Kevin: In 2022, national average test scores in reading and math both declined to the lowest levels in decades. While most of the commentary instills concern, even fear, over the current state of education, innovative educators are changing the narrative. The pandemic, they say, is actually a rare opportunity for schools to reform. How can schools be reinvented to get students excited about learning? What is innovative teaching, and what are some examples of innovative teaching models? What do students want out of schools, and how do they want to be supported in their education? This is what I want to know.
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Dr. Buddy Berry to find out. Dr. Buddy Berry is the superintendent of Eminence Independent Schools in Kentucky. Currently in his 13th year as superintendent, he has put Eminence on the map with its innovative model for education. He’s passionate for reinventing the K-12 school experience. Dr. Berry's School on F.I.R.E. model has seen dramatic results in the past decade. He joins us today to discuss the framework of innovation for reinventing education and how innovative teaching can create schools where kids are truly learning and enjoying the process. Buddy, welcome to the show.
Buddy: Thanks for having me. Been excited about getting to talk with you.
Kevin: So, I want to first talk about your hometown, your area. Eminence Independent School District is located in Kentucky. For our listeners out there, share a little bit about where it's located, the population, the number of students in the school district just so they can understand where you're located.
Buddy: Well, we're right in the middle. If we live in central Kentucky, we're about as central as you get. So we're about 30 minutes just outside of Louisville, rural community, one stoplight, one McDonald's, about 3,000 people that live here. Student body: it's doubled in the last five years in enrollments. So we're right at 1,000 students, K-12, one campus. And then we also have about 75% free and reduced lunch, about 12% to 15% homeless — one of the highest homeless populations in the state.
Kevin: You've done some really amazing things to help kids and families in need, but beforehand, I'm sensing that part of your work was grounded in your experience that you're a fourth-generation native. Isn't that right?
Buddy: Yes, sir. Fourth generation on my dad's side. Third generation on my mom's side.
Kevin: You ended up going to school, and you’re superintendent in your hometown. One question I wanted to ask you: With the work that you've done, oftentimes, people from small towns end up leaving. Why did you decide to stay?
Buddy: I did actually spend the first 10 or 12 years of my career outside of Eminence. And so, kind of did go to actually one of the most rural areas of Kentucky and then also one of the most urban. So, kind of brought both of those experiences back home. Came back home when my oldest child — I have four kids, Brooke, Blaze, Bryce and Brax. When Brooke was starting kindergarten, I came back to work here and gave up an administrator's job to be a high school math teacher in Eminence because I wanted Brooke to be here.
Kevin: When you came back, and this is your 13th year as I understand it as superintendent, you made the statement that you wanted to create dream schools. You wanted Eminence to be the Disney of schools. So, starting with that very beginning vision, what made you land with those descriptions?
Buddy: Disney kind of embodied creativity and passion and design. So, we wanted to create a school that was fun and engaging, that was personalized, that created unique learning experiences. The one thing about Disney is if you go there, 85% to 90% of your time, you're sort of miserable. It's expensive. It's very hot. There are long lines, but what Disney does better than anybody else is they create a few magical moments each day. And then as soon as you get back home, you're like, "I’ve got to go back," because you want those magical moments again. So, we wanted to create a school where kids wanted to come back. So, where every minute of every day might not be this magical dream place, but there were enough of those moments, those meaningful moments where kids wanted to be at school.
We ask our staff all the time, "Are kids running to your class, or are they running from your class?" We want every kid to want to be here. We don't want them to want to go home at the end of the day. So, we felt like Disney was kind of a good way to sum up what all that looked like. And dating back to our model. Our model's called the School on F.I.R.E. It's a framework of innovation for reinventing education. So when we started that now 12 years ago, it was such a novel idea that we needed to connect to something that was a little more grounded and people had a better idea of what it looked like.
Kevin: I actually love that reference of Disney, and I remember taking my sons there for the first time, and I hadn't really thought of it, but you're right. So much of your time there is miserable waiting in lines; you're paying a lot of money. I never thought of the fact that it's those magic moments. When you started this School on F.I.R.E. and this Disney of schools, and you make reference to you talking with your teachers, running away from something or running to something: What were some of the things that school children in Eminence were running from that you wanted to counter with this new approach?
Buddy: To be totally honest, I don't know how much our diploma meant 12 to 15 years ago. We were seeing decreasing enrollment. Ten percent of our population was decreasing every year. Finances were bad. I think it was making our diploma mean something, so that when you had an Eminence diploma, that it embodied a world-class, well-rounded education. So, we are heavily first-generation college students, and so we weren't seeing it translate to degrees or post-secondary success. So, it really was about defining new terms for what success was and could be. I think because I had never had any formal experience as a leader, we just tackled the whole system. We just reinvented school from the ground up because we didn't know we couldn't. So, fast forward 12 years and our team has really had a lot of success and became really a national model of innovation and personalization.
