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Kentucky Leads the Nation hears from WKY educators on school improvement

Mattea Lock - graduating early helped out "big-time"(Clinton KY, April 30, 2013) – For student Mattea Lock, Falcon Academy and the Four Rivers Scholarship Program came along when she thought her dreams of college would go unfulfilled. That’s what the self described “athletic girl” told a crowd of 150 elected officials, educators and students at a meeting on Tuesday.

Lock, who played basketball and volleyball for Hickman County High School, had always thought that she would go to college on a sports scholarship. Then, in her junior year, she said that she injured her arm, “right on this floor” pointing to the gymnasium where she was speaking. She would not be getting a sports scholarship.

What she did get was hours towards a college degree at no cost to her or her parents. What she would get was encouragement from the scholarship fund set up by Robbie and Lisa Rudolph. Lock said that she was the typical college student when she enrolled in Murray State University in the fall of 2011. She switched majors three times from nursing to occupational therapy and finally to an agricultural business degree.

Lock will graduate three semesters early, receiving her diploma in December 2013. Her Falcon Academy classes “saved my wallet and my parents’ wallet big-time.”  Lock is a farm girl and she’s excited to have a career that she looks forward to every morning. She may not be in the field, but she will be working in agriculture. She’s already had an internship at Crop Production Services.

Lock’s story was one of many that the audience heard during the meeting of “Kentucky Leads the Nation.” The program features new ideas, strategies and techniques that schools in the Commonwealth are using to become known as national innovators. This is the program’s second venture out into the state. Hickman County Superintendent Kenny Wilson - apologizing to students was first step

Ohio Valley Educational Conference President Dr. Leon Mooneyham, who was once superintendent of Fulton County Schools, offered congratulations to one of the state’s smallest school districts. He called Hickman County’s education story “amazing.”

Dr. John Settles, chair of the West Kentucky Education Cooperative which serves eighteen school districts, called Hickman County’s program a “unique opportunity to blend college and career programs.”

Educators came from as far away as Johnson County on the other end of the state to hear how Hickman County raised its ranking of 140th in college and career readiness to 3rd in the state out of 174 school districts.  Superintendent Kenny Wilson explained how Falcon Academy grew out of introspection by school administrators in the fall of 2009. Wilson remembered that high school students were taking the bare minimum of classes, opting to be office aides and for study hall. Discipline reports were up. Attendance was down.  Teachers were not making connections with students.

“It was not the kids’ fault. It was our fault and we apologized to them.” Wilson said.

School administrators decided to focus on the one test that had been a constant over the years: the American College Test, popularly known as the ACT. Focusing on the ACT helped administrators come up with the idea of Falcon Academy, a dual credit program in high gear. Every high school has dual credit courses that offer high school and college course credits, but Falcon Academy is unique in offering classes without charge to students for tuition or books and by requiring every student, whether college bound or not, to take Falcon Academy courses.

To finance the program, Wilson and his staff reached out first to First Community Bank President Bruce Kimbell. The bank and others readily agreed to help. The first year of Falcon Academy had three sponsors. For the 2012 school year, over fifty sponsors have contributed funds for tuition. The Hickman County School Board pays for student textbooks.

The Four Rivers Scholarship Program brings scholarship money to students and follows them through their college or higher ed experience. Dianne Owen, who retired as superintendent of Fulton City Schools before joining Hickman County Schools as an administrator, shared personal stories of students assisted by the program. Many scholarship students are first in their families to attend college. Many struggle financially and emotionally with the demands of school.

Students take classes from four partner programs: Murray State University, Western Kentucky Community & Technical College, Mid-Continent University and the Fulton-Hickman County Area Technical School in Hickman. Dr. Barbara Veazey of WKCTC - one of the top community colleges in US

Over the past three years, students have earned progressively more credit hours.  The first year, fifty four students earned 777 credit hours. The second year, forty eight students took 848 dual credit hours. This year juniors and seniors will earn 1147 credit hours at an average of 20.5 hours per student. That’s almost one whole year of higher education that students and parents won’t have a tuition, room and board and textbook bill.

Beyond the financial benefits, students are more confident. They aren’t bored. They are challenged daily. Attendance has gone from 91% to 96.98%, making Hickman County the fourth best attendance in Kentucky. There have been no high school drop outs in the past three years.

Wilson credits community and university support for the success of the program. He emphasized to superintendents and high schools thinking about implementing their own version of Falcon Academy that the program must be free to all students.

Dr. Randy Dunn, MSU PresidentDr. Randy Dunn of Murray State University told the crowd that “Robbie Rudolph and Kenny Wilson are forces of nature.”

During his presentation, Mid-Continent President Dr. Imhoff told Wilson that when twenty two River County students (not Falcon Academy students he hastened to add) at his university were failing every class, he used Wilson’s philosophy and asked not what the students were doing to fail, but what the university was doing to fail them.

“You did something dangerous” he told Wilson. “You caused some of us to think.”

Investigation found that 95% of the failing students had not purchased textbooks. No one had ever bothered to ask if students were buying their books. It was assumed that they were. It was a faulty assumption. Students, Imhoff said, assume they can do anything without reading the material.

Mid-Continent now requires quizzes over the text material at the beginning of each class. Mid-Continent University President to Wilson - you made us thinkFailure of a quiz means no sports or extra curricular activities. Students who consistently fail are sent home before they ruin their chances to get student aid in the future. Mid-Continent has only sent four students home since the program started.

Students like Mattea Lock and the many Hickman County High School graduates now have a head start on their careers because school officials looked beyond what everyone knew and saw new ways of educating them. 

Falcon Academy is giving them wings to fly into a bright future.

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