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MOREHEAD — For chemistry students at Rowan County Senior High, lab experiments testing properties of water will produce more than scores for a teacher’s grade book. Students’ findings and questions are designed to spark lively conversations — in this case about aliens, telescopes scanning for inhabitable planets, and the challenges of colonizing distant moons.

Turning chemistry into investigations built around storylines that grab students’ interests are now a fixture for building a deeper understanding of academic standards. Teachers April Adkins and Brianna Greenhill make chemistry a catalyst for compelling student interaction.

Last school year, nearby Carter Caves became the surprise classroom to study intermolecular forces — a field trip to explore how rainwater and limestone interact to carve massive underground chambers, trails and habitat.

Water experiments this fall were part of a chemistry unit asking students to look for patterns in molecules like carbohydrates, enzyme proteins, metal ions, and more that are building blocks of life on Earth. Students reported patterns of elements, charged particles, and water present across the samples. That knowledge helps students understand discoveries from the infrared astronomy of the new James Webb Space Telescope, and how it uses spectroscopy to analyze the atmosphere of distant planets.

“They are hooked,” said Adkins, a 12-year teacher. “We are hearing from parents and the community that kids are talking about chemistry at home, which is unbelievable.”

Weaving academic content and relevant topics into engaging learning experiences also promotes other skills: Using evidence and findings to generate questions, design investigations, function as a team, regroup at dead ends, and present results — all now part of high school chemistry in Morehead.

“Problem-solving, communication and research are just parts of the learning process,” said Greenhill, now in her 14th year teaching. “These are things that can happen when students are absorbing content knowledge more.“

“These are skills that will last through their lives,” Adkins added.

Curiosity and creativity are taking root in an increasing number of Kentucky schools and districts as fuel for stronger academic understanding and high-demand problem-solving skills.

Hands-on “deeper learning” can be a spark for educators seeking outcomes beyond mere passing grades. Such experiences fit well with existing efforts to assure student mastery of academic standards, provide re-teaching to make sure that students fully understand fundamentals, and address individual learning styles and needs.

MATH TEACHER ALISSA NANNIE works with students on the properties of similar figures at Grace James Academy of Excellence in Jefferson County.

More engaging learning experiences are also rooted in local desires to deliver more meaningful education experiences and a diploma that connects with adult success.

In response to an interconnected, technological world, Kentucky schools and districts have been drafting new “graduate profiles.” As a result, skills like problem solving, communication, adaptability, citizenship, and more are becoming part of the goal of academic achievement.

In Rowan County, the focus on deeper student learning has grown over the past four years. It has encouraged both in-depth projects like those created by the high school chemistry teachers and the district’s graduate profile, stating its intent to equip all students as lifelong learners, effective communicators, global citizens, critical thinkers, and active collaborators.

“We started down this road by asking what we are expecting students to master and what skills our community is wanting in high school students,” explained Brandy Carver, the former Rowan County Senior High principal who now serves as the district’s director of professional learning and districtwide programs.

Carver said that the updated focus points educators toward stronger connections with employers and the community while boosting student engagement.

She said that the district is committed to producing graduates better prepared for the world beyond high school.


While proficiency in reading, writing, math, science, and other academic fundamentals is essential, good grades are an inadequate measure of the know-how needed to thrive as adults.

Examining 82 million job postings in 2019 and 2020, the group America Succeeds, based in Denver, found that skills in communication, leadership, self-management, and critical thinking were the most common attributes sought in postings across all job categories.

The non-profit group developed a list of “durable skills” most needed in today’s workforce. Employers want to see that job candidates can apply knowledge — collaboration, creativity, communication, critical thinking — along with characteristics like leadership, fortitude, character, growth mindset, self-awareness, and personal management.

The group said that in an economy that values agility, “students and workers will need to commit to ‘up-skilling’ and ‘re-skilling’ as they respond to economic shifts and disruptions.”

In its 2021 report, “The High Demand for Durable Skills,” America Succeeds calls on state policymakers and school leaders to ensure students are ready for the job market.

“The best preparation in the face of uncertainty and rapid innovation is a combination of academics, digital literacy, and durable skills,” the report stated. “We need intentional, strategic policies and practices that strengthen the linkages between education and workforce.”

We started down this road by asking what we are expecting students to master and what skills our community is wanting in high school students.

— Brandy Carver, Rowan County Schools

Many Kentucky schools are moving in that direction.

Last summer, the state’s eight regional education cooperatives — groups that provide support services for school districts — launched a major campaign to train and support educators in spreading “deeper learning” experiences and assessments. The co-ops won a $24.5 million grant from the state’s education-focused COVID-relief funds for a three-year effort to support local “deeper learning” experiences. Of 171 Kentucky school districts, 167 joined the effort.