Kevin: You call that the Framework of Innovation for Reinventing Education. What exactly does that mean? Walk me through some of the steps that you've undertaken to reinvent education.
Buddy: What's the first step in creating dream schools that kids are excited about? You got to talk to kids. So, we interviewed every student in the district. We were smaller then, but we interviewed every one of them to see what they wanted in school, what they didn't want in school, what they didn't like about school. When you did that, we found out that kids were bored, they were lacking choice and they wanted more technology. So, we became the first district in Kentucky to be one-to-one.
We created an early college program partnering with Bellermine University where kids can go to college as early as sophomore year. They can graduate with two full years free, which is the equivalence of about $110,000 worth of free private college. So again, those opportunities are things that have created ... The reason we gave it a name like the School on F.I.R.E. was we didn't want it to just be about a new initiative or a new program. We wanted it to be about a total culture change and a total driving force. We've seen a lot of successes. We think we're the first in America. We think we invented the Wi-Fi school bus. The early college program was one of the first of its kind, if not the first, definitely the first in Kentucky. So, there are things like that that we've really implemented and employed in terms of also passion-based learning, doing applied personalization to their interests, their skills, their hobbies.
Then probably the single most innovative thing I think that we've done is we were one of the early adopters in America, probably in the first 2% of schools, to have a graduate profile. But the game changer was Eminence became the first school in America to then create standards to go with that graduate profile so that we know that in kindergarten, every kid's going to speak to 100 people three times, they're going to design websites, they're going to learn to code, they're going to have over a hundred micro-credentials by the end of fifth grade that involves everything from laser cutting to CNC routers to Google Suites. So then, in middle school, we present them with problems that they can use those micro-credentials to solve. And then in high school, they find the problems and apply the skills. But with these exemplars, we know that every kid is going to have over 30 in-depth college and career explorations, and they're going to do philanthropy; they're going to do passion-based projects. We build that into the curriculum, and we consider it equally important to math, science, social studies, and English.
Kevin: So I will say, “Wow.” And when I read about your work, I said, "Wow." What's interesting is that so much of what you're doing is rooted in personalized learning. How did you get your teachers to buy into this total personalization approach for every child so that you could do the things you're talking about, creating those standards and profiles for kids, starting as early as kindergarten?
Buddy: Early on, it was very intimidating and daunting for staff, but we kept kids at the center of it. So it was all about focusing on what's best for kids and using testimonies and stories of children as we got successes along the way. By putting the kid at the heart of it, you're willing to find A, the people that are very kid-focused, and those people stuck with us and really lived through these changes. I recall one teacher that actually was the last teacher that I had had from Eminence Schools. She taught kindergarten. She was in year 35; she was beyond retirement age. And we launched the School on F.I.R.E. She came up to me, and she said, "Buddy, this is the most excited I've been about teaching in my career. Do you mind if I stay on?" She was making about $8 a day in the difference between her retirement and her teacher salary, but she was so energized from the work that we were doing.
Kevin: Now that you're well over 10 years of doing this, how have you been able to maintain the consistency and the continuity? I'm imagining that you still have to train and retrain new teachers to come into the system. You have to develop the right partnerships to keep some of the technology programs going. Talk about the process of keeping this going.
Buddy: That's a great question. What I will say is after 10 years, we really have taken on a systemic approach where it's replicable. So we've now seen our model in probably... There's over, probably, 8 to 9 million students in America that are using aspects of our model, either through direct consultation or visiting or trainings that we've led. So we're really seeing it spread, so to speak, like a fire. So it's creating those systems of making it replicable that have really kept the work going.
Kevin: See, that's what I wanted to talk to you about, Buddy. This is one of the real questions I had, because I've been fortunate to visit hundreds, maybe a thousand schools all over the world, and I always find these little kernels or nuggets of success or examples of personalized learning here and there. But every time it seems as if a large school district wants to try to do something, they get swallowed up by the bureaucracy or the superintendent de jour. And I don't mean that in a negative way, but a new superintendent has to deal with the school board, and they get run out. How do you create this change? You said that there are 8 to 10 million students that are benefiting from some aspects of your model. How do you build it to scale? You started with a small school district, but how does a larger school district, the Louisvilles, the New Yorks, the L.A. — how do you get it to the point where it is more immersed in the day to day?
