Story and photos by Jamie Williams
Florence Schneider Hall’s limestone exterior sets it apart from the numerous red brick buildings on Western Kentucky University’s campus.
Inside, a student is playing classical music on the grand piano in the lobby, and groups of students mill about, conversing outside of their gender-separated wings.
One group of students has just finished eating a family-style Italian meal they cooked themselves — fettuccine alfredo, mashed potatoes, and garlic bread for 16 people. A few students gather around the front desk to ride in a carpool to the mall before an ice-cream sundae dorm social begins in a couple hours.
The green banner behind the piano advertising the Yearbook Club and the students’ constant chatter about upcoming prom festivities are a tip off that the students here are not quite the same as the other college students on campus.
The high school students of The Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Science and Mathematics stand atop the Sierpinski triangle inset in the floor tile and excitedly ask who’s escorting whom to the dance. Prom is one of the few quintessential high school events that Gatton students still get to experience while living on WKU’s campus.
The students of the Gatton Academy are simultaneously high schoolers and college students, yet oftentimes they find themselves rejected by other members of both demographics.
The Gatton Academy
The Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Science and Mathematics — more commonly known as the Gatton Academy — is nationally known for being one of the best high schools in the country.
Students at the academy live and take college courses on WKU’s campus to finish out their last two years of high school while also completing their first two years of college. All of their courses are college-level classes shared with their WKU counterparts and taught by WKU professors.
The school “was founded for students that enjoyed math and science to allow them to pursue that at a level greater than what they could at their home schools,” said Zack Ryle, the Academy’s assistant director of public relations.
After 10 years of planning, the Gatton Academy was established in 2007 using Kentucky state funding. It was the first high school of its kind in the state, and, as of 2013, was one of 15 of its kind in the nation.
The Gatton Academy currently houses a total of approximately 160 students, but will soon house nearly 200 following a recent expansion of Florence Schneider Hall. For the class of 2019, the Academy will select 95 high school juniors from Kentucky — half male and half female.
Currently, the school offers its students free tuition and housing fees using state funding. It also uses private donations to give students scholarships for other school-related fees.
Since 2007, the Gatton Academy has spent nine years on The Washington Post’s list of elite schools and was named the number one public high school in the country for three years in a row by Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
The school’s class of 2017 produced 18 National Merit Semifinalists and National Achievement Scholars, and half of its senior class presented research at academic conferences.
This year’s incoming class, currently sophomores in high school, has an ACT composite average of a 30.29 and an ACT math average of 29.98. While Gatton Academy considers more than just test scores when admitting students, it is apparent they have high academic standards. In 2016, the national composite average was a 20.8 while the math average was a 20.6, according to The Condition of College and Career Readiness Report.
While the Academy looks for academically high-scoring individuals during its admissions process, it also looks at students’ high school activities and their responses to several essays. The school prides itself on having a holistic admissions process so each student will be a good fit for the program.
The Gatton Academy boasts around a 90 percent retention rate with slight variation depending on the year. A perfect 100 percent of Gatton Academy students go on to attend four-year colleges, with 67 percent of those students going on to WKU, the University of Kentucky, or the University of Louisville.
“I think people should come here because there’s something they can’t wait to study, and they can’t access it in their home school,” said Lynette Breedlove, director of the Academy. “I want people to come here because they have a hunger for a lot more academic information or opportunity.”
Being a student
Despite the Gatton Academy’s national accolades, Gatton students are often viewed as an other, enigmatic population to the neighboring college students. At best, it can be difficult for Gatton students to make friends with college students; at worst they can be subject to snide remarks and verbal abuse.
Some of this perceived secrecy surrounding Gatton students is understandable; the Academy’s safety procedures keep its students from fully interacting with their collegiate counterparts. Gatton students are often teased, even by friends, for their curfew — they have to be in their wing of the dorm by 10:30 p.m. and in their rooms by midnight on school nights.
Additionally, Gatton students are not allowed to be checked into any other dorm on campus, nor can they check anyone into their own dorm without parent permission. All students, including those who are legally adults, must follow the rules or risk being dismissed back to their home schools. With minimal curfew change exceptions, the Academy treats all students the same whether they’re age 13 or age 19.
“Whenever I have to leave [for curfew] my friends say, ‘Veronica is it not your bedtime yet?’” said Gatton senior Veronica Johnson.
Johnson also recounted a time when a WKU freshman found out she was a Gatton student, and started calling her a baby.
“I’ve literally been in college longer than you have,” Johnson said and laughed. “I really don’t want to hear it.”
Johnson’s friend, Presley Henshaw, said that some students show up to Gatton and have the most freedom they’ve ever had, but for her it was the opposite. Henshaw, who is also a senior, said her parents were never very strict with her, so the safety procedures put in place by Gatton can be hard to deal with.
Even though she hates a lot of Gatton’s policies, she said the school affords her many more opportunities than she had at Union County High School.
“I was so sick of being at my home high school, I couldn’t stand it,” Henshaw said. “When you want something bad enough, you’ll do anything to get it. I just did not want to be there, and this was my way out.”
