GLASGOW – The observation that Barren County has some things most places in the commonwealth don't was made Wednesday by Josh Benton, deputy secretary for workforce development in the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.
Barren County Schools Superintendent Bo Matthews had welcomed him and a couple of other people who joined him from Frankfort, fellow educators and local economic development, government and business leaders to a “roundtable” discussion that took place in a meeting room in the 1-year-old Barren County Innovation Zone, also called the In-Zone. Several of them had just accompanied Benton as he toured classrooms, labs and work areas in a renovated Barren County Area Technology Center and the In-Zone, the name of which plays on the fact it was incorporated with the Barren County High School football stadium.
“Thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to come see where in the world Barren County Schools is in the grand scheme of things, kind of how we see how we can continue to innovate from traditional school to [a] workforce business and industry – our community – says is what we need,” Matthews said.
He recognized a commitment from the Barren County Economic Authority of $150,000 to fund the second cohort of BC Skills computer-application coding training program.
“Thank you, BCEA for believing in what we do,” Matthews said.
Justin Browning, project manager, recapped a little of the information he had provided to the BCEA last week in his pitch for the funding, which has been separately reported by the Glasgow Daily Times.
Benton said it was really exciting to be there.
“Really it's been unbelievable to see the progress that's been made with the transformation of the old building to what's going on in this facility, but even more than that, just the attitude of the leadership of the district and schools,” he said. “You don't see this very often around the state, to be honest, and I've been in either workforce or economic development for over 15 years, and it's given me an opportunity to see what goes on all across Kentucky. The commitment from both the school and community partners and employers is really – is unmatched.
"The reference just a minute ago about where Barren County stands, it's pretty high up at the top in terms of what communities are doing to really take things to where – you're defining what you want your community to be. You're not waiting back for someone out of my office or some other government agency to try to fix it. There are plenty of communities that are.
"To see communities come together and develop strategies to change things, I mean, you have students making products. There are not too many schools that have students making products and selling them, whether it's to help private industry to whether it's a public safety issue that they're addressing. They're just not learning it in a book; they're actually doing it, and that's impressive. It's something that everybody should be proud of. [Judge-Executive Micheal Hale] has sat on state boards for workforce, and he's seen what's been shared sometimes as best practice. I don't know if we've seen much that equals to what I've seen today.”
During the tour, Benton had seen a lot of new and updated equipment, much of which was enabled through partnerships with community businesses. He saw robotic and other computerized equipment in the innovation center and stopped by the BC Skills classroom, and he learned about a project underway in the engineering technology section to help warn drivers who are about to enter portions of roadway with water over them to stop.
He took several questions, several of which had to do with getting more funding, and Benton talked about how much demand there is from across the commonwealth for the same dollars. He also discussed how workforce development funds are tied to unemployment rates.
In his economic development roles and involvement with showing communities to companies, he said, he's seen that “the last six, eight years, the narrative's really changed.”
“Education and workforce was never part of the dialogue,” Benton said, “and now it's the primary dialogue. Every company wants to visit the school district, wants to talk to the principals and superintendents. They want to talk to existing employers, and say, 'We don't want to hear that all the problems are solved; we want to hear how you're working on them. And are employers at the table to drive change if needed?'”
Often, his staff has opted to handle that discussion on behalf of the community, he said.
“I'd say that we would be proud to walk any client through these doors and they would be impressed, because you're doing it every day. Employers are coming through here all the time, and there's dialogue about what's needed. There's co-ops. There's internships. There's pre-apprenticeships going on, and just that level of community is phenomenal. Even today, walking around, you've done all this work, and there's ideas for, 'What can we do next?'”
Matthews immediately started naming some of those ideas.
“And it's Day One!” interjected Scott Harper, director of instruction and technology for Barren County Schools, referring to the fact it was the first day for students in the new academic year and prompting laughter.
Later, after a discussion of challenges with federal funding, Matthews said, “There's always going to be red tape to deal with, and this community right here, they have a heart for kids and for community citizens, and we're committed to finding a way to make things better.”