Incoming high school freshmen from Carroll, Gallatin, Henry, Owen and Trimble Counties now have a groundbreaking choice about where to go to high school.

The superintendents of the five school districts announced this week they are opening Kentucky’s first regional career academy so their students can pursue competitive advantage for the Golden Triangle region’s highest-demand, highest-wage jobs. iLEAD Academy, located in Carrollton, Ky., will offer innovative high school education wholly integrated into regional workforce development. Students will begin enrolling in 2015-16.

The Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative (OVEC) developed the Regional Jobs Forecast driving career pathways of study available at iLEAD and will operate the school for the five districts.

In the 2014 Legislative Session, House Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chairman Rick Rand spearheaded the effort for a $250,000 appropriation supporting planning and development of iLEAD.

“Extensive expansion of opportunities for students in these small, rural counties is the greatest possible return on our investment. Our students now have the chance to experience more, access more, and be more competitive in a global economy,” Rand said.

One new opportunity thousands of students will have is to study pre-engineering and computer science in the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) program. PLTW graduates are recruited by companies like Toyota, Dow Corning, Chevron, and 3M. PLTW also is a key component of the KY FAME workforce development initiative Gov. Steve Beshear announced earlier this month, but PLTW requires significant financial investment that has prevented four of the five iLEAD counties from adopting the curriculum.

“These five superintendents have pooled resources and put aside barriers of geography because they know together they can do more for their students than they can alone. iLEAD is a model of collaboration I want to see replicated across Kentucky,” said Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday.

Using interest surveys, freshmen will work with iLEAD teachers and community mentors to develop individualized career pathways. Students will narrow the focus throughout high school and select a Senior Project to hone skills and produce an electronic portfolio demonstrating their capabilities. iLEAD juniors and seniors will have Fridays open to work as interns or apprentices, job shadow, visit colleges, and work on intensive projects designed with regional employers because they also will be college students at Jefferson Community and Technical College’s (JCTC) Carrollton Campus. iLEAD will focus on preparing students for careers in the Golden Triangle’s highest growth sectors – Advanced Manufacturing, Engineering, and Technology.

“Career Academies have a 40-year record of improving student attendance, lowering drop-out rates, and increasing college-going and college completion rates. It’s a winning formula for getting more students ready for college and career,” said Dale Winkler, KDE’s Associate Commissioner for Career and Technical Education.

Better development of employability skills is the reason President and CEO of the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers (KAM) Greg Higdon and his team are a part of planning for iLEAD.

“Lack of ‘soft skills’ is the biggest impediment to global competitiveness for Kentucky manufacturers,” Higdon said. “KAM is anxious to be a part of developing best practices that will close the gap.”