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Does prestigious Governor's Honors Program favor metro students over rural Georgians?

In 2013, the Governor’s Honors Program moved from the Department of Education to the Governor's Office of Student Achievement.

Has the change in oversight also led to changes in how students are chosen and which students are selected?

Students learned Friday whether they won a place in the prestigious four-week residential summer program held at Valdosta State University.

According to the state website, “The program offers instruction that is significantly different from the typical high school classroom. It is designed to provide students with academic, cultural, and social enrichment necessary to become the next generation of global critical thinkers, innovators, and leaders.”

Over the last two years, I’ve heard complaints GOSA was choosing fewer rural students, an allegation the agency refutes.

A teacher from a rural system sent me this note:

While there was always an imbalance between the north metro students (Cobb, Gwinnett, North Fulton) and the rest of the state, that distribution has become decidedly in favor of the above mentioned areas since the switch to GOSA.

In the past, each system was allotted a certain number of students and decided who would go to the state-level interviews.

This year, there was a selection process beforehand that determined who would go to the state-level interviews. Students completed an online application, applications were reviewed and students were notified if they were going to be interviewed at the state level. I assume this was to cut down on the number of in-person interviews.

One would think that with fewer students to interview, it would be easier to obtain enough interviewers in the subject area.Yet, this was not the case. One GHP candidate told me the interviewers flat out told her they knew nothing about the subject area and really didn't seem to have any idea what that area did at GHP.

While I teach in a system that isn't known for its academic prowess, I teach great students and I've worked with over a dozen students in the past eight years who have attended GHP. Under DOE, we had as many as 10 students chosen. Now, it’s two or three.

There is something going on in how the students are chosen. Please take a look at the schools and systems where the accepted students attend school.

The acceptance lists for the past 10 years or so are available on the web via simple Google searches. I am afraid the meddling of the governor and his arguments with the past state school superintendent have done a disservice to the top students in Georgia that don't have the benefit of the Walton, North Fulton High or Brookwood zip code.

After reading the teacher's note, I looked at the 2015  list of winners and noted:

Math: 64 out of 80 are from metro counties.

Piano: 5 out of 6 are from metro counties.

Engineer and design: 20 0ut of 22 are from metro counties.

Spanish: 14 out 17 are from metro counties.

I put the question to the Governor's Honors Program. This is the response from GOSA Executive Director Martha Ann Todd.

(Please note Todd defines metro Atlanta as a 10-county area. The Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area as defined by the federal government encompasses 29 counties.)

Here is Todd's response:

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement agrees participants in the Governor’s Honors Program should represent the entire state.  To that end, the 2015 program finalists include 680 students, 58.5% (398) of whom are from the 10-county Metro Atlanta area and represent the public school districts in the City of Atlanta, the City of Decatur, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale.  35.3% (240) of the finalists represent public school districts in other areas of the state.  6.2% (42) of the finalists represent Georgia’s private high schools.

This year, as in many of the past years, there is a large representation of students from the Metro Atlanta area.  This is to be expected since half of the state’s population lives in the Metro Atlanta area, and the Metro Atlanta representation reflects that.

By nature, the GHP is a selective residential summer school that offers a rigorous academic experience for talented and gifted high school students to explore their considerable potential.  GOSA takes concerns about the diversity of GHP very seriously and always look for ways to improve our process.

We know that one of the key strengths to this residential program is the opportunity it affords students to live and learn with other students who are different from themselves.

Our office uses student enrollment data to provide school districts and private schools with a nomination quota. That being said, we also have a number of school districts that choose not to nominate students. Although strongly encouraged to participate and nominate, GHP is voluntary, and the district level student nomination process is beyond GOSA’s control.

Once nominated by the district, the student is then moved into a statewide competition. Over the past five years, the number of students who have competed at this level has exceeded 3,000 each year. Our office strongly believes that 3,000 paper applications is overly burdensome on school district officials (having to collect and mail in some instances hundreds of applications with private and identifiable student data) and does not prepare these gifted high school students to apply for scholarships or colleges (most of which is done via an online application).

Additionally, it was important to our office to have an organized, secure, and systematic process in place that allowed us to communicate with students, provide coordinators with request for additional files, and allowed us to evaluate the applications for our semi-finalist round.

As with previous years, the interview process consisted of multiple components with multiple interviewers. We are proud that many former and current GHP instructors participate in the interview process and that we have a large number of qualified interviewers from around the state (high school teachers, college instructors, GaDOE staff, etc.).

This process is in place intentionally to eliminate bias against students from various geographic areas of the state. We are delighted that our 2015 cohort will have students from Gwinnett and Screven County Schools, from DeKalb and Catoosa, from Fulton and Jackson County.

Just a few points of note:

Agricultural Science has 21 (out of 31) students selected as finalist from non-metro Atlanta area schools.

Science has 38 (out of 80) students selected as finalist from non-metro Atlanta area schools.

Jazz has 3 (out of 7) students selected as finalist from non-metro Atlanta area schools.

Communicative Arts/English has 37 (out of 80) students selected as finalist from non-metro Atlanta area schools.

Another point of note is that even within the Metro Atlanta area schools, we have finalists who attend Title I/Title I eligible schools in Clayton (Lovejoy, Morrow, Jonesboro), DeKalb (Tucker), and Atlanta Public Schools (B.E.S.T. Academy and Maynard Jackson).  Additionally, we have finalist representation from every area of the state:

Northwest – Walker County Schools, Catoosa County Schools

Northeast – Fannin County Schools, Hall County Schools , Habersham County

Atlanta Metro (APS, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Rockdale, Forsyth, Fayette, Cherokee, City Schools of Decatur

Central – Bibb County, Houston County. Laurens County

West – Troup County, Harris County, Muscogee County

East – Richmond County, Screven County, Jefferson City

Southeast – Chatham County, Glynn County, Camden County

Southwest – Thomas County, Tift County, Dougherty County

We are, of course, limited in the number of students we can serve through GHP.  While we know that the results are disappointing to many students, parents, and teachers when they nominate an exceptional student to our program, there are a finite number of available slots and the number of well-qualified students in Georgia exceeds that number.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.