The Arkansas Board of Education will meet Thursday on the recommendation by a committee appointed by Education Commissioner Johnny Key to move Arkansas Governor’s School, the summer program for talented student from Hendrix College, its home for 38 years, to Arkansas Tech. Arkansas Tech proposes a tech-centered makeover of the program. Bruce Haggard, who directed the program from 1983-2000, writes that the changes will be detrimental.

By Bruce Haggard

I understand that the Board of Education will be voting Thursday on the location and curriculum for the Arkansas Governor’s School for the coming years. Both are absolutely critical to the success of any AGS program and changing both would be very detrimental. The standard pre-college, technological, or advanced placement type of curriculum proposed by Arkansas Tech, is not what AGS was designed to provide. The conflicts involved when college students, food services, activity centers, and programs are shared with the high school students would not be an improvement.

The Governor’s School idea originated in North Carolina in 1963 and was so good that it spread to many states and finally to Arkansas in 1980 due to some fantastic efforts by several women (including Martha Bass, Elaine Dumas etc.) who had the interests of Arkansas youth in their hearts.

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The Arkansas Department of Education was funded and authorized to hire a special Gifted and Talented Director whose main responsibility was to establish the AGS and to bring in consultants from North Carolina to lead the faculty orientation and even to teach example classes in the first couple of years of the program. John Churchill and I were sent to North Carolina and to the annual National Conferences of Governor’s Schools to learn why and how they were so effective in the approximately 23 states that had established such programs and to write the AGS Overview.

The high school juniors targeted for the six-week experience were to be nominated by school counselors and teachers who identified them as gifted and/or talented in their potential (not necessarily in their performance.) A common observation of teachers is that some of the brightest students do not feel comfortable with their cohorts, cannot be intellectually challenged enough, and sometimes hide in the overworked teacher’s classrooms and most teachers wish they could give them something more. Normal high school classrooms are limited by the necessity of teaching to the middle and especially challenged to bring the lowest-performing students up to standards. It often means the really good students are underserved. AGS was designed to address this need.

As a Ph.D. molecular geneticist (with a secondary education background) who was teaching mostly pre-medical school students, I of course assumed the students needed advanced content in their area of interest (Area I as identified in the literature). But, I quickly learned (from other Governor Schools) that “content” was not nearly as important as stimulating these student’s intellectual curiosity and giving them the intellectual tools to dig out the content they needed to advance. Stimulating them to identify resources specific to their interests, to be able to digest and absorb those ideas, then to share them with their cohorts and teachers was much more important than giving them more specific content of our choosing. It is absolutely amazing to see students take off and fly when given this kind of challenge. I learned over the years that Governor Schools which had adopted more standard “pre-college” advanced curricular for their core soon failed as student’s know they can get that in advanced placement and in most of their high schools and they are perceived as just more summer school. Pre-determined content that they are tested over does not inspire the GT student to explore their own ideas and to think in creative ways. Governor Schools, which simply give advance information, are doomed to fail.

But it was recognized that GT students needed to be challenged beyond their special interest/ability and to think in terms of their field of interest’s impact on culture and society (Area II in Governor’s School lingo). The students with their own specific talents and knowledge are brought together to think about the major problems, ideas, challenges that all face in our current world. Teachers in these classes are great at encouraging the kind of open discussion and interplay between ideas that mostly cannot be encouraged and often not even tolerated in standard classrooms as it does not directly move students to perform better on standardized tests. This area often benefits from bringing in topics and often “controversial” speakers to stimulate necessary contemplation for students to figure out in their own minds what is best. Often, education is only the teaching of what the teacher thinks is ‘right’ and the student is simply indoctrinated with that idea. While there are facts and there is truth, in many important areas (that students need to prepare for) they have to form opinions based on their best judgment. Developing that ability to be open to other people’s opinions and to make the best judgment on their own. This is a skill not often taught but critical to the alumni of the Governor’s School programs who express great appreciation for their experience. Much of the controversy over the AGS over the years has centered on Jerry Cox’s and the American Family Council’s criticism that students are being taught to think on their own rather than being taught what to think.

It is also critical to the Alumni that they had the opportunity to simply be themselves in personal and social development classes (Area III in Governor’s school vernacular). These classes are great for learning how to get to know others, how to express your emotions in an appropriate manner, and how to live the good community life and just be a good citizen. Again this is an experience critical to the success of the program (shown by the classic 95% plus ratings of students who have gone through AGS). Again, this is not something easily measured by performance on standardized tests. In fact there are no tests at AGS and there are no grades. The students learn to take responsibility for their own learning. It is not for everyone and being transparent about the curriculum with potential students, teachers, parents and the public is very important.

Obviously this kind of experience cannot be provided on a normal high school or college setting where social (dating, community conformity etc.) pressures exist. Thus, it was recognized before the program was even begun in Arkansas that a special location needed to be identified. The fact that Hendrix College had no summer school, no students and no faculty on an empty campus in the middle of the state made it an obvious potential location. Negotiations to ensure that there would be no recruiting of students, that all exercise facilities, dorm and social space would be reserved just for AGS students for the six weeks were successful much to the chagrin of many Hendrix staff and faculty. Costs were negotiated to be sure Hendrix would not profit but only be paid for the costs of the program. These special precautions needed to be in place as a state-funded program on a private college campus. The limitations worked but were not obvious to many in the state and the location was controversial from the start, but it was and is critical to the success of the program.

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Those who have no personal experience with the unique nature of the program and the unique setting are prone to think that it can be as successful and as beneficial with a classic advanced school curriculum and on a campus with college students and classes going on. Believe me, when I say that is not true.

Dr. Bruce Haggard is an emeritus distinguished professor at Hendrix College. He was co-author of the original overview for Arkansas Governor’s School and directed it from 1983 to 2000. He was awarded the AGATE award of excellence in 1990 for work in gifted and talented education.

CORRECTION: I apologize for my misspelling of Dr. Haggard’s name in the original post.