Most school districts, when charting their futures, tend to look at facilities, enrollment and funding. More than a year ago, when the Kenton County School District wondered what its future held, school officials looked instead to their students.

“We worked with local colleges, hospitals and businesses, and Vision 2015, to see what kind of futures our kids could expect, what kind of careers were going to be big in Northern Kentucky,” says superintendent Dr. Terri Cox-Cruey. “What we found were all sorts of high-tech jobs that could go unfilled unless our students were properly prepared.”

So, the district began working to open those fields to students.

DESIGNING FACILITIES

The result is the Kenton County Academies of Innovation and Technology, a series of advanced programs that give students a jump-start into high-paying careers. With instruction and research projects focused on 21st century fields — biomedical sciences, sustainable energy technology engineering, high performance production technology, engineering, media arts and infomatics — the academies are open to all sophomores and juniors in the district. For seniors, the academies provide extensive career and college counseling.

The first step in bringing the vision to reality, though, was providing facilities, says Cox-Cruey.

The district spent more than $1 million purchasing and renovating the former J.D. Patton Area Technological Center in Edgewood to house biomedical and other high-tech programs, while three of the district’s high schools host other academies.

In the meantime, the district started recruiting students. More than 200 signed up for the inaugural year, which began last September.

Modeled after a similar program in place in Scott County, the academies were originally going to offer half-day instruction at each site. With interest high, the biomedical academy started offering both morning and afternoon sessions, however, and other academies may soon follow suit.

Passion for the Program

“We have about 250 academy students this year, with room for about another 100. Then, there are about 200 freshmen who have said they’re interested for next year, so we’re going to see huge growth,” Cox-Cruey says. “Theoretically, we could get up to 600-700 students in the academies within the next five years.”

By then, all of the academies would offer daylong sessions, she adds, as the district continues to invest in the programs.

Students aren’t accepted into the academies by virtue of normal academic standards, the superintendent adds.

“We told them from the start that GPA matters less than passion. We know they’re going to be good students if they have passion to learn about the field they choose,” says Cox-Cruey.

Hands-on Training

Within the academy structure, students spend half of their day at their “regular” schools, working on core classes. Then they’re bused to academy sites, where the curriculum is more specific, and more hands-on.

“They get instruction on the technical aspects, and English,” Cox-Cruey says.

“When we talked to our industry partners about the curriculum, they told us that we should focus on engineering and English because, especially in the high-technology manufacturing jobs, each factory has its own systems. You need to be able to read very technical manuals to understand their systems.”

Students also work on research projects that they’ve discussed with their real-world expert advisers from partner institutions.

In December, they formally presented their proposals to the experts. The projects ranged from learning new uses for biomedical devices to designing automated delivery vehicles for factory floors.

“They went in front of an advisory team, presented their ideas and their goals,” the superintendent explains. ”It was a little nerve-racking, from the public speaking to fielding questions from the advisory team. The presentations, though, were amazing. I know the experts came away impressed, and the kids came out energized. They couldn’t wait to get started.”