A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Innovative new school in Erlanger building donated by Toyota ignites interests of students, teachers

By Mike Marsee
Kentucky Teacher

Its mission has changed, but this is still a laboratory.

Brian Noll, assistant principal of Ignite Institute, talks with a student in a collaboration area at the school in which several classes can work simultaneously. (Photo by Mike Marsee)

What once was an industrial facility has been reborn as an educational laboratory at which educators have designed a different approach to high school and students are focusing more sharply on their postsecondary future.

Ignite Institute opened in August in Erlanger with a focus on project-based learning in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) and providing career opportunities for students while they are still in high school. It also was created with the needs of the workforce in Northern Kentucky in mind.

The school was constructed in a building donated by Toyota and was patterned in part after other project-based learning schools and early college centers.

Students spend their entire school day at the Northern Kentucky school in one of five career pathways, taking both core curriculum classes and career electives, and teachers are enjoying the freedom provided by the school’s format and schedule.

Students at Ignite Institute currently enter one of five colleges – biomedical sciences and prenursing, computer science, design, education or engineering. Construction technology and logistics programs are scheduled to be added in 2020. Students stay in their colleges for classes in English, mathematics, science, social studies and world language, as well as career electives.

“They are so excited to be in a school where they’re going to actually learn things that they’re going to use in their lives,” said Chris Norris, an English teacher in the College of Engineering.

The students come from eight “home” high schools and 12 middle schools in three districts – Boone County, Kenton County and Walton-Verona Independent – to spend the entire day at Ignite Institute.

Ignite Institute reached its current capacity of 1,000 students in its first year, and about 450 of them are freshmen. Students had to apply to the school, but there was no minimum grade-point average requirement or entrance exam, and there is no tuition.

“We recruit primarily to 8th-graders, and all of our freshmen who are successful are guaranteed a spot the next year,” Co-Principal Julie Whitis said.

There are 43 teachers, of whom 19 came from the Kenton County Academies of Innovation and Technology and seven came from the Boone County Imagineering Academy.

Co-Principal Jerry Gels said teachers had externship days during the summer at which they spent time in the fields for which they are preparing their students.

“They spent three or four days inside businesses, kind of like job-shadowing,” Gels said.

Teams of six teachers within each college collaborate to develop lesson plans, and the weekly schedule allows for three core curriculum days (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) and two “production days” (Tuesdays and Thursdays) in which students and teachers have the flexibility to collaborate with the school’s business and industry partners.

“Some of the students take college classes on those days, and others can sign up for homework help, work on research projects or meet with businesses,” Whitis said. “Teachers have to come up with alternate schedules for Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they’ve done really well with it.

“For traditional teachers, sometimes it takes a while for them to get used to so much freedom, but then we find that they take it and run with it and create some exceptional things.”

Ignite Institute opened in August in what once was the quality and production engineering laboratory on the campus of Toyota’s North American headquarters. (Photo by Mike Marsee)

Clairice Galey, who teaches biology in the College of Education, said she welcomed that level of freedom.

“This place makes me feel more like a professional educator than I’ve ever felt before,” Galey said. “We get a lot of choice in our schedule and how we go about structuring our day, and we’ve definitely got some voice in the content and how we teach it as well.”

Norris, who taught at Boone County High School last year, said the Ignite Institute offered just the kind of teaching environment he was looking for.

“I spent 15 years in manufacturing and finance before I became a teacher, so I was trying to incorporate some real-world stuff into my classes before,” Norris said. “Now that’s expected, and the kids are super excited to learn that way.”

Morgan Kelley, an English teacher in the College of Education who previously taught at the Kenton County Academies, said it has been exciting to work with a different type of student as well.

“A lot of the kids seem to engage themselves because it’s completely different from what they’ve known,” she said. “They’re treated like young adults and they really take control of the classroom.”

Students have access to more than 20 dual-credit courses, and many of them will graduate with associate degrees. They also will have the opportunity to earn industry certifications within their fields and to spend 400 hours or more with companies in the region.

Gels said diplomas will come from students’ home schools, but the school has been intentional about creating its own brand and discussions already are underway about how to celebrate the first graduating class.

Julie Whitis, co-principal of Ignite Institute, waves to students as they leave on buses at the end of the school day. Students from eight “home” high schools in three districts – Boone County, Kenton County and Walton-Verona Independent – attend the school. (Photo by Mike Marsee)

The school was built within what once was the quality and production engineering laboratory on the campus of Toyota’s North American headquarters. Toyota, which moved its operations to Texas, donated the 183,000-square-foot building and the surrounding grounds, including 22 acres of green space, for the development of a STEAM-focused education center. A $6.8 million Work Ready Skills Initiative grant to the Boone County schools helped make the reconstruction possible.

Officials wanted to set up a building that didn’t have traditional classroom constraints, so there are high-bay equipment areas, high ceilings to accommodate robotics and automation, and other large workspaces. Portions of working assembly lines will be constructed in the coming months.

Gels said the concept for the school developed after Boone County school officials visited project-based learning schools such as High Tech High in San Diego and Plano ISD Academy High School in Plano, Texas, where Texas Instruments donated a building to the local school district. Administrators also drew inspiration from the half-day Kenton County Academies program, which was designed with a similar vision and has been folded into Ignite Institute as part of an agreement between the two districts.

Boone County owns and operates the school, but Gels said it belongs to all of Northern Kentucky. Administrators hope it will be supported by a combination of public and private money, and the goals for the school include the creation of a foundation to support funding and the establishment of a board of advisers that would include business and other leaders.

“The concept has always been for it to be a regional school, and I think we are going to get there,” Gels said.

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