Buddy: You're going to have to have a commitment level to pull it off. Because it's much easier to just take the status quo, serve your four-year stint of a large district. Average time of a superintendent in those districts is less than three years. So just kind of bide your time and put out fires. Instead of putting out fires, though, it's time to start starting fires. And I think teachers are desperate for something meaningful. I think students are desperate for something meaningful, and it's constantly trying to evolve that work. What we're seeing — there's a teacher crisis everywhere in terms of a shortage of even finding qualified staff. Eminence is staying fully staffed partially due to our size, but I think in great part due to the vision. Our vision trumps everything else. I think if these big districts would sell out on a vision rather than just trying to keep that status quo, so to speak, I really think the ones that are doing that are able to see it be successful and implementation occur at a broad scale.
Kevin: What recommendations do you give them on where to start, how to start?
Buddy: I would start with creating a solid graduate profile that is created at a district level via corporate partnerships, chamber of commerce, parents, teachers, students. I would start with that. I think it's the heartbeat of what we do for creating a 21st century school. Then I think the second step of that is how do you know that it's successfully being implemented? And that leads to what we call exemplars or creating standards. The third aspect of that is really creating teacher and student ownership. So how do you do that? Well, you really start to remove some of the bureaucracy. Hire great teachers and allow them to do great things. Rather than handing out a script that they should read so that every kid gets the exact same thing every day, realize that education is messy and that it's hard. But when it's done right, there's no more meaningful job in America.
Kevin: It really comes down to some of the basics in terms of interacting with kids, seeking their advice, working with them, as well as the adult staff. How do you find engaging today's students in this complex global world that we're living in?
Buddy: Yeah, I think part of it is it's the toughest time ever because kids have something in their pockets that connects them to all information that has ever existed. So, they're no longer just taking a teacher's word for it. So, it really changes how students learn and what they should learn. Now it's not who knows the most; it's who knows how to do the most with what they know. That's a seismic shift in terms of schools and educators, and it really resonated with me when I heard it.
Kevin: One of the things that you have your students do, and that's been part of the, I guess, DNA of School on F.I.R.E. is philanthropy work. Oftentimes many superintendents in many schools don't necessarily focus on that. Talk about this notion of giving back and how that is one of the centerpieces of your work.
Buddy: Well, it goes hand in hand with one of our core beliefs. And that is if you can help somebody to do something that they think is impossible, so if you can help a student or staff member to pull off something that in their own minds they really believe is impossible to pull off and you make it possible, it changes who they are. It changes how they're structured, how they think. Because then, if they pull off the impossible one time, they start to think, "Well, what else is possible?" So philanthropy works kind of side by side with that mindset, which is, I think, every kid that we've ever seen do outreach or philanthropy or start to use empathy in a powerful way — those kids are changed forever because they can't help but be. They start to feel those feelings of something bigger than themselves, and they start seeing the world for just what it is.
Kevin: I have one last question. It really relates to what you just alluded to. And again, thinking in terms of some of these superintendents or other folks out here who are considering change and trying to navigate change, I think one of the most important things that leads to meaningful change is trust, that you get the students' trust, you get the teachers' trust, you get the community's trust. What advice would you give to school leaders who are embarking on this big change effort in terms of building trust within the school communities, within the student body, within the staff?
Buddy: Let your yes be yes and your no be no. I think you have to just be a person of integrity. I think that teachers and kids and the community: they can see through edu speak. So when things have been bad here, we said they were bad here. When things were great here, we said they were great here. The one thing that we have always believed in — there are no perfect schools. There is nowhere in America that's perfect. So all we pledge to do is to fix what's broken. We have such an open-door policy that even today I've received four phone calls with people that are calling the superintendent over minute things that would never fall in the superintendent's lap. But at the same time, it's because they know that we'll try to fix it.
So we've created an atmosphere of seeing a problem and solving a problem. I think that's critical. I think also critical is to know that it takes an entire team. While we've been extremely successful, it is not because of me. It's because of the 150 staff members and the 950 to 1,000 students working side by side really to set out and try to do the impossible together, and honestly, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Kevin: Dr. Buddy Berry, thank you so much for what you're doing, and thank you for joining us on What I Want To Know.
Buddy: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want To Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want To Know.
Dr. Buddy Berry is superintendent of Eminence Independent Schools in Kentucky. Currently in his 13th year as superintendent, he has put Eminence on the map with its innovative education model. Passionate for reinventing the K–12 school experience, Dr. Berry's "School on FIRE" model has seen dramatic results in the past decade.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.