Johnson County’s school board has made a financial commitment to the district’s academic teams over the past three decades to help students achieve success at regional, state and international levels, currently supporting them to the tune of about $100,000 or more annually.
The district’s Student Opportunities with Awe-Inspiring Results (SOAR) program has indeed helped the students soar to new heights, now earning the district KSBA’s Public Education Achieves in Kentucky (PEAK) Award.
The PEAK Award, given twice yearly, was established in 1997 to focus statewide attention on outstanding public school efforts that enhance student learning skills and promote the positive impact of public elementary and secondary education in Kentucky.
Johnson County Middle School students (from left) Chrystalen Stambaugh, Amelia Kretzer, J T Dials and Austin Cantrell participate in the 2016 Governor’s Cup quick recall competition. Johnson County won first place in quick recall and the overall middle grades Governor’s Cup. (Photo courtesy of Johnson County Schools)
“The SOAR program definitely shows that a rural eastern Kentucky school district can not only compete, but excel. The Johnson County School Board has made a commitment to academic excellence,” wrote PEAK judge Kim Croley, a member of the KSBA Board of Directors.
“The Student Opportunities with Awe-Inspiring Results (SOAR) has done a great deal to broaden the horizons of many from the Johnson County School System,” wrote PEAK judge Linda Minch, who works in KSBA’s Legal Services unit. “Who would have thought a Kentucky county school system would have such a huge international impact?”
The SOAR program began as a way to challenge the mindset of area students and their families. It has led to numerous academic titles, including 13 Kentucky Association for Academic Competition Middle School Governor’s Cup championships and four first place finishes in International Future Problem Solving competitions for Johnson County Middle School.
The high school has won 16 regional Governor’s Cup championships and has competed in state and international competitions as well. In 2016, the middle school and high school finished first and second, respectively, in their divisions in state Governor’s Cup competition.
“It just comes back to show the dedication of our faculty and staff for our students across the district of Johnson County Schools and what high expectations everyone has for each one of our students in the district,” Superintendent Tom Salyer said.
“Students from Johnson County live on farms and ride buses to school,” said Pamela Burton, the middle school academic coach. “Their lives revolve around this small community and yet, when they travel outside our county, they excel. Their knowledge, their expertise, their confidence is the direct result of coming from a school system that prides itself on its academic program.”
In the early 2000s, Johnson County became the first district to pay academic coaches the same extra pay as its athletic coaches. The school board also pays for the program expenses, including travel to competition sites.
“I think that set a trend here in the state that we expect just as much out of academics as we do sports teams and I think that’s a huge message to send out to our community and across the state how important academics are,” Salyer said.
Board Vice Chairman Melvin VanHoose said the district thought the academic coaches should’ve been fairly compensated “and that’s what we decided to do with them.”
“A lot of our academic coaches were spending more time with the kids than what the athletic coaches were spending with their teams and they were getting better results, so we thought, ‘Hey, let’s go with it and pay them the same thing and give them a little more of an incentive to work harder and do more’ because they were putting in a lot of time after school hours and on weekends and so on,” the 32-year veteran board member said.
The SOAR program extends to the elementary level. Fourth- and fifth-grade students compete in five academic meets plus an end-of-the-season tournament. Meets include written exams in five content areas and quick-recall matches.
“The elementary season promotes community and parent involvement and helps area students become familiar with students from other schools,” the district wrote in its PEAK Award entry.
“Young kids, I think, are more competitive than what we give them credit for and I think the earlier we can start the better off that they’re prepared to deal with this as they come into our middle school and high school system,” VanHoose said.
District sixth-grade students compete in three meets during November of each year.
The middle and high school teams participate in numerous in-state tournaments and some board-approved tournaments outside of Kentucky. The competitions include traditional Governor’s Cup; Community Problem Solving; Scenario Writing and Performance; Mathcounts; National Geographic Bee; National History Bee; and a proposed participation in the Science Olympiad.
Former Johnson County student Drew Trimble said his involvement with the SOAR program had a big influence on him, and he counts Burton and Brenda Porter, the high school’s academic coach, as two influential people in his life.
“They inspired me, encouraged me and helped me to develop both confidence and humility,” Trimble said. “They taught me how to think critically, write powerfully and compete tenaciously. I learned more in the six years I spent in academic team practices with Mrs. Burton and Mrs. Porter than I learned in college and law school combined.”