What may be the nation’s most acclaimed team of middle school problem solvers has an unlikely headquarters.

In a former home-economics classroom — still lined with stoves that once introduced teenagers to brownie batter and boiling water — six students spend a February Friday afternoon between a conference table and an easel of chart paper. They discuss the complexities of corporations and governments trusting essential electronic data to cloud storage.

In the adjoining classroom, a separate group studies math, science, arts, social studies and language arts for their own run at another state championship in academic tests and “Jeopardy”-style quick-recall team competition.


Johnson County Middle School is an unexpected and unrivaled dynasty in academic competition in Kentucky. The school has won 15 state championships in 20 years. In a region that grapples with poverty, geographic isolation and a history of low educational attainment, major academic accomplishments have become a rallying point prized by educators, administrators, school board members and the community.

“ ‘I can do it, too.’ — For kids in Eastern Kentucky, that’s what they need to know,” said Pam Burton, the middle school academic team coach for the past two decades. She is determined to show that, year after year, Johnson County students can stand alongside the most knowledgeable and nimble thinkers in Kentucky or any state. “That’s what our academic team program does,” she said.

The record is built on focused academic preparation that starts in the district’s elementary schools with academic teams and community problem solving challenges. For those who continue on the middle school team, it means arriving before school, staying after, coming in on snow days and regularly devoting Saturdays to group study, practice and tournaments. The effort, and frequent high-level wins, extend to high school.

‘When we do win state, everyone meets the academic team at the county line for the police escort. We’re all waiting for that call,” said Melissa Griffith, an 8th grade math teacher who also went to school in Johnson County. “Wanting to do so well ups our standards.”

Students said that the experience widens what they learn from classes and outside experiences. The teammates share knowledge in ways big and small. Downtime in practice sparks conversation that could go anywhere.

Mention of a large family might trigger discussion that the prolific Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach fathered 20 children, said Joslin Wireman, an 8th grader. Parts of a flower, award-winning literature, legal terms — almost any topic falls in someone’s wheelhouse. Ben Moore, a 7th grader, is just waiting for the day someone wonders about the tallest peak in Australia, which he knows is Mt. Kosciuszko. “It’s part of the Australian Alps,” he added.

Beyond binging on academic content, practice sessions are also a forum for issues facing the problem-solving squad. This spring, the group had to study the use and disposal of toxic materials for district competition, turn to the spread of infectious diseases for its regional tournament, and then become aware of advantages and challenges of cloud storage for state finals.

Macy Conley, an 8th grader, said that the team makes students a quick study on a range of big issues. Problem solving on her 4th grade team focused on transportation issues still relevant to today’s headlines about faltering infrastructure, she said. “It’s cool to see that five years later,” Conley noted. “And, we were studying nanotechnology before nanotech was cool.”

For all participants, the high expectations build in discipline for extending one’s own learning.

Coach Burton said that beyond the academic value, traveling to competitions and watching the success of older teammates also helps students consider an ambitious future. “Very often, kids are not given opportunities to feel good about being bright until they are in the adult world,” she said. “Especially in middle school, and especially for females.” Burton said that academic teams across Kentucky are a boost for countless students.

Kentucky’s top future-problem-solving teams advance to international competition. In that event, held in Wisconsin, the Johnson County team finished second to a team from Singapore in Global Issues Problem Solving, which focused on criminal justice issues. 

“It can be a lifelong benefit,” agreed John Bennett, executive director of Kentucky Association for Academic Competition. “There are so many students who’ve overcome tremendous challenges to succeed.”

Statewide, nearly 20,000 elementary, middle and high school students representing about 1,175 schools take part in Governor’s Cup events, sponsored by KAAC, which also makes sure that questions connect with Kentucky’s academic standards. All school levels hold district and regional competitions, while the middle and high school teams culminate at the Governor’s Cup State Finals in March.

Beyond trophies, the application and extension of classroom learning has a lasting effect for many participants.

Drew Trimble of London, an assistant U.S. Attorney, recalled being a 6th grader when Johnson County Middle won its first Governor’s Cup in 1999. The next year, he was a member of the first Future Problem Solving team to win state in that category and helped the school narrowly repeat as Governor’s Cup champs. He said his experience in middle school problem solving prepared him for every step since.

“It showed me what you need to do,” Trimble said. “Work really hard; know what you are doing; have good people around you; identify the problem and think through it; find the big issue; think about different ways you could approach it and pick one; write. That’s all I ever did after it. You go to college and law school, that’s what it is. The very stuff I do today, Ms. Burton taught me how to do.”

More recently, Jake Halsey, 20, of Campton, said that joining the Johnson County middle school team “helped me figure out what I was good at” and made him choosy about the best fit for college. Halsey developed an interest in space after encountering the topic in high school future-problem-solving competition. He recently finished his sophomore year at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where his engineering studies led to an internship with a team developing a new rocket for a space launch system being developed for NASA.

