LESSONS FROM AN IDEAL LEARNING GROUND – Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence



The bulky, distorted skeleton lying in the corner of a classroom at Bellarmine University was created by some of Kentucky’s sharpest students. One of its creators, Jaxson Ratliff, 17, now a senior at Johnson Central High School, explained that the clunky 6-foot-long papier-mâché frame with no neck and extra-long legs taught an important lesson: its makers still have a lot to learn.

Building a model solely from their collective skeletal knowledge proved an entertaining and mind-opening first assignment for students in the Healthcare Industry focus area at the five-week Governor’s Scholars Program on the Bellarmine campus. The site is one of three concurrent programs over the summer reaching 1,000 students on the cusp of their final year of high school.

“I learned more about bones after building that skeleton than I knew from reading or seeing pictures in textbooks at school,” Ratliff said.

After the introduction to anatomy and a discussion of body systems, students offered their own questions and concerns about health issues. Two weeks into the program, Jaxson and three others were designing a public-service announcement about opioid addiction and treatment as fellow scholars studied topics like mental health, vaping or donating blood.

Over 37 summers, Governor’s Scholars Program has provided fertile ground for designing Kentucky’s most dynamic learning environments. It combines driven learners, skilled teachers, the fresh setting of a college campus, and classes free of test-prep pressures or the strict boundaries of single subject areas. The experience is designed to develop intellectual growth and show the strength of a community of learners.

“It is education at its best,” said Aris Cedeno, who joined the program in 1992 as a summer faculty member, became a campus director and has served as executive director since 2006. “This is an intellectual program, not an academic program — it’s about exploration,” he said. “We are not providing an oasis — we are creating an irrigation system that touches the outside.”

JAXSON RATLIFF, now a senior at Johnson Central High School, talked with classmates at the Governor’s Scholars Program on the campus of Bellarmine University in Louisville. The group was creating a public service announcement about opioid addiction and treatment as part of their focus area class on healthcare.

Cedeno said that time built in for reflection allows students to process new learning. Teachers and students also approach learning together, joining to “take intellectual risks” that make new skills or perspectives a goal.

Students said that the program created an atmosphere that brings out a desire to learn.

“We are on topics that we find important,” said Ratliff. “They see what makes us engaged, and that helps us to open up.”

Jenna Shalash, 17, from Tates Creek High School in Lexington, said she noticed how often the teacher in her Political and Legal Studies focus area course asked students “why?” when they offered answers or expressed opinions. “It gets to the reasoning behind our thoughts,” she said. “He has me go past where I usually would.”

Ally Alred, 17, from Harlan County High, explained that the new mix of classmates might be part of the reason the teacher in her International Relations focus area course emphasized listening and appreciating different viewpoints. Whatever the reason, she said that the collaborative and positive space encouraged questions and growth. “It’s interesting to see different sides,” she said.

Establishing connections between students and also with teachers builds trust, said Stephen Buchholz, a science teacher at Waggener High School in Louisville who led the Healthcare Industry class that produced the skeleton. Trust, he added, is a prerequisite for venturing into new topics or working successfully with others.

“My job is to challenge them,” said Buchholz, in his second summer on the GSP faculty. “Building community is important for people to move beyond their academic comfort zone and to share personal experiences or perspectives.”

Kentucky’s goals for GSP grew from concerns that Kentucky’s education system lacked a high-profile way to promote intellectual development. Organizers saw the situation as a shortcoming that might be pushing some students toward higher education elsewhere. The program is funded largely by the state with private contributions. GSP has managed to maintain its free, five-week format since it started while growing to three college campuses each year. Its reputation for meaningful learning has been important to ensuring every county is involved each year.

We want to take the energy they have and put it behind learning, risk taking and the formation of a community.

— Campus Director Jennifer Price

The program now includes a network of alumni who have become important contributors to future scholars. It has also met the goal of retaining top students — about 80 percent of GSP participants stay in-state for higher education. This year, the program marked a milestone: Andy Beshear, a 1995 scholar at the Northern Kentucky University campus, became the first scholar to be elected governor. (New attorney general Daniel Cameron was also a GSP scholar in the 2003 program on the NKU campus.)

Lisa Hicks, a lecturer at Stanford University and an instructor in the university’s online high school program, taught the philosophy focus area at Bellarmine. She experienced how opportunities at GSP can open important doors. As a high school student from Clark County in 1994, she was assigned to the philosophy focus area. “That first exposure to philosophy really put me on a path,” Hicks said. “It offered a chance to do things I didn’t get to do in normal classroom life.”

At Bellarmine, Hicks guided students through an overview of five branches of philosophy. Years of experience teaching at GSP has convinced her that a teacher’s approaches to engage students can be just as important as the material covered. “Not everything has to be content. You have to consider how they take up content,” Hicks said. Her class included a philosophical scavenger hunt and student writing. It also offered an introduction to Plato and Aristotle plus discussion of evidence acquired through the senses versus abstract thought.

Without test scores or grades, students and teachers discover new reasons for learning. Hicks said that motivation grows from the natural curiosity that people have about the world around them and one another.

“We want to take the energy they have and put it behind learning, risk taking and the formation of a community,” added Jennifer Price, the campus director at Bellarmine who works as a psychology professor at Georgetown College and attended GSP in 1992. “We try to build something unique here. We learn from each other, find the intrinsic motivation, then watch that grow.”

Beyond the focus area classes, faculty members and students are also assigned a separate “general studies” topic. Rico Tyler, who teaches an astronomy focus area, led a general studies course about travel and culture titled “Planes, Trains and more.”