“We see this as a collaborative response to reimagine school for all and accelerate student learning,” said Bart Flener, a former superintendent who directs the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative in Bowling Green. Pandemic shutdowns and remote learning caused administrators to consider new approaches that would improve student success, he said. For co-op leaders, spreading concepts like durable skills and more interesting learning experiences fit the moment.

Observers say that the drive for more meaningful school outcomes is well underway in many areas. Education leaders have been initiating local conversations about essential skills, expanding internships and community service opportunities to connect schools and communities, and supporting classroom outcomes that stretch beyond one-dimensional test scores or an outdated high school diploma.

“We’ve got an opportunity right now to say let’s look at success in a different way,” Flener said. “Vibrant learning experiences — more collaboration and innovation — are about how students can use what they know in new situations they are going to face in real life.”


A school culture of student engagement, empowerment, and sense of belonging were top goals in Jefferson County three years ago when it established Grace James Academy of Excellence, a new middle school that will grow to encompass high school years.

Better systems to monitor student achievement, lessons steeped in project-based learning, and a personalized classroom approach are ways the science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) magnet school for girls builds involvement and academic results.

Skills like collaboration, resilience, originality and willingness are also bedrocks, even in off-campus experiences that connect students to career pathways and practitioners.

Principal Ronda Cosby said that relevant academics that emphasize problem-solving and critical thinking and the focus on collaboration and communication are a good fit for students, who she describes as eager for more active, involved learning and skill-building connected to a fast-moving economy.

She said that adapting to current economic needs and future demands are often a tougher shift for adults in the system accustomed to a rigid assembly-line model of education.

“School does not reflect the generation that we currently serve,” Cosby explained. “Seats in rows, stand-and-deliver teaching, apathetic kids? Students are excited and ready to learn. We need to be wide open to what school can and should be for today’s students.”

Seats in rows, stand-and-deliver teaching, apathetic kids? Students are excited and ready to learn. We need to be wide open to what school can and should be for today’s students.

— Ronda Cosby, principal of Grace James Academy of Excellence in Jefferson County

At Grace James, the new approach has made student perspective a prime focus for adults, which has produced greater attention to classrooms that are comfortable and appealing to students — from furniture to layout and atmosphere. Meanwhile, serious student discourse is a goal for what teaching produces in classrooms.

“Our whole job is not to school students, it’s to educate them,” Cosby said. “We school them to death, then they learn the game of school and become compliant, ritualistic learners. We need learners who are engaged and who own it when it comes to the outcome and performance. We are creating a school that empowers, activates and illuminates academic excellence.”

Planning for outcomes that include skills and student engagement is a major change, said math teacher Alissa Nannie.

“Personalized learning has really helped me grow,” she said. It requires a stronger connection with students, openness to different approaches and even different answers, a clear focus on the daily goal, and a readiness to keep working to help students understand key ideas, Nannie added.

“I’m ready to provide so many opportunities for you to show me you’ve mastered what you need to know,” she said.

Abigail Seow, an eighth grader, said that the school helps students see their academic progress and areas where more work is needed. At the same time, it gives students experiences that help them have “a more open mind” to future careers and ways of being involved.

Fellow eighth grader Diamond Barnes said that the school’s eagerness to hear students’ voices is important. Encouraging students’ interests also makes her pleased to be at Grace James. “We have deeper connections than just learn and go home,” she said.


This fall in Rowan County, fifth graders at Tilden Hogge Elementary in the rolling hills north of Morehead had the school playground on their minds like never before.

Far from daydreaming, students were tackling issues previously handled by adults running schools. When the co-ops’ grant offered training for teachers in planning and delivering project-based learning over the summer, six of the 10 teachers at Tilden Hogge volunteered and then trained their colleagues.

FIFTH GRADERS AT TILDEN HOGGE ELEMENTARY spent part of the fall learning about community uses of public spaces, focusing on ways to improve the school playground. Pictured are (from left) Ellie Kidd, Jaida Mays, Milyn Mason, (front) Joel Howard and Colton Branham.

After the training, the school planned projects at each grade level about decision making and community involvement, covering academic standards throughout the process.

Fifth graders at the 200-student school explored how community spaces bring people together. The school’s playground was a focal point.

“We are thinking about our school’s space and what we should do with it,” explained Milyn Mason. Personally, she liked the idea of a bigger see-saw. She said the idea of space to accommodate a movie night for locals came up. Students discussed possibilities in class, examined the space, and asked parents, families, and classmates for input. They’ve also learned about strategies for gaining wider input from the community.

Students studied the challenge of creating and measuring responses to open-ended questions versus a set list when designing a survey. They found that interview responses often provided the best input. “It’s been really interesting to learn about what a survey researcher does,” said Joel Howard. He hoped that a new swing set would make the cut once the group reached a final conclusion, which the group said would come with charts to back up their recommendations.

