When 42-year-old Buddy Berry—whose family has lived in rural Eminence, Kentucky, for generations—took the reins of the Eminence Independent School District in 2010, he found his hometown district and its single school in a state of crisis.
“Seven years ago, the future of an Eminence student was pretty bleak,” said Berry, reflecting on this small community of 2,500 about 30 miles from Louisville. “Our school was rundown; enrollment was declining; test scores had dropped. We needed to do something drastic in order to transform the school.”
One of his first acts when he took on the superintendent’s job was to interview students to find how things could be improved. Students indicated that they felt trapped in an outmoded system. They wanted more access to technology and more choice in learning. And they wanted more challenging coursework that led to better job opportunities in the town of Eminence—and beyond.
Never one to shrink from a challenge—Berry took the superintendent’s job without any formal experience as an administrator—he responded to the feedback by leading his district through a dramatic turnaround.
Eminence students now learn in a highly collaborative, internet-connected workspace that feels more like a modern tech office than a typical high school. Students are given access to cutting-edge tools like laser cutters and 3D printers that turn dreams into working prototypes, and community projects immerse them in authentic, real-world problem solving. New programs send high school students outside of their comfort zones, exposing some to college before they graduate.
Families have flooded back to the school—enrollment has increased from 605 students in 2010 to around 900 today. The school is also seeing significant academic improvements. For the last three years, 100 percent of students have met the College and Career Readiness state standards, and 99.5 percent of early college program participants are on track to earn a college degree or have already done so.
But for Berry, real success is measured in the lives of the students themselves: “To watch that transformation in their lives and to know they have a different outlook…that’s the metric of success. That’s the power of the transformed life.”
A New Space to Learn
To give students access to more technology and personalized learning opportunities, Berry knew he had to transform the students’ learning environment.
“We were doing 21st-century learning in a 19th-century building,” he explained. “It was really important that we created a facility that matched our philosophy.”
Though the community was strapped financially, Berry went to residents to ask for help, gaining support for a nickel tax measure to fund a new $6 million, 30,000-square-foot school building known as the EDhub.
Inspired by Silicon Valley’s tech industry and Disney World’s Epcot park, the EDhub features eight makerspaces—such as robotics and design thinking labs—and a library where students can borrow power tools to build any creation they dream up. The building’s circular shape, many windows, and moveable walls breathe a sense of openness and community into the building.
When students become experts in the use of specific technologies, they earn micro-credentials in skills like using 3D printers or power saws. Credentialed students then have the opportunity to teach their fellow classmates and adults.
“Students don’t just check out books. They check out tools. There’s hydroponics. There’s robots. The resources kids have—it’s almost limitless,” said Kerri Holder, who teaches a K–8 engineering class called Project Lead the Way.
A Path to the Future
When Berry started as the Eminence superintendent, only 20 percent of the school’s high school graduates were earning college degrees. Although many Eminence students were graduating from high school academically prepared for college, most were not attending or were dropping out early, leaving few options besides a factory job in town.
“Kids would go [to college], maybe spend a semester, maybe two, and then all of sudden they’re back in town,” said Thom Coffee, Eminence’s assistant superintendent. “They can do the work…. But they needed a support network.”
In response, Eminence administrators sought a partnership with Bellarmine University in nearby Louisville. With the university’s support, they established an early college program at the high school, which provides students an opportunity to experience college and college-level work while earning credits that give them a head start in post-secondary education.
In their first year in the program, participating students attend required courses with their high school peers taught by a Bellarmine professor. In year two, they take elective classes alongside other Bellarmine college students to give them a chance to sample subjects of interest.
The district pays dramatically reduced college tuition costs for the students, and provides individualized college counseling to help them adjust to college coursework. Of the 250 students who have participated in the program, 249 are either still enrolled or have successfully graduated.
An Opportunity to Give Back
To create meaningful learning experiences, Eminence students are given class time to work on community projects that blend academics with service learning. Students identify a problem or issue in their community and find a way to address it.
Often, students don’t have to look far to find problems worth solving.
For a recent project, special education teacher Kelli Meadows helped students design and build a mobility device for a classmate with special needs who struggled to walk the distance between classrooms. To make the device both functional and cool, students incorporated a hoverboard and a beach chair. They also sold advertisements to local businesses to subsidize the costs.
“It makes me feel good inside because I’m doing something good. No one gets left out,” said Harrison, a fourth grader, of his work on the project.
The project wasn’t just fun: It required students to apply their understanding of math and engineering, while also learning persistence and compassion for others.
“This taught them more than I ever could in a 30-minute lecture,” said Meadows. “Because our students participate in meaningful projects, they are able to think outside of the box. They learn empathy and realize their dreams may become a reality.”
In less than a decade, the community of Eminence has transformed its only public school into a showcase of 21st-century learning.
The dramatic turnaround has meant rethinking everything from instructional strategies and hiring practices to physical facilities and access to technology. Although inspiration has come from as far away as Disney World and Silicon Valley, the Eminence success story depends on local solutions and innovation.
For the students and the town, the success has given new hope for a future in Eminence and beyond.
“We’ve implemented some really good programs to try to inspire those kids to take that next step” said Sherry Curtsinger, elementary assistant principal for Eminence Independent Schools.
She sums up the school’s empowering message to children in two words: “You can,” she said. “You can be that first child [in your family] to go to college. Look at all the things you’ve done and you’ve learned here at Eminence.”