[Corey’s Comments] Gatton Academy Enters Race to the Top Commencement Challenge

Race to the Top Commencement Challenge
Race to the Top Commencement Challenge

by Corey Alderdice, Assistant Director, Admissions and Public Relations

Like our students, we never shy away from a challenge at the Gatton Academy.

When opportunities arise, we do our best to stay on the cutting edge.  In my last post, I shared with you information about our Gatton to Go mobile phone app.  Not too long after that post, Education Week–one of the premiere periodicals for US education news and commentary–spotlighted the Academy (membership required) as one of six schools representative of using mobile technology.

Cool, huh?

About a month ago, President Obama announced, as part of the Race to the Top initiative, that he would select one high school for which he would deliver the Commencement address later this Spring.

The contest relies on students and administrators working together to celebrate the exciting things taking place at their school:

The application’s four essay questions focus on demonstrating how the school is helping prepare students to meet the President’s 2020 goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.  Applications will be judged based on the school’s performance and dedication to providing students an excellent education that will prepare them to graduate ready for college and career choices. Each question must be answered in full to qualify and data that substantiates each answer is strongly encouraged.

Looking at the Obama administration’s initiatives, we think the Gatton Academy is exemplary of what twenty-first century education can look like.   Nontraditional and innovative learning environments, an emphasis on STEM subjects, reaching geographically, ethnically, and socially diverse student populations, and the assurance of post-secondary matriculation are certainly indicators that the Gatton Academy is an “Atypical High School.”

I’d like to take a moment to thank the students who were vital to the application process.  Our Academy Avatars provided valuable insight in sharing their experiences as Academy students as the essays took shape.  The students in the video below spent an afternoon just before Spring Break relating what makes the Academy so unique.  Our students’ comments in print and video certainly make me proud of how they have embraced this experience.  Finally, a special thank to Ami Karlage for helping me pull it all together and share our administrative data and responses that supplements the information provided by students.

Six finalists will be selected.  From there, the public will vote for the top three.  In the end, the White House and Department of Education will select the singular school that will receive this special honor.  We’ll certainly keep you up-to-date as the competition progresses.

Until then, keep your fingers crossed and check out the student video and responses to the four essay questions.

1.  Describe what makes your school unique. Discuss academic opportunities, community engagement activities, school culture, or other activities/policies/programming your school has in place that you believe to be the most compelling in convincing the President to choose your school for his inaugural high school commencement speech. (500 words or less)

As students of the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky, we’re proud to say that we believe our school is unlike any other in the country.  We, along with our administration, have adopted the phrase “Atypical High School” to describe the living/learning environment at Kentucky’s only state-sponsored, residential high school for students interested in advanced careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

On a personal level, we feel honored that the state has invested in our individual academic futures.  The Gatton Academy partners with over three hundred high schools around the state to meet the needs of their high-ability students.  By combining the most important aspects of high school and collegiate learning environments, we have the best of both experiences.

The culture of the Academy is based on students who take pride in learning and embrace “smart” as something other than a four-letter-word.  Our learning ceiling has been removed:  we can embrace the academic challenges for which we’re ready through an unlimited supply of college classes.  We’re daily given the chance to excel and reach our potential.

Our student body comes from a variety of diverse backgrounds.  Since the program’s opening in August 2007, Academy students have represented eighty-seven of Kentucky’s one hundred twenty counties.  Our school allows students from all social and economic environments to participate in advanced learning opportunities.  The student from Appalachia or a small farming community can have access to same advanced instruction, labs, and resources commonly found only in urban areas.

With that in mind, we realize that the Commonwealth’s investment in our future requires giving back, both now and in the future. Because tuition, housing, and meals are provided at no cost to our families, it is our personal priority to give back to our communities across the state.  Each Academy graduate averages twenty-four hours of community service.  We share our love of science, seek to help other gifted young people, and do what we can to help lead the state to a better quality of life.  Our passion for math and science is matched only by our desire to truly change the world.

The advanced STEM careers we’re pursuing will one day lead to a better state, nation, and world.  Already, we’re engaged in cutting-edge research; genetic breakthroughs, alternative energies, saving endangered species—all of these subjects and more are part of our daily lives.  We’re not just listening to the conversation, we’re contributing to it.  Now, more than ever, both Kentucky and the United States need a well-trained and ambitious workforce that is ready to contribute to STEM fields.  If we hope to retain our status as a global leader, students like us need to cultivate our passion for science and math.  We’re excited and proud that the Gatton Academy allows us to accomplish that and so much more.

2. Describe how your school encourages personal responsibility and engages students. (200 words or less)

We attend the Academy because we want to be both personally and academically challenged in school.  That we choose to risk our 4.0 grade point averages and commit to spending the necessary time and effort studying–often not necessary in some of our home school—highlight the desire of our study body to embrace the infinite possibilities ahead.

Because the Academy is a residential program, every part of our daily lives is a lesson in personal maturity and responsibility.  Though there are many wonderful staff members who guide us through our challenges, we are responsible for getting up and going to class each morning.  We make the time to study and prepare for class.  Most of all, we very quickly learn how to say three sometimes difficult words: I need help.

In addition to our academic responsibilities, we also learn how to be responsible members of the community.  Living together at Schneider Hall is a constant reminder that other members of the community deserve our respect.  Each day we make the choice to live harmoniously with one another and to take into account the needs of those around us.

3.  Describe specific steps taken by your school to prepare all students to graduate ready for a college or a career. (200 words or less)

While many high school students across the country take college-equivalent courses, over half of our peers in Kentucky graduate needing remedial classes in order to be ready to face the rigor of university study.  By contrast, every class we take is for college credit and, at the age of sixteen, we have already begun to develop the diligence, effort, passion, and study habits to be successful in a college setting.

Not only is it an expectation, it is a reality that 100% of Academy graduates go on to attend a four-year college.  Every student at the Academy works toward this goal constantly.  This expectation is not set solely by the Academy staff: it is reinforced by our peers.  We challenge each other while championing our friend’s successes.

Much could be said about the academic preparation that students receive, but what’s really important is the social and emotional lessons learned that makes transitioning to life in “real college” that much easier.  Universities are excited about attracting Academy graduates because they know that we are mature, responsible leaders with experience in a collegiate community. WKU, the University of Louisville, and the University of Kentucky have established guaranteed scholarships for Academy graduates.

4.  Describe specific steps taken by your school to promote academic excellence. (200 words or less)

Though our school has a curriculum that builds on state requirements and advanced STEM content, what is truly remarkable is that we are directed to pursue the subjects that interest us the most.  In choosing classes, we select the challenge for which we are ready.  Organic chemistry and discrete mathematics—coursework designed for college juniors and seniors—are common class selections for Academy students.

At the Academy, school is not something that lasts eight hours each day.  With the combined living/learning environment, we take our classroom experiences back with us to the residence hall.  Learning doesn’t stop just because we’re not in class.  Because classes are so demanding and rigorous, the Academy has created support systems to help us succeed.

At the beginning of our time at the Academy, we receive coaching in how to learn and work at a collegiate level, including reading strategies, organizational skills, and note-taking.  Throughout the year, we have quiet study hours each evening that provides us with an opportunity to work with our peers and with tutors and other staff.    Moreover, through our Academy seminar series and service-learning projects, we expand our learning beyond the classroom, becoming better community members and leaders.

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