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#RethinkSchool: iLEAD Academy Students Take the Lead in Northern Kentucky

“Strangely, I’ve started a school, and I am not an educator,” said Alicia Sells, founder of iLEAD Academy, a STEM high school in northern Kentucky.

Sells’ background is in public policy. She noticed that neighboring Kentucky school districts of Gallatin, Carroll, Henry, Owen and Trimble did not offer a dedicated STEM program and, as a result, many students’ needs were not met in their preparation for the workplace.

iLEAD Academy is in session as students receive instruction, have discussions, and create in the maker spaces. (Photo credit: Alicia Sells)

Robert Stafford, superintendent of Owen County Schools, is the only current superintendent among the five districts who was present at the creation of iLEAD Academy. “When we initially got together – the five districts – we wanted to offer a really robust STEM program in engineering. It was driven by Alicia [Sells] pulling us all together to create the iLEAD Academy,” Stafford said.

Sells and the district superintendents worked with the Kentucky General Assembly and the Kentucky Department of Education to obtain the program flexibility to start a new school. They asked students what the students would change about their high-school experience; the answer was more-practical, hands-on experiences. In response, Sells and the districts discarded the traditional model of high school and started the iLEAD Academy as a stand-alone school and not as part of any one district. “We have a board that is constituted of the five rural district superintendents,” Sells explained. “And each district contributes $95,000 a year to the operation of the school.”

“The iLEAD Academy is in a strip mall. It looks a lot like a Starbucks. There are no desks, no books, no bells. It has a common area where students take classes and have classroom instruction with teachers,” Sells said. “And there is a very large maker space to fabricate projects, giving students hands-on, real-world experience.”

4 students sit on the classroom floor and work to place blue fabric on several pieces of wood

Students at iLEAD Academy, a STEM high school in Carrollton, Ky., fabricate a boat that they designed. (Photo credit: Alicia Sells)

Larisa McKinney is director of iLEAD Academy. She has 10 years of teaching experience and holds a master’s degree. “First and foremost, we’re a career academy. We focus on students being career-ready and also the opportunity to graduate high school with an associate’s degree,” McKinney said. “We could also say that we have been building the plane as we fly it, trying to keep our focus as a career academy. Most importantly, we make decisions based on the individual student, not based on what the system tells us to do.”

But it was not all smooth sailing. Sells told of early resistance to iLEAD from elected officials who said that the academy would prepare students to leave Kentucky for high-tech jobs on the West Coast. “We overcame that concern by engaging students with their home communities,” Sells said. “That’s a key part of their grade [in class] to give ongoing service to the home community.”

The iLEAD Academy is prepared for its first graduation in May 2019, when 26 of the school’s 29 students are scheduled to leave with a diploma and an associate’s degree. For many, Sells explained, graduating with an associate’s degree will be a poverty cycle-breaking experience.

Superintendent Stafford emphasized that iLEAD offers students an opportunity that could not be provided by an individual, small school district. “And I think for the students it’s an opportunity to learn from others outside of the county system, to aspire to work at a high level, and to achieve.”


Joe Barison is a public affairs specialist with the Office of Communications and Outreach.

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Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. Check back on Thursdays for new posts in the series. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.



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