Introduction

The Arkansas Governor’s School is a six-week summer residential program for gifted and talented students who are upcoming high school seniors and residents of the state of Arkansas. The program is funded by the Arkansas State Legislature as a portion of the biennial appropriation for Gifted and Talented Programs through the State Department of Education. State funds provide tuition, room, board, and instructional materials for each student who attends the six-week program on the site of a residential college campus, leased by the State.

The Arkansas Governor’s School is a non-credit program that seeks to create a unique experience for a select group of Arkansas’ best students—the potential leaders of the 21st century. Both inside and outside the classrooms, AGS provides highly motivated, creative students with an intellectual atmosphere impossible to sustain in ordinary academic settings. The excitement of intellectual and artistic pursuits and the expectation of significant conceptual gains permeate all aspects of the participants’ lives for the full six weeks.

The curriculum is designed as a unique supplement to the usual high school curriculum. It is neither an acceleration of high school nor an anticipation of college curricula. Students are led to explore cutting-edge theories in the arts and sciences and to develop a greater understanding of how art, culture, and knowledge change with time. Students are challenged to develop the rigorous creative and intellectual skills that will be critical to their leading the ideal "life well lived" and for making positive contributions to their communities and to society at large. Behind the AGS curriculum is the assumption that these skills will be universally important, no matter what career path a student may choose.

Students are selected on the basis of their special aptitudes in one of eight fields: Choral Music, Drama, English/Language Arts, Instrumental Music, Mathematics, Natural Science, Social Science, or Visual Arts. All students also take classes in General Conceptual Development (Area II) and in Personal and Social Development (Area III).

Background

The Governor’s School concept emerged in response to widespread concern over the level of support in American society for educational excellence necessary to maintain international leadership in science and technology, as well as in the arts and letters. In 1963, the State of North Carolina established a Governor’s School that has served as a model for those that have followed. In 1980, Arkansas became the fifth state to institute such a program. Currently twenty-three states have Governor's School programs.

The Arkansas Governor’s School began in 1980 with 276 students, 28 faculty, and 25 staff members on the campus of Hendrix College in Conway. By 1984, student enrollment had increased to the present level of 400 students.

Organization

The School is under the direct supervision of the Administrator of Gifted and Talented Programs of the State Department of Education. The Administrator works with a nine-member Advisory Council appointed by the Governor.

The Director oversees all academic, recreational and residential aspects of the program. The faculty is divided into three areas (to be discussed below), and a coordinator oversees each area. An additional coordinator oversees all residential staff. Several staff members are responsible for organizing recreational and social activities.

Instruction

The School is neither defined by, nor committed to, any particular doctrine about giftedness, theory, or teaching. Its processes are as varied as the training and expertise of its faculty, and as unified as that faculty’s common, intense concern for the pursuit of understanding. Since successful learning and teaching depend on the individual characteristics of teachers and students, there is no single, prescribed pedagogical approach.

Faculty members are chosen for their ability to convey, with enthusiasm, the nature of the search for understanding, and to help students gain the skills necessary to join in that quest themselves. They welcome, even seek out, frequent classroom interaction, while providing enough structure to give discussions a point and goal.

Faculty also participate in less formally structured activities outside the classroom, with students and other faculty. Such faculty contacts increase coordination and integration in the curriculum and often lead to interdisciplinary insights. Informal conversations with students further heighten the Socratic atmosphere of the program.

Students

Students most likely to profit from immersion in this environment are selected by a committee named by the State Department of Education and chaired by the Administrator of Programs for the Gifted and Talented. In the case of students nominated in the arts (visual art, choral music, instrumental music, and drama), the committee is advised by professional teams who review taped auditions for students in the appropriate fields. In the selection of students, efforts are made to ensure a representative distribution from all school districts in the state, balanced proportions of male and female students, and an ethnic composition reflective of the state’s demographic patterns. Selection is based on merit measured by:

  1. high intellectual potential;
     
  2. outstanding ability in an academic or artistic area;
     
  3. evidence of giftedness, either demonstrated or potential;
     
  4. personal characteristics, such as creativity, high motivation and the social, emotional, and intellectual maturity to benefit optimally from the program.
     