“You need data to create new things,” noted Colton Branham. He said that students discussed space and how things might fit. They were also mindful of safety issues and costs before they present final recommendations.

Principal Brandy Breeze said the process has covered academic standards while reaching into the community, giving students a new taste of ownership and deep involvement as they learn. “It will grow from here,” she said.

“There’s a lot of reading to do, but I’ve been excited,” fifth-grader Jaida Mays said of the school space project. She enjoys reading as well as solving problems in math. “I didn’t know it was going to be fun. We’re pretty lucky — I don’t think kids at many schools have gotten to do this before.”


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TOP PHOTO: Chemistry students at Rowan County Senior High test properties of water and other materials in lab experiments as part of a project focused on the ingredients required to support life. 

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An eye beyond high school  Resources for thinking about how schools connect with preparation for adult life beyond high school, and workforce trends in particular:

Some basic elements of education  Kentucky’s 1990 overhaul of education laws included an overarching statement about the intent of its system of public education. Amended in 2000, KRS 158.645 spells out eight capacities all students should acquire. The list begins and ends with statements that connect directly with the concepts behind local graduate profiles and summaries of durable skills: The law begins by calling for “communication skills necessary to function in a complex and changing civilization.” It also expects sufficient preparation to choose and pursue one’s life’s work intelligently, and skills that enable each student to ”compete favorably with students in other states.”

Help wanted  The non-profit group America Succeeds examined 80 million national job postings in 2020 and 2021 to determine what employers defined as “high demand” attributes. The group found that even more than technical skills or specialized knowledge, “an important set of durable ‘soft skills’ that last a lifetime” are in high demand. That list includes critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity that involve ways to use knowledge. In addition, character skills like fortitude, growth mindset, and leadership were also commonly sought. See the skill areas and associated tasks in the group’s report, The High Demand for Durable Skills.

Kentucky demand  The Prichard Committee commissioned America Succeeds to analyze skills that Kentucky employers are seeking. The resulting study of 885,000 open positions over the past two years found that 74 percent requested at least one durable skill, and 42 percent requested at least three. Published in late 2022, the analysis showed that communication and leadership skills are regularly requested for available positions. Metacognition, including planning and multi-tasking; critical thinking, from research to troubleshooting; and collaboration, like teamwork or coordinating roles rounded out the Top 5 skills being sought.

Kentucky data  The Kentucky Center for Statistics publishes a host of charts and reports compiling data about education outcomes and labor market trends. A 2020 report with explanation looks at Kentucky employment projections across hundreds of occupations between 2018 and 2028. The center’s website also collects a range of recent reports and online dashboards.

This special report on durable skills and deeper learning showcases emerging issues and school efforts to better connect school work and adult success.


THIS STORY:  1. RETHINKING NECESSARY SKILLS & ENGAGING EXPERIENCES to better prepare students for challenges to learn, work, and thrive beyond high school.

2. UPDATING OUTCOMES FOR STUDENTS with local graduate profiles, greater student voice, and new connections to employers and communities.

3. RENEWING PROFESSIONAL POSSIBILITIES as educators explore creative options for learning experiences and personalized connections that spark student interest.

4. MAKING STRONGER PERFORMANCE MAINSTREAM by expanding engaging and effective learning environments to replace outdated approaches and preparation.


ENROLLMENT: 960 in 9-12
61% eligible for free/reduced price meals
9% minority

Jefferson County
ENROLLMENT: 360 in 6-8
68% eligible for free/reduced price meals
94% minority

Rowan County
ENROLLMENT: 200 in K-5
65% eligible for free/reduced price meals
9% minority



Effective July 2018, Kentucky lawmakers enacted KRS 158.1413, a brief statute requiring every school district to implement “essential workplace ethics programs that promote characteristics critical to success in the workplace.” Programs are expected to reach each student in elementary, middle and high school.

The law calls for instruction including adaptability, diligence, initiative, knowledge, reliability, working well with others, and being drug-free. It also states that school districts connect with local workforce investment boards and regional economic development organizations in implementing programs.

School boards are expected to “design and adopt a diploma seal, certificate, card, or other identifiable symbol” to award students who have minimally demonstrated attainment of the ethics indicators. Superintendents, meanwhile, are required to file a report with the state every two years explaining the local workplace ethics program.

On a topic where many pro-active school districts are taking initiative in delivering modern productivity skills and engaging learning experiences, reminders of state compliance requirements may seem underwhelming. However, the mandate that passed with little fanfare is a still sign of legislative interest in connecting schools with experiences that better prepare students for challenges and opportunities beyond high school.


Lonnie covered education for the Courier Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. He worked as a reporter and editor at Education Week in Washington, D.C. He has served as a school board member and was a parent member of a school SBDM council.

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