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Mr. and Ms. Employer: Please picture for a moment an ideal world in which new, young employees came equipped with an established work ethic, a history of reliability and a success with the dynamics of team work.
Those skills, all essential to workplace effectiveness, are central elements of the instructional program at Elkhorn Crossing School, a career education technical center in Scott County. A group of Hardin Countians toured the facility, met its dynamic leader and were introduced to a collection of polite, respectful and purpose-driven teenagers.
The students are not the best of the best, although their actions and attitudes might seem that way. Elkhorn Crossing’s 663 students were accepted on a first-come basis from the general school population and spend half of each day in the more traditional setting at Scott County High School.
Dr. Francis O’Hara, principal and one of ECS’ visionaries, said his students include many individuals classified as at-risk, which is school parlance for a below average or struggling performer. Most would be deemed average and some had been categorized as gifted.
O’Hara also said the most difficult group to challenge and find true improvement among are the most talented. Those students fear failure, may struggle when confronted with real-world conflicts and are reluctant to step beyond the comfortable.
Describing his own high school experience in Louisville, O’Hara said he struggled and teachers struggled to tolerate him. He was told by a counselor that he was “not college material.”
Worst of all, O’Hara said he believed that adviser.
Now with his doctorate in hand and a proven track record of success, O’Hara is an enthusiastic promoter of the belief that all children can learn. He quickly cites examples of inspirational stories, can tick off a list of principles for success and sells the concepts with a contagious enthusiasm.
The systems established in this career center are unlike most any vocational school.
And, by all appearances, it works. Questions from the Hardin County guests all were fielded by students. The teenagers also led the four tours and in classroom settings, where everyone appeared to be engaged and busy,teachers also deferred inquiries to other students.
O’Hara insists that any student in the building can be called on to serve as a tour ambassador. He sees student development as the primary or even sole goal.
The investment in facility and equipment also is impressive as was the curriculum, which includes Kentucky’s only biomedical sciences training for high school students.
But the greatest impression left from my visit last week comes from what is measured at Elkhorn Crossing School.
Today, many schools face criticism about “teaching the test.” Rather than real learning, the emphasis is on the measurements. If schools and teachers are to be evaluated on standardized outcomes then it makes sense that material from standardized tests are taught.
O’Hara said his school never discusses test scores. He insists that empowering, entrusting and encouraging young people to strive for the highest expectations is enough. The test scores then take care of themselves.
Elkhorn Crossing’s report card standards are posted on classroom walls. Students are graded based on content, work ethic, collaboration, critical thinking, writing mechanics, projects and presentation skills. It’s not just about knowing the work, it’s about doing the work and showing the work.
It is hands-on, real-world learning that translates into brighter futures.
He said the school can support its progress with statistics if it must. He points to an exceptional attendance record and zero discipline referrals as numbers that support ECS’ success.
It’s an approach to results-based learning that will benefit these students and their future employers as well as their future families. Whatever directions their lives take, these lessons are providing a level of confidence, poise, creativity and preparation.
A dynamic leader with vision could implement these same practices at a center of innovation in Hardin County. But why wait? This approach can be duplicated and standards of excellence achieved in elementaries, middle schools and high schools just as they exist today.
It’s a matter of changing the mindset. You don’t have to believe me. Just spend a few minutes listening to Dr. Francis O’Hara, the fireball educator who barely graduated from high school.
Ben Sheroan is editor of The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at (270) 505-1764 or firstname.lastname@example.org.