These qualities are deemed essential for a student to cope successfully with the curriculum of the Governor’s School. Any of a variety of evidences from personal characteristics to achievements and standardized test scores may be used by school personnel to identify students with the intellectual potential to have a successful experience at AGS.

Equal in importance to the student’s academic potential is the student’s motivation level and maturity. Students must be willing to remain on campus for the entire six weeks, to obey rather strict social rules, and to participate in a cooperative exploration of intellectual issues with a group of gifted and talented peers.

Mature young people are expected to take responsibility for their actions. The strict enforcement of social and residential regulations is a reflection of the high degree of dedication to a sense of community expected of students and an indication of the seriousness of the program’s commitment to an intensely academic environment. In a similar way, the freedom from grading, testing, and credit signals an expectation that gifted and talented students, under careful supervision, will display their motivation toward the development of their natural abilities.

Students should approach the Governor’s School with the expectation that they are embarking on an exciting six-week intellectual adventure in which they must be active participants. Classroom discussions may be open and conversational in style, but such discussions are directed by intellectual purpose. Governor’s School instructors do not merely present theory; they attempt to cultivate and improve their students’ abilities to use theory in organizing a field of knowledge, in arguing a conceptual issue, or in pursuing an artistic endeavor. This process requires eager, active students.

Although there are ample opportunities for the development of social and recreational interests, the AGS is not a summer camp. Intellectual inquiry is at the core of everything that happens at AGS. That inquiry is fun, but fun is not the main goal of AGS.

Three Areas of the Curriculum

Students are selected to attend the Governor’s School on the basis of their abilities and interests in a particular intellectual discipline or artistic field. About two-thirds of each student’s class time is devoted to his or her selected discipline or field, known as Special Aptitude Development (Area I).

Each student also pursues classroom work and reading in two other areas: General Conceptual Development (Area II) and Personal and Social Development (Area III). The curricula in Area II and Area III are identical for all students. This combination of unity and diversity is designed to foster dialogue among students interested in different topics and to encourage the development of greater conceptual facility within one of the eight Area I fields.

Area I: Special Aptitude Development

The curriculum of the School is designed to allow students to spend about two-thirds of their class time participating in an area of special aptitude. At the present time, The Governor’s School offers the following special aptitude courses: Choral Music, Drama, English/Languages Arts, Instrumental Music, Mathematics, Natural Science, Social Science, and Visual Art. These classes meet twice on each weekday and once on Saturdays. The manner of study must, of course, differ according to the nature of the fields.

Throughout Area I, emphasis is placed on acquainting students with new concepts and new ways of understanding various disciplines. The pursuit of this aim involves introducing them to new facts, works, or techniques, but this acquaintance is always subordinated to the broader purpose of developing the student’s sense of how theory works in organizing a field of knowledge.

Because the Area I curriculum is designed anew each year in response to patterns of contemporary thought and theory, any general description may be misleading. However, the following descriptions are offered as brief examples drawn from the experiences of the previous Governor’s School programs.

Choral Music explores a wide range of contemporary and even futuristic concepts and techniques, emphasizing their relationship to human understanding. The curriculum involves speech-as-music, environment-as-music, and the visual enhancement of music. Unusual tonalities and rhythmic structures are explored. Choral Music performances are an integral part of the cultural life of AGS.

Drama introduces theater theory and techniques and produces 21st century plays written to provoke thought and to provide insight into our understanding of the place of humanity in the universe. These plays also serve as discussion times for the entire student body.

English/Language Arts will offer students several options for concentration; some examples are Creative Writing, Poetry, Themes in World Literature, and Movements in 20th Century Short Fiction. Several published authors visit the classes for workshops and discussions.

Instrumental Music explores and analyzes the effects of contemporary composition and performance of orchestral music. This involves the performance of atonal, bitonal, twelve-tone, and polytonal music, as well as new uses for familiar instruments. Instrumental music performances are an integral part of the cultural life of the AGS.

