By Russ Brown
Major advances in education are taking place throughout Northern Kentucky, and more are on the horizon; a boom fueled in large part by innovative programs that provide support for more established educational entities.
Initiatives partnering educators and private industry at all levels are part of a quest to meet the challenge of improving Northern Kentucky’s workforce – in size and skill – and boosting high school and college graduation rates.
Northern Kentucky’s low unemployment numbers, 3.2 percent compared to 4.1 percent statewide, has spurred area leaders to create systems ensuring the educational system works with local employers to give students long-term career awareness and experiential learning opportunities.
That’s because the area expects 7,309 job openings, annually, according to the Northern Kentucky Local Workforce Area Occupational Outlook report from the Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics.
Among the newest programs addressing workforce needs is the Ignite Institute at Roebling Innovation Center, a partnership with Boone County Schools, due to open for the 2019-2020 school year on a 22-acre Erlanger site that Toyota donated. The tuition-free grades 9-12 Institute will emphasize collaborative project-based learning in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) with real industry-case methodology.
Boone County Schools will own and operate Ignite Institute that will impart important soft skills with hands-on, problem-solving, teamwork and non-traditional approaches to learning. Each of Ignite’s seven different “colleges” will have six teachers responsible for core and college-specific curriculum who will stay with class cohorts from freshman year through graduation.
David Fleischer, Ignite executive director of strategic partnerships and a former Toyota executive, says admission will not be based on GPA but on a student’s passion and desire to learn the unique skills required for modern employment and characterized response as “overwhelming.” Officials predicted an enrollment of 300 students, but once pre-enrollment began in October, they raised that estimate to 600-plus.
“The response from the business community has been very, very positive,” Fleischer said. “Educators are thrilled to see this model come together. It’s really the first opportunity we have seen with a practical solution of bringing business and education together. Ignite will be transformational in the region, and potentially from a national standpoint.”
“A substantial gift” to accelerate Ignite formation has come already from the private-sector Northern Kentucky Regional Alliance of business leaders and member companies St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Duke Energy.
“Many of our workforce needs can be met long term through this innovative approach to education,” said St. Elizabeth Healthcare CEO Garren Colvin.
Another program expected to have a significant long-term impact on Northern Kentucky education and workforce development is NaviGo, a nonprofit organization that prepares students for life after high school by providing individualized college and career coaching and planning.
‘Empowering students for life’
Former Kenton County Superintendent Tim Hanner founded NaviGo, which employs a team of educators and school counselors who train teachers and administrators to be coaches. NaviGo’s process aims to “empower students for life,” Hanner said, by helping them identify and address gaps in their plan for future success. NaviGo is a division of Children Inc.
One of the first schools to partner with NaviGo was Covington Latin School (CLS). “College and career readiness are essential” to what CLS wants to provide to its students, Headmaster Joseph Hunter said. NaviGo was a natural partnership, he said.
The NaviGo Scholars program helps Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati businesses connect with high school students who have an interest in their industry.
Another NaviGo initiative is in partnership with Bill Butler of Covington-based developer Corporex. Butler’s philanthropic efforts focus intensely on education, and he’s particularly interested in underprivileged urban core schools in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties.
Money from Corporex and others “allows free coaching and training for the teachers and staff in those seven schools,” Hanner said. And it supports a NaviGo summer program to help graduating students bridge into further education.
“It’s a national phenomenon in our country that students in urban core and rural disadvantaged schools are graduating high school and being accepted into college, but in many cases only 25 to 30 percent make it to that day,” Hanner said. “They melt away the summer after graduation for a variety of reasons.
“We have developed a program that starts during their senior year in our schools where we already have coaching. It’s just a matter of adding to the relationships and staying with them through their summer bridge and into that first year. Data shows that if they can make it back to the second semester of their freshman year, their odds (of graduation) greatly improve.”
Yet another workforce strengthening new strategic initiative is GROW NKY (Growing Regional Outcomes through Workforce). GROW NKY is a comprehensive, holistic workforce development/talent strategy to leverage the community’s assets to grow, attract and retain a globally competitive workforce. Led by the NKY Chamber in conjunction with workforce partners, GROW NKY opened an office in Fort Mitchell in summer 2018.
“What if every employer in Northern Kentucky had an apprentice, co-op or intern?” said Brent Cooper, president/CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber. “We know statistically kids who gain that kind of experience during high school get better grades, are more likely to graduate and are more likely to be hired after high school. That is just one of the outcomes we hope to ‘GROW’ through this effort.”
Abundant education opportunities
With Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, the region’s high school graduates don’t have to leave to acquire a first-rate college education regardless of their career path. NKU has an enrollment of 14,500-plus and for nine consecutive years has made Forbes magazine’s list of America’s Top Colleges.
In fall 2018, the university opened its $105 million, groundbreaking Health Innovation Center.
“The Health Innovation Center transforms how we educate and train the next generation of health care professionals with an interdisciplinary approach to addressing our population health challenges. I see it as the nexus of talent, innovation and community development,” NKU President Ashish Vaidya said. “A project of this scope doesn’t happen with one institution. It takes everyone making a commitment to improve education and health outcomes in the region. We are incredibly grateful for the commitment from our state legislature, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, local leaders and other community partners.”
Meanwhile, to better meet students’ needs at every stage of life, the school launched a suite of 11 accelerated online bachelor’s degrees.
The region is one of the top logistics centers in the nation and was selected in 2017 for the first Amazon Prime Air hub. Thus, NKU’s Global Supply Chain Management degree program could be key to the region’s prolonged success. Degree recipients will develop a core skill set highly sought after by employers – resource allocation, negotiation skills, transportation planning, production management, and strategic planning.
NKU also has an innovative College of Informatics, to give students tools to make information meaningful and useful.
Gateway Community & Technical College also offers a wide range of opportunities in workforce education and readiness, featuring associate degrees, diplomas and certificates. Gateway’s adult education program, Skills U, recently opened an additional Kenton County location to provide free GED preparation and a variety of other free services.
Louisville-based Sullivan University recently undertook a new approach to serving its Northern Kentucky footprint, announcing it would close its brick-and-mortar location in Fort Mitchell to focus solely on its virtual classroom offerings.
In Crestview Hills, Thomas More University – which recently gained university status – is a small liberal arts institution that U.S. News and World Report consistently ranks one of the best regional universities in the South. It also has been ranked No. 1 for return on investment in Kentucky four years in a row by PayScale.com.
3101 Bardstown Road
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Sullivan University is a regionally accredited institution that offers all levels of credentials from certificates and diplomas, to associate, baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees. The university’s largest area of enrollment is in business-related programs, complemented by IT, healthcare, culinary, baking/pastry arts, hospitality, legal studies and more.
A formidable workforce
According to Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, the region has a labor shed of more than 1.1 million people, and the labor force participation rate and size (civilian population 16 years and over) is significantly higher than the rest of Kentucky and the U.S.; 68.7 percent compared with 59.2 percent and 63.3 percent, respectively.
Northern Kentucky has a talent pipeline with 174,000-plus new graduates every year within 100 miles of the region, and 33 percent of those aged 25-64 have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Kentucky is a right-to-work state, and local businesses work closely with all of the region’s colleges and universities to create custom training programs for students and current workers to ensure their skills fit the unique needs of their companies.
Also, Boone, Campbell, Carroll, Gallatin, Grant, Kenton, Owen and Pendleton counties are part of the Northern Kentucky chapter of KY FAME. KY FAME (The Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education) is a company-sponsored partnership of regional employers who share that goal, offering specific on-the-job training.