Alan Siegel, a retired band director who drives the bus for the academic team, said he looks forward to conversations with the middle school students about their learning. He also takes pride in what the team’s accomplishments say about Johnson County and its schools. “They work very, very hard. I’ve seen those who stick with it just get better and better,” Siegel said. “This is a small rural school with nothing, but you can leave here with no question about being smart enough.”


NOTE: In March, Johnson County Middle won the quick recall tournament and finished first in future problem solving. Maeve Tipton, a 7th grader, finished first in the state in arts and humanities testing. Three other Johnson students finished in the top 10 in subject-area tests. The team won the overall Governor’s Cup for the seventh straight year — its longest winning streak.

At the Future Problem Solving Program International Conference earlier this month in Wisconsin, the Johnson County Middle School team finished second to a team from Singapore in Global Issues Problem Solving, a category that included 65 teams. In separate Community Problem Solving events, Johnson County Middle won first place in the civic/cultural and human services categories. Meanwhile, four Johnson County elementary schools were recognized for top projects in the Community Problem Solving junior division.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR \\\\\ Lonnie Harp covered education for the Courier Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. He worked as a reporter and editor at Education Week in Washington, D.C. He has served as a school board member and was a parent member of a school SBDM council.


A common topic in reducing achievement gaps and boosting academic performance is building students’ knowledge base, preparing them to latch on to new concepts. Cultivating expertise and encouraging students’ critical thinking and problem solving skills also prepare all students for success beyond high school. Some questions in this area that might spark a local conversation:

\\\\\ What content knowledge do your schools expect students to acquire at a given grade level? How is that material covered and assessed?

\\\\\ What programs or opportunities do your schools offer to extend content knowledge or help students who are behind to catch up? How is extracurricular time used for such opportunities?

\\\\\ How do your schools teach and challenge students to apply critical-thinking and problem-solving skills? Is there a way to measure how students are progressing based on expectations?

In Johnson County, the success of the Future Problem Solving Team led to an expansion of community problem solving projects now in place in all elementary schools. Community problem solving is an approach that the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative has spread across the region’s schools.

\\\\\ Critical thinking is a process that cuts across subject-area disciplines, requiring students to locate and evaluate information, apply logical reasoning, explain their approach, and put ideas to the test. Problem solving and critical thinking skills are chief among the abilities that employers say are essential. “Critical thinkers bring creative solutions to the table and help businesses to innovate and remain competitive,” a leading job-matching platform explained on its web site.

\\\\\ Content knowledge is separate issue — one that some education experts say leads to “knowledge gaps” and “language gaps” that are fundamental to achievement disparities. “Asking students to discuss a ‘threatened presidential veto’ will only make sense to those familiar with the three branches of government and the principle of checks and balances in the Constitution,” states the Core Knowledge Foundation, a group that sees equity issues through improving students’ understanding of fundamental content. The group was founded by E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. Hirsch is known for emphasizing “cultural literacy” — essential background knowledge that individuals need to put educational experiences to full use.

The importance of solid background knowledge is also a focus of education researcher Robert J. Marzano, who argues that rigorous curriculum is most likely to take root when students have a strong sense of basics. In his 2004 book “Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement,” he called insufficient background knowledge “a chronic cause of low achievement.”

To encourage high-level knowledge and skills, the Kentucky Association for Academic Competition organizes competitions for subject-area expertise plus writing composition and quick-recall teams. It is also licensed to coordinate events in Kentucky connected to the Future Problem Solving Program International. That group, based in Florida, has developed a six-step process that starts with identifying challenges presented by a given issue or scenario and leads to developing an action plan. The knowledge and skills all Kentucky students are expected to demonstrate are spelled out in the Kentucky Academic Standards.

Each month, the BRIGHT SPOTS blog showcases impressive learning in Kentucky schools.

IN JULY \\\\\
CONNECTING WITH STUDENTS at South Heights Elementary in Henderson


ENROLLMENT: 550, grades 7-8
RACE: 1% minority
INCOME: 68% eligible for free/reduced price meals

\\\\\ Based on 2017 state test scores, Johnson County Middle student results ranked in the top third of Kentucky middle schools. About 65 percent of students ranked proficient or better in reading, and 58 percent were proficient or above in mathematics. The school showed small achievement gaps compared to many other schools.

\\\\\ On the state reading test, the proficiency percentage of students whose family incomes qualified for free- or reduced-price meals was about 96 percent of the overall school percentage in 2017. In math, the proficiency percentage for students qualified for free- and reduced-price meals was about 91 percent of the overall school percentage. The biggest gap existed in writing, where the proficiency percentage for students qualified for free- and reduced-price meals was about 83 percent of the overall school percentage.

\\\\\ In reading and math, the percentage of JCMS students in identified “gap groups” who rated “distinguished,” the highest performance level on 2017 state tests, was significantly above the state average. In reading, 19.5 percent of JCMS “gap group” pupils scored distinguished. The state average was 10.4 percent. In math, 18.2 percent of JCMS “gap group” students scored distinguished, compared to the state average of 6.2 percent.

Share This