Mathematics offers the student a variety of options for study, including computer programming, abstract and finite math, probability theory using computer simulations, modem geometry with emphasis on topology, and matrix algebra with linear programming and development of symbolic logic. Attempts are made to offer some computer programming instruction to all AGS participants who desire it, as long as facilities are adequate. In the past, some mathematics students have published their work in undergraduate mathematics journals.

Natural Science introduces the student to contemporary scientific theory, including attention to its scope and limits, while giving students some experience at thinking in experimental terms. Students gain a sense of the ideas and methods that have led to the spectacular discoveries of the 21st century in the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics. Some past concentrations have been on environmental chemistry, theoretical physics (relativity and quantum mechanics), molecular genetics and biomedical ethics, and scientific approaches to understanding human and animal behavior.

Social Science focuses on the major social and political problems that confront humanity as we move toward the 21st century and on the theories of justice used in the social and political resolution of those problems. Social sciences may concentrate on economic theory, political theory, history, and psychology.

Visual Art focuses on art as an applied, aesthetic exploration of contemporary scientific and social concepts, with emphasis on intellectualizing the artistic creation. The exhibition of student art is an integral part of the cultural life at AGS.

Area II: General Conceptual Development

Area II focuses on thinking—on the ways we think, on the assumptions that underlie our own thinking and the thinking that takes place within the various disciplines, on cutting edge developments that have influenced our thinking about truth and knowledge, and on means of thinking more effectively. Since Area II brings together students from all eight Area I disciplines, instructors can help students explore connections and differences between the disciplines and help them understand various approaches to truth and reality. Area II classes also draw on speakers, films, and readings as subjects for discussion; students interact directly and frequently with leading figures in a variety of fields and learn to watch films, not simply as forms of entertainment, but as works of art open to critical examination.

Area II begins by introducing students to thinking about thinking, teaching them to be more conscious of their assumptions, the soundness of their logic, and different points of view based on different assumptions. Students express their opinions but also learn about the importance of evidence, logical thinking, and clarity of definition and expression. As the course progresses, they confront new ideas and new ways of thinking, and they address complex moral and ethical questions, not in order to learn what they should think, but in order to learn how to base decisions and actions on an informed consideration of appropriate issues and evidence. By the end of the course we hope they will have a clearer understanding of their assumptions and of the thinking process in general. We also hope that they will understand other points of view and have an awareness of complex issues, as well as an appreciation for well-informed and solidly supported ideas. Finally, we hope that they will be excited about thinking.

Area III: Personal and Social Development

Area III is designed to foster the personal and social development necessary for the students to benefit fully from their Area I and Area II classes and the comprehensive cultural and social events of the AGS program. The concept of Area III emerged from the need of students to process and discuss information and experiences. This makes learning more active and meaningful and enables students to develop accountability for their own educational, social, and cultural environment. By integrating all the academic classes and events, the curriculum of Area III strives to provide an opportunity for the students to see the importance of taking personal responsibility for one’s own ideas and for one’s participation in a democratic society. The students learn that ideas do have consequences and that "good thinking" means looking at the implications of ideas as well as the assumptions behind them. Area III provides a forum for actively exploring civic responsibility; it seeks to inspire a student’s understanding of his or her own personal potential and then to impress upon the student the value of character, leadership, integrity, insight, and compassion, not only within their own communities, but in society at large. It is within this framework that students explore curricular issues such as social theory and responsibility, theories of intelligence, conflict and stress management, psychological and personality theory, goal setting, and service. Area III emphasizes a basic understanding and application of psychology and sociology as it relates to the development of student potential.

Area III classes provide an opportunity for students to respond to featured films, speakers, cutting-edge topics from each of the disciplines, special events, and even current events, with the goal of strengthening social development. Students are encouraged to participate in classroom interactions, small group discussions, simulations, role playing, and other learning strategies. Participation in these activities stimulate an understanding of community involvement and decision-making. In addition, readings, surveys, personality inventories, and optional journal writing encourage personal growth.