One of Henshaw’s least favorite policies is students are not allowed to use their cars for anything other than driving home. Students turn their car keys into the front desk and are only allowed to take them when going home on a date signed off on by their parent or guardian.
“When you imagine quintessential senior year, we don’t get that at all,” Johnson said. “I was pretty ready to have more freedom and independence, but I can’t go to football games or skip class and go to the lake. I don’t know that I would do that anyways, but still.”
Being in high school
Henshaw is set to be the valedictorian of her primary high school’s graduating class, though she will have attended the academy for three semesters. She said her classmates at her home school resent her for moving on to Gatton and make mean-spirited comments to her brother, who still attends her primary high school.
“I’m not going to go to my home school graduation and apologize,” Henshaw said. “I’ve worked my butt off, so it’s not like I don’t deserve it.”
Henshaw said a lot of the disdain from their primary schools stems from ignorance about what the students at Gatton actually have to do. Instead of only taking credits to finish high school, they take college courses up to the 300-level — classes usually reserved for college upperclassmen. In addition, they often work in research labs and complete at least 60 hours of volunteer work to graduate with honors.
Residential Counselor Tori Hampton, 24, oversees one of the girls’ wings in the dorm and takes shifts driving students where they need to go throughout the week. This is Hampton’s second year as an RC, and though she treats the students like they’re old friends, she admits she used to be biased against Gatton Academy students like Henshaw when she was their age.
Hampton was set to be valedictorian of her graduating senior class, but one of her classmates and friends had become a Gatton student with a weighted college GPA. Despite the fact that he never attended any events at his home school, he was still primarily enrolled there and would be class valedictorian.
“It’s just really sad to see how Gatton changed him,” Hampton said. “I was a little bitter about that because I stayed; I worked hard; I didn’t have as many opportunities for college credit as he did. I felt like I got cheated out of valedictorian.”
Hampton said that despite her bad experience, she knows that almost all Gatton students are humble and know that even if they’re gifted in a specific area it doesn’t make them better than anyone else.
“It’s only a handful of them that fit the stereotype,” Hampton said. “The majority of them are sweet kids.”
Being in college
While some high schoolers think that the Gatton Academy students are taking a vacation from their old high schools, WKU students who stereotype Gatton students tend to make the opposite assumption — that Gatton students are all overachievers.
WKU senior Thomas Gregory had Calculus II with a Gatton student who he said had a hand in keeping the class from having a take-home final. The class wanted to work together on the exam, but the Gatton student argued against taking the exam outside of class. Gregory said he thinks the student likely didn’t need help from his classmates on the exam or thought they would bring his grade down.
“He always got hundreds,” Gregory said. “He set the curve for that class.”
Gregory ended up getting a 74 on the in-class final and a C in the class.
Although some Gatton students are viewed as genuinely annoying by their WKU counterparts, fellow Gatton students often view those outliers in the same way.
“There are some Gatton students that are like the kids who always answer questions in class and things that are annoying to most college kids, which I understand,” said Gatton Academy senior Katie Ashley.
Ashley said people’s stereotypes of Gatton students don’t usually bother her, and if someone wants to assume her personality without getting to know her that’s their problem.
Despite some seniors having a carefree attitude, there are many other Gatton students that don’t want to take the risk of being ridiculed in class.
Gatton junior Olivia Gilliam said students often try to make it through the whole semester without college students in their classes finding out about their Academy status. On the last day of class, some students wear their Gatton Academy apparel as a way of surprising their college classmates.
“Don’t act like people don’t hate us,” Gilliam said. “Because everyone on campus hates us.”
Like many other students, Gilliam came to Gatton to get a level of education not offered by their home schools. She said many people believe all Gatton students have 4.0 GPAs, but in reality many students all struggling.
The Academy offers multiple counseling services for its students and holds mandatory seminars to teach students that academic performance isn’t the most important aspect of the Gatton community. Gilliam said while these seminars and seniors help steer the community away from competition, there are still flare ups when students get standardized test scores back and secretly compare themselves.
“I should have stayed at Graves [County High School] where I was the best,” Gilliam said with a laugh.
Ashley and Henshaw wait with several other students in the small lobby outside the office of Lynette Breedlove, director of the Gatton Academy. Breedlove is about to tell the students whether or not they’ve been accepted into the Early Assurance Program at WKU.
The EAP guarantees 10 WKU students early admission into the future UK College of Medicine regional campus in Bowling Green. Three of the 10 spots have been reserved for Gatton Academy students.
Henshaw says to the small group that they shouldn’t ask each other their results after they come out of Breedlove’s office. She hates the awkward feeling of coming out of an important meeting with everyone staring at her, waiting to hear the news.
After two other students take their turns and emerge from the office expressionless, Henshaw gets up to hear the decision. She comes out, says nothing, and Ashley goes into the office.
When she comes out minutes later, the two head back to their wing where Ashley says she needs to call her parents. Henshaw goes to clean her room.
Back in her small dorm room, Ashley dials her mother’s number while pacing and tells her they have to go out for a celebratory dinner — she got into the program.
She was too wary of Henshaw’s response to ask whether or not she got into the program too.