Deep in the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky lies one of education’s best kept secrets. There, schools model themselves after Silicon Valley startups and students take classes like aerospace engineering and tiny house construction.
For decades, this rural region has churned out statistic after statistic. “We can’t afford to look back,” says Dr. Jeff Hawkins, Executive Director of the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative (KVEC), an organization that serves a network of schools in the Appalachian region. “In spite of all the odds, being rural, being in communities of 80% free/reduced lunch, the bad statistics, all of that doesn’t matter. What does matter is providing the best opportunity and way forward for the students we serve.”
“The most important thing to us is our children,” Dr. Hawkins states. “We grow them and then ship our best natural resource somewhere else. Now we want to have a place in our community to have them come back.”
After receiving the competitive $30 million Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2013, KVEC resolved to be strategic with how they spent the money and how they implemented education reforms. While other states turned outwards to consultants, KVEC turned inwards.
The vast majority of schools in Eastern Kentucky are staffed by people who grew up in the region; they know the challenges their students face because they are the same challenges their own families have faced for generations. KVEC borrowed a lesson from the Silicon Valley playbook: they modeled themselves after a startup accelerator and gave these schools the opportunity to pitch new class ideas. Funding was earmarked for teacher-designed classes that proposed to build economic growth in the region.
What kinds of classes are KVEC funding? Imagine graduating from high school with your pilot’s license. Kentucky is currently ranked second in the nation for aerospace exports – $10.85 billion in goods exported internationally last year. One use of KVEC’s Race to the Top funding has been to provide nine schools the resources to teach aerospace and aviation classes.
One of KVEC’s favorite projects, however? Building tiny houses.
Dr. Dessie Bowling, KVEC’s Associate Director, was on a site visit when she got the idea. She saw that students who typically struggled with math were making impressive connections while building a wall in shop class. Speaking with the technical education teacher, they agreed that students were getting more out of this construction project than out of a standard lecture.
“[Learning can’t be] just academic,” Dr. Bowling shares. “[School needs to teach] the essential skills they’ll need in life as well. Problem solving, teamwork, and creativity. What if they had a whole house to build?” From that “what if”, a whole new branch of KVEC emerged.
Tiny Houses, Large Learning Opportunities
The Tiny House movement has been gaining momentum over the last couple of decades as sustainability, real estate prices, and the increase of wasted square footage have become national issues. The American Tiny House Association created guidelines to allow DIYers to build homes under unified building regulations. It’s circumstances like these that have led to the construction of tiny houses on trailers, a framework KVEC could build from.
In 2016, KVEC held a competition inviting schools to pitch their design ideas for a tiny home. Three schools from three counties walked away with a $15,000 seed investment towards their construction costs.
Carpentry instructors were allowed freedom in how they designed their class and that autonomy was gifted to their students. “I pretty much let them go,” Thomas Judd, Lee County Carpentry teacher explained. “When they come into class, I tell them what needs to be done. I let them go on their own and I come check it. Sometimes they do stuff wrong but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed.” The excitement for their projects led some students to willingly come in over winter break to ensure the homes they were building would be finished by the April auction.
KVEC’s tiny house initiative was designed to be financially sustainable. The finished buildings are auctioned off at the end of the school year with all the proceeds going back to the school to continue the project the following year. The seed investment of $15k pays off. “We can build these with enough money up front so they’re worth $50-60k,” boasts Don Page, carpentry teacher of Phelps High School. “Contractors that I’ve worked with for years have been willing to donate some time and materials to this.” His connections led to a donation for spray-in foam insulation, one of the most effective and expensive solutions on the market.
The custom requirements of constructing a tiny house have led to other learning opportunities. Rather than buying pre-fabricated cabinets, students from Knott County school did the custom cabinet work of their home in solid oak. “It’s easier than buying it because we can’t buy what we need,” says Stacy Sparkman, carpentry teacher from Knott County. “They usually don’t get to do that sort of stuff in my class.”
Future of Career Technical Education
KVEC’s belief is that the work being done in their region could be implemented with rural schools nationally. But when other states like California are proposing gutting funding for Career Technical Education, programs like KVEC’s tiny house initiative could fail to spread. Despite these fears, KVEC and their supporting partners are continuing to invest. This year, they awarded $15,000 to five more schools, bringing the total number of tiny houses under construction for April 2018 up to eight.
Already, KVEC’s goals for student entrepreneurship are being realized: some of last year’s graduating students are making strides towards forming tiny house construction companies. This initiative could have far reaching impact on Kentucky’s citizens. In a state with one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S., tiny houses offer an alternative opportunity for affordable living.
“I think this project has put more people on this path than we had before,” says Sparkman.
Through this project and others, KVEC is proving the same lesson that has dominated Silicon Valley for decades: innovation happens when you invest in the people and creativity within a region.
This video was produced for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) by our cofounder, Ian, last year. KVEC has begun implementing bold improvements within their schools and their region is undergoing a renaissance. They want you to be a part of it. To learn more about KVEC, visit www.theholler.org.