iLEAD Academy, in Carrollton, Kentucky, is one of five Rural Tech Project finalist teams preparing students for high-demand careers. iLEAD’s Virtual Computer Science Career Academy offers students across five high schools the opportunity to take virtual, dual-credit courses leading to the completion of computer science degrees. In 2022, the Kentucky General Assembly passed HB 680 to scale iLEAD’s Virtual Academy across the state. 

Students can take four college courses — Digital Literacy, Computational Thinking, Java, and Python — to earn industry certifications and college credit. iLEAD gives students the flexibility to enroll at any grade, offering all students the opportunity to pursue a computer science career pathway. To ensure students are competitive in the tech workforce, iLEAD has aligned coursework to employer needs by engaging industry stakeholders — including Procter & Gamble, Great American Insurance, and the Cincinnati Reds. Students also have access to work-based learning experiences, mentoring, and paid internships.

Virtual Academy students have collectively earned 63 hours of college credit to date. ​​The program surveyed students in the second cohort, and 76% said they were more interested now in pursuing a career in computer science than before. Many students cited coding as their favorite aspect of the program. We spoke with Alicia Sells (Director of Innovation & Communication at Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative) and Jenna Gray (Director at iLEAD Academy) about their experience during the U.S. Department of Education’s Rural Tech Project. They shared reflections on the program’s impact, advice for other schools, and other takeaways as they have grown iLEAD over the past two academic years.

Tell us more about the impact of your program — what outcomes are you most proud of?

Alicia: ​​There are probably two. One is that we were able to double the number of rural students in these very small counties taking computer science. We have about 600 adults a year graduating from Kentucky public institutions with a degree — either associate or bachelor’s — in computer science. And on any given day, we have about 3,500 computer science jobs open. Our skills gap is huge. 

And so, there’s taking a computer science class, and then there’s actually pursuing a computer science pathway and a degree. If there’s anything we’ve proven that we know how to do, it’s get kids accelerated to a degree. That really is our secret sauce at iLEAD — how we wrap services around kids to be able to accomplish that. More than three-quarters — 77% — of iLEAD’s graduates earned an associate degree while they were in high school with us. We provide access to kids who would not have had access any other way.

The other was how many employers we were able to engage. We had no idea when we decided to partner with the INTERalliance just what that would mean. It has been transformational for our school in every possible way. We had people from Proctor & Gamble, Fifth Third Bank, Great American Insurance, and Kroger’s 84.51 — huge corporate entities that got involved with us two years ago and have never missed a meeting. They have engaged with our kids, they have engaged with us, and they have helped us develop the products that we were able to share as a result of our work. I think that was the most unexpected thing for us — just how much these employers were ready to engage with kids from rural Kentucky. 

There’s taking a computer science class, and then there’s actually pursuing a computer science pathway and a degree. If there’s anything we’ve proven that we know how to do, it’s get kids accelerated to a degree.

Alicia Sells

What advice would you have for other schools looking to start a new technology education program?

Jenna: I would say remain flexible as much as possible. Even the best laid plans don’t go according to plan when it comes to technology. We taught online during COVID, so we thought we knew exactly what was going to work. And at the beginning, it didn’t go well. Our computer science teacher, Eric, is very innovative, and he kept trying different avenues until he found the one. His flexibility and wanting to get it student-centered made it work. He talked to the kids to see what worked and what didn’t work. 

It’s also important that Jefferson Community and Technical College is accredited, and so we had to go through their means of accreditation to get Eric certified at their level. Kids could take these classes online through JCTC — the difference is they don’t have an instructor that gets online and teaches them as a high school student. They have to work through a book and figure it out themselves. And that doesn’t work for kids. Eric passing the certifications and meeting the requirements necessary to teach those classes allowed those kids to do the dual credit and to have someone teach them every single day and be available when they have questions. One thing that seemed true is they wouldn’t have kept coming back if it hadn’t been for the type of virtual learning they had through Eric.

And so Eric engaged with the students, I engaged with the districts, and Alicia engaged with the partners. We saw from the beginning a need in those three areas — and we each took our area, became the master of that area, and then just kept working together.

Remain flexible as much as possible. Even the best laid plans don’t go according to plan when it comes to technology.

Jenna Gray

What surprised you the most? What do you know now that you didn’t know at the beginning of this project? 

Jenna: I did not anticipate the depth of what industry partners did and how closely they partnered with us through the entire thing. Most of the time, you start those meetings, you’ll have a lot of people show up for the first meeting. Then a little bit less show up, and then a little bit less. But we consistently had a lot of large partners. When I tell people that our kids learn about data science from someone who leads data science for the Bengals, they’re like, “what?” He did a 90-minute lesson on data science for our kids to understand what data science is — and he came and spoke at the legislature.

And we had people job shadowing. Two years into the project, they did virtual job shadowing with us. Through their partnership, our local industry became very interested. Six of our kids got internships last year — because local industry wanted to see them stay here in this area. Most of them stayed in this area or continue to work a little bit in this area.

Alicia: What I know now is not to think small. We’re usually pretty bold at iLEAD with what we do. We never really thought that we’d be looking at scaling this statewide. We thought smaller than where we are now. And that was maybe by virtue of working in a rural community and with rural kids. What I learned from that is not to think so small. Have a bigger aspiration and you can reach it. 

Involve companies like Procter & Gamble and Fifth Third Bank and see what you get. I think that there are lots of ways, lots of keys to keeping employers engaged. A lot of that is being responsive to what they ask for versus bringing what schools need and expect. Schools can be really rigid when they deal with work-based learning and employers. That was also a big learning for us — if we were going to stay engaged with these employers, we needed to adapt the school model to what they need.

Looking ahead: The grand-prize winner announcement and new resources

The iLEAD finalist team currently awaits the announcement of the Rural Tech Project grand-prize winner. Early this fall, the U.S. Department of Education will announce the winner, which will receive an additional $100,000. The challenge is also working with each finalist team to compile and publish their lessons learned as a resource for other communities. The teams have all demonstrated that rural communities are powerful centers for educational innovation; their program models can be adapted by other schools across the country to create technology education programs that increase access to careers across industries. 

Sign up for the Rural Tech Project newsletter to receive the winner announcement as well as resources from iLEAD and the other finalist teams.

See lessons learned and resources from the Rural Tech Project teams.

See lessons learned and resources from the Rural Tech Project teams.