BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Meaghan Dunn is a pretty typical high school senior. She plays intramural soccer, is preparing for college and even gets the occasional bout of laziness known as senioritis. But one visit with her in the microbiology lab on the campus of Western Kentucky University, where she’s studying bacteria, reveals she’s more than an average senior.
Dunn is from Flaherty in Meade County, but she’s a student at the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Math and Science, which Newsweek magazine recently named the best high school in the country – in its fifth year of operation.
Getting such an honor so soon was something Bowling Green stockbroker and investor Pete Mahurin, who with his wife Dixie helped formulate the idea for the academy, never imagined.
“I figured they’d get recognition, but I didn’t think it would happen this fast,” Mahurin said. “I figured the recognition would come after these children were into their careers and accomplishing things.”
The idea behind the academy is that graduates will receive high-quality degrees, then either return to or remain in Kentucky to live and work, boosting the economy of a state that ranks low in math and science graduates.
“To me this academy is a training ground for those who will run the state and the country in the future,” Pete Mahurin said. “I look for these kids to create home-grown capitalism.”
The academy is located on WKU’s campus, and operates like a boarding school. High-school juniors and seniors from across the state are accepted based on demanding criteria, including a minimum math score of 22 on American College Test, a 3.9 grade average, letters of recommendation and several essays.
Each year, about 90 to 100 students are selected for interviews, and about 60 win admission. They live on campus and take college classes, integrating themselves into college life. They are still officially enrolled in their “home schools,” and take the statewide achievement test each year. Their scores are counted with their home school, and they receive diplomas from both that school and Gatton.
That’s important, says Gatton Executive Director Julia Roberts. “We want school systems to see this as an opportunity,” she said. “When they have a student that exceeds what they can offer to them, they can make sure that student knows about the Gatton Academy and help them move along with that.”
Gatton is free to students, since its annual $1.3 million costs are paid by the state. That’s more than $20,000 per student for tuition and room and board, compared to about $11,000 at traditional high schools in the state.
“Twenty-thousand dollars is a pretty dang good investment in the future, where these students are hopefully going to change our world,” Gatton Director Tim Gott said. “I think it’s the best investment Kentucky can make.”
The idea for the school developed when the Mahurins’ daughter, Sarah, attended summer camps for gifted and talented students. The camps, coordinated by Roberts, were not free, and Dixie Mahurin, director of WKU’s academic-athletic support program, said the camps should be open to all kids, even those who couldn’t afford it.
“Gifted learners are not necessarily able to afford a summer experience,” Dixie Mahurin said in an interview. “Pete kept saying, ‘There’s got to be a way to provide a free and excellent education for everybody.’”
Pete Mahurin was on the WKU Foundation board and got WKU President Gary Ransdell’s support for the idea, then went after his longtime friend, Bill Gatton, owner of Gatton Chevrolet in Bristol, Tenn.
Gatton said in an interview that when he was asked to provide start-up money for the school, he first called the 13 other residential math and science high school across the country. “The administrations just raved about how great the schools were for students and the states,” he said. “After that, I immediately signed on to help.”
His donation was used to help with start-up costs and start a permanent endowment for the school. The school also receives yearly donations from corporate sponsors, including Toyota, AT&T and Ashland Inc.
Gatton students get help, too, because they are in high demand. Every Gatton graduate receives a college scholarship of some kind, Gott said. The University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and WKU all provide full-tuition scholarships specifically for Gatton graduates.
Since Gatton began in 2006, 178 of its 268 graduates have gone to those three schools, with 79 enrolling at WKU. Most of the other 90 graduates have gone to out-of-state colleges.
Dunn said she wants to stay in Kentucky to complete her undergraduate career, but would like to attend an out-of-state school for graduate work.
“I really don’t want to stay in Kentucky if I have the option,” she said.
It’s too early to gauge the school’s potential impact on the state’s economy because most of the school’s graduates are still in college, Gott said, but he estimated that about half the students will either stay in Kentucky or return to it. In Texas, 67 percent of academy graduates work in the state.
Gatton alumnus Julia Freeman, a Lyon County native who is pursuing a master’s degree in biology at WKU, said she intends to remain in Kentucky. She said the academy opened greater opportunities to her that she would not have pursued otherwise: “It definitely helped my ability to dream.”
Current student Ryan Gott, Tim Gott’s son, said Gatton allowed him to develop relationships with professors and an interest in research. It also helped him get used to the college environment. Attending Gatton, he said, is “an opportunity you couldn’t get anywhere else, especially in a regular high school.”
The number-one ranking is a milestone for the school, but it has had a difficult time attracting students from some of the state’s more rural areas, including Appalachian Kentucky.
Roberts and Tim Gott said they feel most people in the state don’t seem to know Gatton exists, even though it consistently receives national awards. They hope the number-one ranking will change that.
Most Gatton students have come from three counties: Warren, Boone and Hardin. The academy has had students from 107 of Kentucky’s 120 counties, but most of those have sent only one student, and that is true of most Appalachian counties. Most of the 13 counties that have sent no students to Gatton are Appalachian: Casey, Green, Robertson, Jackson, Owsley, Lee, Magoffin, Leslie and Letcher. The others are Ballard, Hickman, Caldwell and Bracken.
“We have a situation in Kentucky that lots of people are place-bound,” Roberts said. “I firmly believe that parents whose children really need something more than their school can provide will almost always support them to do that. But, if your child’s needs are being met at home, then you need to be at home.”
Tim Gott said most Eastern Kentucky school districts are reluctant to send their best students to another school because they don’t want to lose them, and many parents of such students have a “fear factor” about sending their children so far away for school. But he and Roberts said creating a similar math and science academy in Eastern Kentucky was not an option.
Gott said splitting the student pool between two academies would reduce the help for students. For students who aren’t accepted to Gatton, he advocated other higher-education preparation, including programs that would allow them to take classes at local universities or community colleges.
“Every student deserves the chance to find their strengths, find their gifts, and accelerate those instead of a one-size-fits-all education, which really doesn’t fit anybody most of the time,” Gott said.
Kentucky students “have a certain reputation” of not being smart enough to succeed, he said, but the academy’s number-one ranking “blows that completely out of the water,” he said. “Kentucky students have always had the capacity. We’ve just opened the window and let the world see it.”