The Unique Environment of Governor's School

The residential character of the Governor’s School is essential to its aims and purposes.  This total immersion fosters an academic seriousness that would be impossible to achieve in a less structured setting. Even though there are neither examinations nor grades, and even though no academic credit is given, faculty and student expectations in such a sequestered academic community combine to stimulate a remarkable level of intellectual performance. The Head Residents and Resident Assistants who supervise the student housing are an integral part of the support system of this community, and they take part in the academic life of the program to the extent that their duties allow.

The physical setting of the Governor’s School is extremely important. Students have exclusive access to campus residence halls and dining facilities, an excellent library, modern theater and art spaces, recreational facilities and equipment, and resources for worship in the surrounding community. Campus security officers are on duty at all times.

Recreation directors organize various activities designed to offer opportunities for fun, exercise, and social interaction. Social and recreational events are coordinated with the overall aims and purposes of academic and artistic pursuits.

Co-Curricular Programs

The educational experience of the Governor’s School is enriched by three components beyond the classroom curriculum: a series of guest speakers, a series of films of intellectual significance, and the program’s own series of student performances.

Guest Speakers - Twice weekly students and faculty gather to hear a presentation by a leading figure in the arts or sciences. These speakers contribute to the educational process of the AGS in three ways: first, students hear the original views of outstanding thinkers and well-known public figures; second, students are able to engage these visitors in conversation; and, third, the topics dealt with by the speakers are integrated into classroom discussions. In these ways, these visits enrich the curriculum by communicating to students that community interaction is vital to a successful and productive life.

Significant Films - Films of intellectual importance provide material for classroom discussions and demonstrate that film can be an important cultural and artistic medium. The films selected for this series are intended primarily to be instructional tools and only incidentally as entertainment. Each film is followed by a discussion led by one or more faculty members.

Concerts and Dramatic Productions - The importance of theoretical study in the Instrumental Music, Choral Music, and Drama classes of the program has been mentioned above. In addition, student performances make up a significant part of every student’s experience at the AGS. The student performers gain concert experience, while those in the audience make progress toward integrating a responsible, intelligent understanding of the performing arts into their broader educational projects.

Periodically, appropriate musical and dance productions by off-campus groups are also included in the program.

Other Special Interest Activities - Informal sessions discussing topics of special interest with faculty form a part of the experience of practically every student at the Governor’s School. These may grow into voluntary tutorial meetings in which students learn, for example, the basics of freehand drawing or creative writing. There are also field trips, supervised by faculty with special expertise in some scientific, historical, or artistic area. Additionally, an optional afternoon and evening speaker series is maintained throughout the duration of the program, in which local artists, teachers, community leaders, and other professionals are invited to speak to the Governor’s School students.

Conclusion

The State of Arkansas can be proud of its leadership role in gifted and talented education. The opportunities afforded by AGS to students with accelerated abilities allow the brightest young people of Arkansas to develop their intellectual skills, to broaden their horizons, and to move more surely toward the fulfillment of their potential as individuals.

We strongly believe that these young people take their new perspectives and enthusiasm for intellectual and artistic endeavors back to their home high schools and help to foster similar reactions in their fellow students. The Governor’s School shows that the State shares and encourages the commitment to excellence among its most promising students.

Beyond the development of individual potential, the Governor’s School is a sound investment in the future of Arkansas. Future leaders in government, economic development, the professions, and community service receive an impetus toward excellence. They are encouraged to welcome challenge, to respond creatively, and to maintain an excitement about ideas that will serve them and their society well in times to come.

This overview of curriculum is based upon the NCGS model that has been in place since 1963 in North Carolina and since 1980 at the Arkansas Governor’s School. The specific curricular descriptions may change annually.

 

National Conference of Governor’s Schools:

http://www.ncogs.org/

The Arkansas Department of Education

501-682-4224

 

Arkansas Governor’s School Office

501-450-1279 or 1-800-808-2944 (Arkansas only)