Innovation is Key at New Owensboro High School

Aug 26, 2015

Students are changing classes at the new regional high school, Owensboro Innovation Academy. There’s a lot of “change” and a lot of “new” at this school. 

First of all, it’s not in a typical high school building. It’s in the Owensboro Centre for Business and Research.

Working as a team in the Introduction to Engineering class at Owensboro Innovation Academy are, left to right, Bradley Neal, Tevor Elliott and Lucas Branford.
Credit Rhonda J. Miller

The principal, Beth Benjamin, says she’s called the “director.”  And Benjamin says teachers aren’t called teachers.

“They’re called facilitators. And that is because we want students to take ownership of their own learning. So they kind of determine what they need to know and then the teachers are there to facilitate that learning and then to provide any direct instruction that’s needed. But it’s definitely a team effort.”

Superintendent of Owensboro schools Nick Brake says the facilitator role encourages respect for students.

“It’s not so much the sage on the stage where everybody bows to the teacher. It really allows more of an adult-to-adult, peer-to-peer type of relationship and the students have to respect that, in the same way they would respect any other adult relationship.”

The Innovation Academy focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. The 79 students are all ninth-graders who put in an application and were chosen by lottery. There was an element of selection in the lottery, to guarantee diversity that matches the region it serves, which is Owensboro, Daviess County and McLean County.

The only student, so far, from McLean County is 14-year-old Lauren Martin.

"There are different tracks that you can take. You can go into biomedical or engineering or computer sciences. I’m in the biomedical track.”

Students at Owensboro Innovation Academy focus on science, technology, engineering and math. They can participate in activities like sports and band at their home school.
Credit Rhonda J. Miller

In the classrooms, students work in groups of two or three. 

Thirteen-year-old Madison Shemwell is from Owensboro.

"This classroom, it’s intro to computer sciences. I mean, you make apps.”

“This is their first app. This is called Digital Doodle.  It’s an app where they can take a picture and they can draw on it," says  facilitator Mark Moore. “It’s a real simple app and they’ve taken my directions and gone way beyond it.”

Moore says having the students jump in right away on projects is what makes the new school unique.

“It’s project-based learning. We try to embed all our standards, everything we want them to learn, we put inside a project.  We want to make sure they’re working towards a culminating project, to be able to showcase their learning. We feel that’s more real world. That’s what you’re going to do in the job. That’s what you’re going to do when you move on to the next level of education.”

Fourteen -year-old Sidney Ostby worked with another student on the app project.

“I think it’s a great hands-on experience to learn different things.  We started with a blank page.  We have the different buttons, the codes for the app, and now we know how to do that and we can use it on a real phone.”

Not everyone in the class took to creating apps right away, like 15-year-old Baily Adams of Owensboro.

“It’s OK. It’s fun, but it’s confusing, ‘cuz I’m not the best with technology, but you know…"

"So why did you choose this school, because it’s kind of a technology school?"

"My mom."

"Your mom?"

"Yeah, my mom."

"What did she say?"

"She said you can get two years of college done here."

"So your mom sort of convinced you?"

"No, she forced me. But it’s OK. And there’s medical here, too. I’m in biohealth right now.”

The students can take courses that lead to degrees from Owensboro Community and Technical College.

Facilitator Mark Moore says it’s all part of a culture that encourages students to keep pushing the boundaries.

They were trying to add a new component to the app.  I didn’t know how to do it. I said I’ll research it. Within the time I was trying to figure out how to do it, another student figured out how to do it and is now showing him how to do it. So, that’s pretty cool, you know.  This is what it’s about, right here. They’re already passing me, so hopefully I can keep up with them.”

There is training for the facilitators. It’s from the California-based New Tech Network, which has 180 schools across the U.S., as well as in China and in Australia. The Innovation Academy is the first school in Kentucky in that network.  Now the global New Tech Network runs right through Owensboro.