Bill and Melinda Gates paid a visit to EKY

Bill and Melinda Gates

Photo from Melinda Gates,

Making our eastern Kentucky youth feel like they can do anything is a very crucial part of transitioning the regional economy. It doesn’t hurt when Bill and Melinda Gates are telling them that, too, when they come to visit.

The pair – who co-chair the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is “guided by the belief that every life has equal value” – stopped in on Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County a few months ago to see what administrators, teachers and students were doing that made them all so successful. From Melinda Gates:

Floyd County schools have made significant gains in student achievement over the past 10 years. In 2005, the district was ranked 145th among Kentucky’s 173 public school districts in terms of student achievement. By the 2014–2015 school year, it had skyrocketed to 12th.

More than 91 percent of the district’s students graduated from high school in 2014, beating the state’s graduation rate of 88 percent. And their college readiness rates are on the rise, too.

We visited Betsy Layne because we wanted to see firsthand how teachers and administrators have helped drive such meteoric progress. It was quickly apparent that, like all of the most successful schools we’ve visited, Betsy Layne’s teachers and administrators use a combination of compassion and sky-high expectations to drive its young people to succeed.

Bill and Melinda talked with students over pizza, and visited their classrooms to see how teachers were teaching. They were pleasantly surprised by the innovative techniques, and by how engaged the students are. But the clincher – what really makes all the difference, in my opinion, to making eastern Kentucky students successful – was what one student told Melinda: “[Our teachers] make you feel like you can do anything.”

We need more of that in the region – more confidence inducing teachers and other educators who are telling our youth they can do anything, and really making them feel that, so they grow up to be confident individuals who can turn our economy around with their innovation and hopes and dreams.

The truth is, eastern Kentucky young people can do anything, including revive their region from the ground up in just the way they want so that it sustains itself well into the future. It’s something almost every eastern Kentucky wants to do, deep down, because, as Bill Gates pointed out in his summary of their trip:

What was most moving was to hear how dedicated all the students are to Eastern Kentucky. With the coal mining jobs gone and nothing yet to take their place, some people think that this part of Kentucky doesn’t have a future. But many of the students I met are committed to coming home after college to start making one.

Dedication. Love. Passion. Hope. We Appalachians have that for our place. If our young people have as much belief in themselves as they have love for their place, the sky really is the limit for eastern Kentucky’s possibilities.

P.S.: Be sure you watch the video of Betsy Layne senior, Lakeisha Crum, in Bill Gates’ blog post. It’s well worth the 2 minutes of your time.

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