In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
Dr. Lynette Breedlove became director of the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky earlier this year. She has served many roles in public education, including teacher, gifted education specialist and central office administrator.
Now in its seventh year, the Gatton Academy, based at Western Kentucky University, is a two-year residential high school for Kentucky juniors and seniors. It’s been named the best public high school in the U.S. by Newsweek magazine. Because of its success, the academy is expanding.
Q: The Gatton Academy recently announced that it will increase its student enrollment from 128 to 200. How will the student body be expanded?
A: Based on our current planning, we will admit 100 juniors in the fall of 2016. The following year (fall 2017) we will admit another 100 juniors putting us at our full, expanded capacity.
Q: Will there be enough qualified students to fill the additional slots?
A: We have more qualified applicants than we can serve. Our acceptance rate is about 20 percent because that is all the students we have room for now. After the expansion, we will be able to serve a lot more of Kentucky’s very bright young mathematicians and scientists.
Q: A physical expansion of Florence Schneider Hall, the academy’s home at WKU, will be required to accommodate the additional students. Tell me about that project.
A: As soon as our current students move out for the summer in mid-May, we will pack up and move to a residence hall two buildings down for the 2015-2016 school year. We are working with WKU to ensure that our students have the same level of safety, security and community in our temporary home as they experience now. Construction and renovation will begin as soon as we move. We will move back into the renovated Schneider Hall in August 2016.
Q: By expanding two existing wings of the building and adding another, the expansion will provide residence hall rooms for another 80 students, living spaces for resident hall counselors and offices for your staff and for the Center for Gifted Studies. A large meeting space will also be added. How will that be used?
A: There is currently no space in the building where 200 could gather, so that will help us separate the gathering space for official events and evening classes from our recreational room on the fourth floor, which does double duty now.
Q: How will the costs of the expanded Gatton Academy be covered?
A: Our costs have gone up but the cost per student will remain fairly constant. The funding that we receive from the legislature and that it has provided for the academy to expand will meet that need. I don’t anticipate that being an issue at all. That cost has been already considered.
Q: Tell me about the $10 million donation that is making the expansion possible.
A: It is an anonymous donation, and we are very thankful for it. The donation will fund the expansion; we are doing additional fundraising for other related expenses, such as architectural and planning fees.
Q: Will there be any changes in requirements for admission?
A: Right now we think it is best to stay the course. We seem to have a winning combination and approach.
Q: Will there be any changes to the curriculum?
A: Right now we don’t think we’ll need to change our curriculum. Our students go to regular classes at Western. It works well, makes them competitive for college scholarships. We think with good planning we will be able to accommodate students in the classes they take now.
Q: Won’t the expansion require you to find more research and study abroad opportunities?
A: We have been talking about how we will offer those opportunities to a larger population of students. There are areas of WKU that we have not partnered with for research as of yet, so there are areas where we could expand.
We have also talked about study abroad. The two big pieces that Gatton offers are undergraduate research, which outside a university campus is very difficult to do, and study abroad. We want them to have enriching experiences to gain a solid global perspective. We’ll have to add some trips.
Q: How are you getting the word out about the expansion and about the Gatton Academy?
A: We are all planning trips to different parts of the state, so I am going to get to see a lot more of Kentucky. I am already reaching out to school districts to find places to have our information events for families. I did a presentation at a Kentucky Association for Gifted Education symposium, a gathering of the gifted and talented coordinators from across the state. We have also sent a letter to all superintendents, and our students do presentations when they go home. There are still places and students that haven’t heard of the Gatton Academy. Seven counties have not had a student attend the academy, and so we are reaching out to them. School personnel change regularly so we have to keep communicating to make sure folks know about us, to make sure there are no misconceptions and that the schools know that they get to keep daily attendance money and the students’ scores. Sometimes they don’t know that.
Q: How do home school districts feel about having their best and brightest leave to attend the Gatton Academy and take college classes with Western students?
A: It is a win-win. The home high school still claims the student and receives monetary benefits. When our students’ accomplishments are highlighted here, their home school can celebrate those accomplishments as well. And our students feel a strong tie to their home school. We just had fall break and a lot of our students went home and visited their high school. Some did presentations about the Gatton Academy.
Q: How much does it cost to attend the Gatton Academy?
A: It doesn’t cost parents very much to have their child come to school here. Tuition, room and board and fees are all paid by the legislature. And, students leave here with a minimum of 60 college hours. We do require families to pay for books.
Often, the home school district will pay for books because the district is still receiving state funding for the student but is not providing services for them. We certainly have students for whom the cost of books is a big obstacle. But the students are resourceful and there is local support. For example, sometimes church groups and other community organizations help pay for a student’s books.
Q: You have said that the academy’s culture is one of its strengths. Can you explain?
A: Our students feel strongly about the culture here. This is not the competitive place you would think it would be. The culture here is that when I don’t understand something in Chemistry II, I can ask my roommate or someone on my wing. We work hard to build a culture where it is OK to ask for help because we want these students to realize that everyone struggles. Here, they have a small community where everyone takes care of everyone. It is important to have that before they go off to a highly competitive university. A big piece of what we need to do going forward is to maintain the academy’s culture.
Q: As you nearly double your enrollment, are there concerns about how to maintain such a tight-knit community?
A: Some of our sister schools have 300 to 400 students, but I don’t know that they all have quite the same culture. As we add these 80 students, we will be very thoughtful about that. We have an orientation week the week before school starts. The juniors move in and then some of our seniors in leadership positions move in and welcome the juniors. That week is focused on team building and culture building and that helps the juniors learn the values and how we support one another. All along the application process we highlight that as well.
Q: What have you noticed about the academy in your brief time there?
A: It is the most amazing place, so well thought out in its founding. I think our focus has to be to highlight what the Gatton Academy offers for students and how accomplished Kentucky’s highest ability students really are and how that benefits Kentucky in the long run. Within the state and outside the state, our students represent Kentucky really well and can bring positive business interests to Kentucky. Even if they leave briefly to pursue college and graduate studies, they are Kentucky ambassadors and they build a network while they are there. They can come back to Kentucky and establish new companies and expand existing ones.
Q: What are some of your goals for the academy?
A: I think moving forward I would like to see the academy have a long-term strategic plan. And we are in talks about how to build a parents’ support group. From my work in public schools and gifted education, I have found that such a group is always mutually beneficial. Also, going forward, how to plan strategically so that we hear lots of different voices speaking out on how the Gatton Academy can continue to grow.