[Before I begin, you can probably tell from the title that this is going to be a rant. My students can tell you that when I get in a mood to go off I tend to ramble and can’t stay on topic. This post won’t be that entertaining but it does have some important points I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s directed toward the Arkansas education system, but it might obliquely apply to you as well. Enjoy! heh.]
So I was incredibly honored to be nominated for Arkansas Governor’s School’s Educator’s Day (are all those possessives grammatically correct?) by one of my favorite students, Max Roy. I didn’t even teach at Parkview this year and he still nominated me! Thanks, Max. Thanks a million. Some day I hope to do you a real solid in return.
I can’t overstate how much my students mean to me. My mom called while I was there and asked what I was doing. “I’m about to get a free lunch for being one of Arkansas’ Inspirational Educators,” says I. “Wow. That’s great! Why didn’t you say something about this earlier?” “Because, in the end I don’t really care about the nice treatment and the free lunch. All I care about is that my job allows me to inspire a student from time-to-time.” I mean that.
I appreciate the honor. It’s a re-affirmation to me that I’m doing something right. I sometimes require hard work from my students, but never more than I know they can handle. When I look at a student who’s struggling in a difficult class, but won’t back down and take an easier class, that’s when I’m touched the most. And I know that student will feel better about themselves from the struggle. That’s an awesome feeling you can’t get in a basket-weaving course. Not even an underwater basket-weaving course!
Everyone wants to feel successful, but not at the cost of lowering the bar. Have you ever, and I mean *ever*, been proud to have people applaud you for doing half the job of a peer? Of course not. Modern schools have a warped sense of priorities. Making kids feel good about themselves has risen to the focus of greatest importance. After sports, of course. We don’t care how kids feel about their athletic abilities if we’re winning. (Thank God they haven’t opened AGS to athletics… yet. And to coaches everywhere, “athletics” has only three syllables!)
Back to the point of this post. I attended AGS as a student 19 years ago. (Sheesh! I’m old!) It was the most amazing six weeks of my life. I was altered forever. We all were. But the school was quite different then. I hate telling my students that anything in the past was better than what it is now, even if it’s true. It’s just rude and pointless to make those observations, yet I still do it. At least, I do it when talking about things I’m passionate about. And AGS is one of those things. Back then the competition to get in was rough. There were 1600 applicants for 400 slots. The process was rigorous and we were judged on a dozen different factors, not just GPA. I aced the math section of the ACT and was still worried I might not get in. The students I found there were absolutely brilliant. I felt so out of place every day. These people were so knowledgeable and creative that I could barely hold a conversation with them. I loved it there. This year there were only 500 applicants. I am convinced after talking with several folks on the selection committee that the process is still rigorous, but when you *have* to fill all 400 slots you have to take some of the shaft with the wheat. Yet, that’s not the biggest problem I see with the AGS of today.
Back in 1989 when I attended, Hall High School in Little Rock sent 17 students. That was the most any school sent. Conway sent 13, and the other schools sent less. Not because those schools didn’t have the brain power, but there was just so much competition from around the state. My whole county only sent three students. With kids coming from all over it was a really diverse community. And I loved it. I met so many people there who weren’t like me. This was quite foreign to a kid from an all-white, 95% Baptist, farming community. I met Vietnamese, Kenyans, Brazilians. Buddhists, Hindus, atheists. Flag burners, ROTC sharp-shooters, future politicians. We all took the big Meyers-Briggs test to classify our personalities then we wrote our designations on our nametags to further demonstrate our diversity. Not sure what it means but it turns out my personality was the exact opposite of Hitler, but at that time I was an extreme introvert. AGS helped change that. Often you’ll find diversity is something the larger schools are accustomed to and the smaller schools fear. That makes the thought of attending somewhat distasteful for both groups.
This year Central High School sent 60 students. Several other schools sent more than 20. What diversity could possibly come from that? The smaller schools aren’t sending kids like they used to. Governor’s School still means something to the larger schools, but the rural areas, for whatever reasons, have stopped pushing their students to attend. But they’re the ones who need to attend. The more diverse your environment, the more growth you can have.
I strolled the campus for over an hour and sat in on a couple of classes. What I found was a moderate amount of diversity but the students arranged themselves into groups of people who looked identical. It’s as though the magic of AGS is gone. I saw kids from the same school sitting together during their free time. What can you learn from someone you see everyday anyway? Spend time with people who are nothing like you if you want to grow! I just can’t see these kids having the same connection to each other like my class did. Speaking of spending time with others, I found out that the dorm rooms have unlimited internet access this year. Blasphemy! We weren’t even allowed to talk on the phone except during certain times and on the weekend. We could have a radio in our room but no TVs anywhere. We got most of our news from the newspaper. For those who think this is archaic, remember that I attended during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tienanmen Square protests and we still felt quite connected to the world. I would wager most of the students spend at least an hour each day tied to their computer in their rooms. Yes, what a memorable experience that must make.
The people who oversee AGS need to see these changes as something that could eventually bring the program down. The only thing that keeps the school going is the alumni who are now part of the process. They are educators, politicians, …voters. With each legislative session there is a special committee that determines AGS’s fate. There was a time in the early 90s when I was asked to speak before that committee (because I was an officer in the alumni association) to defend the school in light of an incident that had a lot of folks pretty upset. These legislators spoke in hard numbers because the cost is exorbitant. Today the torch has been passed and some folks in that committee think of AGS in the first person, so I’m not worried about it getting shut down right now. But there will come a time when the students who are attending now will become the decision makers. If their experiences are summed up in references to activities and special speakers, I don’t see the school continuing. How can you have a unique and life-changing experience in a place that wasn’t considerably different from college?
Fortunately, I’m not just pointing out the problems; I have solutions!
What they need to do is limit the number of students coming from the same school and make sure they are quite different from each other. This won’t be fair or even feasible until they can find a way to increase the number of rural students applying. They need to determine the reasons for the lack of these applicants and invest some resources into solving the problem. One of the biggest causes is the perceived advantage of taking college classes after their junior year in high school. AGS lasts six weeks and even though it’s free, it doesn’t count toward college credit. The other not-so-obvious reason is the belief that AGS is evil has permeated through much of rural Arkansas. There is an honest fear that the kids will come back believing in evolution, accepting gays as human, seeing other religions as judicious, and finding folks of another color like-able — maybe even date-able. There’s no way we can change these attitudes in time to save AGS, but maybe we don’t have to. My mom and dad had all these fears, and they tried really, really hard to talk me out of going. But once I was accepted, the honor of attending outweighed the ‘horrors’ they feared. I was allowed to go because of the prestige carried by AGS attendees.
That’s what the school needs: to be seen as respectable and prestigious again. The folks running the show need to invest in some additional advertising. To their credit they are creating a video to distribute to all the high schools promoting the program this year. What needs to happen next is for a few alumni to go to these schools to talk with the potential applicants and answer whatever questions they have. It’s been so long since any students attended in some of these schools that there’s no one left to recommend it. I learned about AGS from a student who had attended two years before I went; many schools in Arkansas have completely lost that resource. I think that step would yield the biggest payback for their efforts.
I really want to see Arkansas Governor’s School achieve great things again, but so much of that rides on the caliber of the students who attend. Without the quality and diversity that built AGS in the beginning, there won’t be an AGS in the future. And that would be the greatest blow our education system has seen in decades. I hope they can pull it together and make it great again.