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Defying Convention

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Guest Blogger Alicia J. Sells is the Director of Innovation and Communication for Kentucky Leads the Nation.

[CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated Hickman County's student ranking in statewide college-and-career readiness.] 

"I'm sorry." That was the first thing that Hickman County school superintendent Kenny Wilson had to say to his students when he took on the job.

Hickman County students ranked 140th of 174 Kentucky districts on college and career readiness measures in 2009 and thus the reason for his apology.

"Kids weren't going to college. They didn't know how to study, use technology, or prepare for a test." Wilson said. "It wasn't their fault. It was ours."

Five years after the apology, Hickman County's students score 2nd statewide in college and career readiness. Successes like this merit a closer look and that's what we do at Kentucky Leads the Nation.

Common denominators:

Kentucky Leads the Nation convenes educators, policy makers, and community leaders in districts like Hickman County to learn about defying convention. On four visits this year, common denominators for success have begun to emerge and involve dynamic superintendent leadership.

Collaboration is key.

Dr. Teri Cox-Cruey stepped into the superintendency in Kenton County three years ago and found not much about high school education in the district was aligned with skills her students needed to compete for jobs in their growing region.

Cox-Cruey forged partnerships with employers, workforce leaders, higher education institutions, and civic organizations to craft an entirely new approach to Career and Technical Education (CTE) that is now a direct pipeline to high-wage, high-demand job sectors. The six Kenton County Academies opened in 2012 and enrollment doubled in just one year.

Wilson created the Falcon Academy as he negotiated discounted tuition rates with two universities and the neighboring community college. He then rallied more than 40 community partners to give all students access to dual credit courses at no cost to them or their families.

Kids are their passion.

Taylor County Superintendent Roger Cook tells his students that if he hadn't stuck with school he would have soon followed his father and older brothers to prison. Cook channels his walk on the brink into leading a district with a zero dropout rate for five consecutive years. In fact, the school board has a policy prohibiting dropping out, and Cook is happy to say he is the main enforcer.

They are on incredible teams.

Fayette County Superintendent Tom Shelton hosted Kentucky Leads the Nation visitors at 10 different schools - each innovative in a unique way. We got together with Shelton and his Chief Academic Officer Lu Young to plan our visit and could not help but be struck by their power as a team.

Young came to Fayette County this year after leading one of the state's high performing districts as superintendent. These two dynamic leaders bring two incredibly strong yet different skill sets to leading Kentucky's second largest district.

Both are clear their most important work is to meet schools where they are and help them foster innovation however they are capable. This, they say, is the key to meeting the needs of every child in an incredibly diverse population.

Forces of nature.

Each superintendent we've come to know is a "force to be reckoned with."

· Cook finds alternative pathways to graduation for any student who wants to drop out and is frank about his outright refusal to allow parents to withdraw their children.

· Cox-Cruey read every student's Individual Learning Plan when she took on the job and this was her driver as she turned CTE upside down.

· Shelton and Young are fearless in their pursuit of education alternatives even as it pushes some beyond their comfort zone.

· Wilson has quite simply changed the culture of an entire community.

We've learned lessons about the technical aspects of education innovation, but above all we've met leaders who can move mountains. That doesn't happen at an average meeting, and we can't wait to see what we find next year. Follow along at www.kyleadsthenation.com

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