Recently, I had the profoundly uplifting experience of visiting Richardsville Elementary School, outside of Bowling Green.
Several weeks ago, a second-grader at Richardsville, hand-wrote a letter, inviting me to visit the school. Classes at the school had been conducting research on each university in the state; part of a thoughtful effort to get children to start thinking about college and their futures early.
It was an invitation I couldn’t resist.
But there was no way that I could anticipate just how moving the experience would be and how it underscored many of the things that Kentucky is doing right in educating our children and preparing them for future leadership.
I attended the morning assembly at Richardsville, a gym packed with 500 children, teachers and staff, all wearing UK blue T-shirts. The second-grade class, with a Class of 2026 banner in tow, led their classmates in a video presentation about UK. Throughout the school, essays were on the walls touting our University and paw-prints were taped to the floors throughout with fun facts about UK.
You will be proud to know that they had easily memorized our “alma mater” and could sing both stanzas of “My Old Kentucky Home.” But more importantly, even at such a young age, they were eager, excited learners, who soaked up knowledge about our University, which in turn, made them optimistic about the idea of attending college in the future.
Some 70 percent of the youngsters at this school participate in the free and reduced lunch program. At the same time, though, we know that if children start visualizing educational attainment early – if they actually see themselves attending college – they are much more likely to experience success.
After the ceremony, the school’s energy team – composed of students – took me on a tour of the facility, a “net-zero” building, reportedly the first such school in the United States. The designation means that it is so energy efficient that, over the course of a year, its solar energy panels (over 40,000 square feet mounted on rooftop and support structures) will offset the electricity it takes from the grid. The building will have a reduced energy consumption — 75 percent less when compared to the national average energy consumption of school buildings.
But what’s more impressive is how the building, itself, encourages and facilitates engaged learning among students.
The students, who led me on the tour, were able to point to and discuss in detail graphic and written depictions of how the school is utilizing geothermal heating and cooling to reduce costs and increase efficiency, how solar panels better regulate light in classrooms and learning spaces, and how rainwater is being channeled and recycled for use. They spoke with obvious pride about the energy-efficient cafeteria and kitchen, which served “no fried foods.”
The entire school, in effect, was one, large classroom, imparting lessons to children about the environment, energy and health, among other important things. It was remarkable.
It’s also worth noting that the architects for the school, Sherman-Carter-Barnhart, are also working with us as we begin to embark on the revitalization of our residence halls. It underscored for me how we are focused on the right things at UK – the living and learning spaces that our students will use to continue their education in interactive and collaborative ways.
Of course, it is easy, sometimes, in the face of continued economic uncertainty and challenge to grow weary and skeptical about the future.
But there was no way to be skeptical after a morning with these children and their dedicated and devoted team of teachers and staff. They represent what is right in education and, in particular, they reflect some of the ways in which Kentucky is leading the nation.
Our generation will, of course, leave a lot of issues still to be resolved. A morning spent with these bright and earnest children in this incredible learning environment left me without doubt or question that the next generation – those we are preparing for lives of leadership, meaning and purpose – can provide the answers.
By the way, I told young girl who invited me to keep writing. She promised to do so. I expect her to be in the graduating class of 2026 – at UK, wearing blue.