On a July morning, students used a long hallway to measure average distance per step. Using math, the class determined that students could walk almost 2.5 miles per hour. At that rate, each student considered the time it would take to travel from their home to Louisville for GSP, had they been invited to attend in the 1800s, when walking ruled.

In the span of an hour, the conversation ranged from what convinced people to make an extended trip, how town fountains and basic codes of charity and hospitality grew from the need to host travelers, and ways that cultures, economies and technology shaped movement to new places. The day’s session covered math, history, science, language, literature and even a short tribute to casseroles as a fixture of generosity.

When you take away the traditional carrots and sticks, you start to see that answering is not the same thing as understanding.

— Teacher Rico Tyler

Tyler, who has been on the Governor’s Scholars faculty for 36 years — from his second year as a high school teacher through his recent retirement from the education program at Western Kentucky University — said that GSP produces exemplary teaching and learning. Teachers and students alike, he said, move past habits of worksheet-driven instruction judged by multiple-choice exams.

“Students become good at ways to condense and bottle answers, but when you take away the traditional carrots and sticks, you start to see that answering is not the same thing as understanding. At the same time, talking is not the same thing as teaching,” Tyler said. “This environment helps students to understand and defend what they know; to explain and make sense by weighing and judging evidence.”

In his experience in teacher education, Tyler said that GSP offers a fresh view of how to connect with students and provide richer learning experiences. Schools and students need more opportunities to expand their knowledge beyond single subject areas and into real-life experiences and problem solving, he said.

“Students have to understand the forces at work. The world looks the way it does for reasons you can understand. Culture has developed for reasons that make sense,” Tyler said. “All subject areas blend into one. If I don’t cross subject boundaries, I’m not teaching the whole story.

“The difference between GSP and regular school, with the more discussion-based style of learning, is that the topics that are important to us are topics we are able to put our focus on,” noted Jaxson Ratliff of Johnson County. “That will help students stay more engaged and help us dig deeper into what we’re learning instead of just reading out of a textbook.”

Tyler agreed that depth and engagement are important lessons to take from the experience that GSP creates: “The biggest thing to come out of the past 37 years is helping a generation of Kentuckians gain a clearer picture of how this state and its people operate — a better sense of what they think, why things make sense, what’s behind issues, and a deeper understanding of themselves and others.”

STUDENTS in the Healthcare Industry focus area at the Governor’s Scholars session on the Bellarmine University campus in Louisville work together to find information about various public health topics.

AT THE TOP: Teacher Rico Tyler of Bowling Green leads his general studies class about travel and culture at the 2019 GSP session. Last summer was Tyler’s 36th teaching with the summer program.


Kentucky’s Governor’s Scholars Program sometimes describes its approach as “enrichment” for top students; however, its design is rooted in the fundamentals of a liberal arts education created to prepare citizens to engage in a free society dating to ancient Greeks and Romans. The earliest American colleges emphasized the need to develop intellectual abilities, which an influential 1928 Yale report described as “the discipline and the furniture of the mind.”

Higher education was built around practicing ways of understanding events and analyzing information as well as considering evidence, alternatives and consequences. Today, economic trends make problem solving, creative  and big-picture thinking essential skills. Schools striving to develop “lifelong learners” should emphasize experiences that build intellectual capacity. Some questions that might spark helpful local action:

\\\\\ How much do schools and districts know about the learning skills and experiences that colleges are increasingly seeking to develop?

\\\\\ How can teaching and learning help more students experience intellectual challenge and growth?

\\\\\ Are schools involved with local economic development or business leaders or civic leaders to understand the skills that will help students become successful adults and active citizens?

\\\\\ Kentucky colleges are part of the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ LEAP campaign to expose students to intellectual skills. The group’s report describes the importance of exposing all students to “big questions” about culture, economy, human dignity and more. Other themes are connecting knowledge with choices and action and teaching problem solving and communication. “The goal — starting in school and continuing through college — should be to provide the most empowering forms of learning for all college students, not just some of them,” the report stated.

\\\\\ The 2020 Governor’s Scholars Program application process is well underway. High schools across the state will forward applications and selections to the state organization in January, with students receiving official notification of their status in April. After students confirm their intentions and state preferences for areas of study, they are notified in May about what campus they will attend and  focus area assignments. Sessions will be held in June and July at Bellarmine University, Centre College and Morehead State.

\\\\\ Two sister programs also bring together high school students from across the state. The Governor’s School for the Arts is a summer residency program for students about to start their sophomore or junior years. Over 200 students focus on architecture, creative writing, dance, drama, instrumental music, musical theatre, new media, visual art, and vocal music.  The Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs is a three-week program for students about to start their sophomore or junior years. Students work in teams to create products or services, use technology, learn enterprise skills and pitch their work to a panel of judges on Demo Day.

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



ENROLLMENT: 1,024 on three campuses. Scholars from 118 counties completed the program. Participants from all 120 counties were accepted.

\\\\\ Throughout its history, the percentage of GSP students enrolling in Kentucky colleges or universities has increased, topping 80 percent in 9 of the 12 years after it first reached that level with participants in the 2005 program. A 2018 report noted that of the nearly 25,000 alumni the program with valid contact information, nearly 82 percent have a permanent address in Kentucky.

\\\\\ In a survey conducted at the 2018 programs, 93 percent of students responding agreed or strongly agreed that the program provided meaningful classroom experiences. Meanwhile, 92 percent agreed that the program opened their mind to cultures within Kentucky and in the wider world. More than 95 percent responded that they were challenged to think in new ways and do new things in and out of the classroom.

\\\\\ Among the founders of the program, created with the backing of Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., was the late Robert F. Sexton. He was the founding executive director of the Prichard Committee and served as an initial coordinator during the development and launch of the Governor’s Scholars Program in 1983.

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