a valuable reminder of why we do what we do every day. We make sure our students get the full education they need to survive and thrive in the world, but we also make sure the lessons resonate with students in a way that’s fun and engaging while also preparing them for the future.

Education is broad and touches every facet of life, something I kept in mind as I led the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) through this transition period as we looked for a permanent commissioner of education. On July 1, my tenure will end and I will be handing the reigns over to Dr. Robbie Fletcher, the current superintendent of Lawrence County Schools.

At KDE, we manage both the Kentucky School for the Blind (KSB) and the Kentucky School for the Deaf (KSD).  I’ve had the opportunity to visit both campuses during my time as interim commissioner and was privileged to speak at both of their graduation ceremonies recently. While both of those schools provide services to school district across the state, they have a smaller group of students that stay at the school during the week to attend classes on campus. At both KSB and KSD, there is such a feeling of community and belonging among the students and staff, which helps our students learn the skills they’ll need to find their success in life.

KDE also operates the state’s area technology centers, where students go to bolster their education and prepare themselves to enter the workforce. The area technology centers, in addition to our career and technical education offerings as a whole, play a crucial role in helping our children learn valuable skills that translate easily – and rather quickly, I might add – into the workforce.

I have also had the opportunity to visit several different school districts across the state, seeing how each school tailors the opportunities they give their students to meet their community’s needs, much in line with KDE’s United We Learn priorities of engaging with the community and providing vibrant learning experiences through innovative means.

One trip that comes to mind was in April, when I visited Menifee County. Superintendent Tim Spencer showed me their vision for students and what that meant for their education. I saw plenty of work being done by the district to improve the opportunities for students, including  in their agriculture department. District officials have made plenty of upgrades to their facilities recently and the enthusiasm students had for the program makes everything worth it. Many of the students were part of the district’s outstanding Future Farmers of America program, which is yet another example of how Kentucky’s schools are preparing children for the future.

I also learned not to stand too close to a llama, but that’s more of a personal lesson.

Having these experiences in the back of my mind as I have worked with various education stakeholders has been important to me. During the legislative session, we at KDE worked with lawmakers who all had a common goal with us at the department – to provide a quality education to the Commonwealth’s students. There were certainly disagreements as far as how to best do that, as you would expect, but keeping the students’ best interests in mind helped create an atmosphere of collaboration with the legislature that I know will continue when Dr. Fletcher takes over.

But the lasting memories for me when I look back at my tenure as interim commissioner will focus solely on the students. They were the most important part of what we do here at KDE and that will never change. As long as we’re all working toward what’s best for them, the Commonwealth will be in good hands.