Kentucky’s Gatton Academy Named Nation’s Top Public High School, But Can It Be Replicated?

Newsweek Magazine has again compiled a list of the best high schools in the country, and a Kentucky school is on top.

To call the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science a high school, you'd have to suspend an element of reality. You’ll find no football games, pep rallies, or dismissal bells on the Kentucky campus. Instead you’d find couches designed for study halls and white boards scribbled with advanced math. Last week, one student even walked around campus in a t-shirt proclaiming, “Extreme science: What a rush.”

Gatton Academy is on the campus of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. I visited it in 2008 for a story and found that it truly is unlike most, if not all, other high schools in Kentucky. The ACT scores and GPAs are much higher than the state average. So is the total expenditure on students. In 2008, the state spent over $23,000 on each Gatton student. It spent less than $9,000 on other public school students.
 
That imbalance, and the following quote from the Newsweek story has inspired some questions from outside the state:

The school…is a public school with selective admission based only on past academic performance—a key quality that separates Gatton from other public schools, which are mostly mandated to seek economic and racial diversity.

As of Tuesday afternoon, most of the comments on the story questioned either the ranking or the value of the list. They say Gatton is so selective, it can't fairly be compared to other public schools. Further, some question whether the model Gatton presents could be properly replicated on a larger level.

Granted, I last visited the school in 2008, but when I asked officials there about the inequality in funding, they made the point that Gatton is about nurturing the state's best students and giving them an opportunity to succeed that they might not get in their standard high school. (There's a hope these students will return, too, and bring their talents back to the commonwealth.)

The Gatton model is selective, and, since the school is only five years old, it's true success for the state can't yet be measured. It's a long-term strategy in education. But the quote from Newsweek, that Gatton's selectivity separates it “from other public schools, which are mostly mandated to seek economic and racial diversity” reminded me of an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times that argued against the recent trend of re-segregation in public schools. The author, Berkeley Professor David L. Kirp, says it's important that districts do more to once again ensure that each classroom is full of students of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

For these youngsters, the advent of integration transformed the experience of going to school. By itself, racial mixing didn’t do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined. School systems that had spent a pittance on all-black schools were now obliged to invest considerably more on  African-American students’ education after the schools became integrated. Their classes were smaller and better equipped. They included children from better-off families, a factor that the landmark 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity study had shown to make a significant difference in academic success. What’s more, their teachers and parents held them to higher expectations. That’s what shifted the arc of their lives.
The piece doesn't mention Louisville, but it's hard not to think of the fights over student assignment while reading it. Like the story on Gatton, it also highlights the importance of giving students the right environment to learn in, as well as the right curriculum and teachers.

Gabe Bullard

Gabe Bullard is the director of news and editorial strategy.

@gbullard

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