OWENSBORO, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis told the first graduating class of the Owensboro Innovation Academy that he was proud to stand before the 59 students who blazed the trail to become the first New Tech high school in Kentucky.
Lewis was the commencement speaker for the graduation this month that took place at the RiverPark Center. It was the first graduation of the school that began four years ago. The OIA is a part of the New Tech Network, a 19-year-old network based in Napa, California, with 207 schools in 25 states and Australia. It was the first in Kentucky to be selected as part of the network. The project-based learning school comprises students from the Owensboro Public Schools and Daviess County Public Schools districts, as well as students from Hancock County.
It likely comes as no surprise, Lewis said, that the world economy is changing and jobs that once existed no longer do. He told students about being a child and seeing a full-service attendant at every gas station. Many students have probably never seen that before, because it is not a common job anymore, he said.
"You might say, 'Well that's a long time ago,' but I want to caution you that at the time many of us adults in the room were experiencing these things, very few of us had the foresight to think it's not going to be too much longer that that job is going to exist," he said.
In addition to jobs no longer existing, "we should be even more cognizant of jobs that will soon be no more," Lewis said, and he referenced how Walmart made a recent announcement that it would be investing in more robots in thousands of their retail locations across the country. Those robots would do the job that today are done by people.
He said this doesn't mean that jobs are being replaced, but there will be different types of jobs. For example, kids now need to be trained to make and repair robots.
Through a longitudinal data system that enables the Kentucky Department of Education to follow kids as they graduate high school, Lewis and other state officials are able to track the Kentucky class of 2010 as a measure.
"Here is what we know about the Kentucky class of 2010," Lewis said. "One, far too few of them actually matriculated directly into post-secondary education."
Even more startling, Lewis said, is that after seven years after graduation, only 25% of the Kentucky class of 2010 had earned any post-secondary credential -- either a certificate or diploma, or two-year or four-year degree.
"Here's why that number is so scary for all of us," he said. "Because in this post-Great Recession economy, over 80% of jobs created required some degree of post-secondary training or credential. And if you don't have that, you are going to be in a lot of trouble. So we have catch-up work to do."
The Owensboro Innovation Academy, he said, was created out of the recognition of the fact that schools have not kept up with the economy.
Nick Brake, superintendent for OPS, said the Innovation Academy is a better place because of what the class of 2019 has done. Building a school from the ground-up is not easy, and creating culture and expectations is a powerful accomplishment for students between the ages of 14 and 18.
Brake said he often jokes that the OIA class of 2019 has the auspicious distinction of being freshmen and seniors at the same time because they came into the school as freshmen when there were no other classes of students.
"By your second senior year when most of us would call you sophomores, you had totally integrated this new group of students as freshmen into the fold," Brake said. "By your junior year, or your third senior year, OIA was beginning to feel like a real school, and most of you all were dual college and high school students. By your true senior year, you were very at home speaking and visiting with mayors, governors, commissioners of education and members of Congress about the Owensboro Innovation Academy."
Trevor Elliott, 18, of Owensboro, said being the first class at OIA meant that the students were the guinea pigs of the school.
"So anytime a little tweak in the format happened or stuff got moved around, we just adapted and went with it," Elliott said.
Stephanie Gray, an OIA engineering facilitator, said the school staff is still doing those tweaks when they see fit. For example, three seniors worked toward associate's degrees in engineering at Brescia University while still at OIA. After those students had their first few college courses, the OIA facilitators asked them what things they weren't being taught that they needed to be prepared for in post-secondary education.
"We're still wanting to keep in touch with them as well," Gray said. "We kind of want feedback from them over the next few years. What can we do to make the experience even better?"
Nate Heady, 17, of Owensboro, said he had to beg his mom to let him join the first class of OIA. It was a new school, lessons were project-based and it was unusual. He became interested in robotics and thought OIA would be right up his alley.
"It's doing what I love every single day instead of just one day a week," Heady said. "This is 10% school and 90% we get to do cool stuff."
Beth Benjamin, OIA principal, thanked the parents and supporting family members of students who were "crazy enough to let me have them for four years."
"You gave me your most prized possession, and I am proud of them," she said. "And I thank you for that, for trusting in us."
Information from: Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, http://www.messenger-inquirer.com