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My Fight for High-Ability Learning

Back in high school, I suppose I was what most people would call a "nerd". Not because I was ridiculously smart - I'm not - but because of other gifts I had. Attending public school in a town of less than 400 residents, there weren't many options for advanced placement or "gifted student" classes. But my educational service unit offered something incredibly unique: a two week program in the summer with the chance to study with a renowned scholar in fields such as art, computer science, logic, statistics, social science, medical science, and the like.

I had the pleasure of attending this program for four years. The competition was stiff - only the top ten students were accepted based on test scores or portfolios. With a little over 100 students accepted, around 400 applied. I think what these numbers say about the program, is not only that it's popular, but that public school just isn't enough, especially for gifted students.

For several years in a row now, the funds allocated by the state to successfully run this program have been cut. As a result, an alumni association was created to aid in that effort. But as always, money is tight. High Ability Learning (HAL) funds wer placed on a list of possible programs to cut in the next fiscal year, if budget cuts are necessary. Today was step one in an eight-month process to remove the funds from the "in-danger" list.

So I drove to our state capitol this morning, to testify and show support for a program that means a great deal to me. The State Board of Education was meeting and on the agenda was to discuss the budget prioritization. Today I saw a lot of courageous people testify.

Over 40 supporters showed up - some who left as early as 5:30am to be at that meeting. I watched in awe as student after student came forward to share how much high ability learning meant to them. A few cried, some were shy and not always sure of what to say, but we all took a stand for something that needed to be fought for. One girl, a sophomore I know from performing together in an Easter Passion Play, made note of all those in attendance that no longer have a stake in the program. Those of us past those years in our life, but were blessed so much by the program that we came to fight.

After 30 minutes of testimony, the State Board Members proceeded to discuss the motion to remove the funds from the cut list. A few minutes into the discussion, it was clear we really made an impression on the Board Members. Jim Scheer made a statement that the we made the best presentation to the State Board he has ever seen. The roll call vote was finally asked for and the vote began. When the voting was complete, the motion had passed. Six voted for, 1 against (Joe Higgins) and one abstained (Patricia Timm).

After the vote, another 5 minute break was asked for by Robert Evnen. Robert came out into the hall immediately and said to the group, "The only reason that this motion passed was because of the students from the Summer Honors Program and how well they presented the information." Before the vote, Robert was sure there were not enough votes to pass his motion, and he was surprised and impressed the motion had passed. Robert says he still wants to increase funds by working with the Legislature.

Today the Summer Honors Program students, faculty and alumni took on the Nebraska Commissioner of Education and won. I am proud of what I witnessed today.

Not a day goes by in my work week where I do not remember the words of the teachers I had while attending the Summer Honors Program. Their wisdom, breadth of knowledge and unique teaching approach has stayed with me for years. Not only did I have that chance to study with such prestigious scholars, but I had the chance to meet other students who lived over an hour away and never would've met who had the same passion for learning as I did. I've carried that with me and held it close to my heart.

A significant percentage of former Summer Honors students chose to stay and settle down in Nebraska. There was much talk today of "investing in the future of Nebraska" and I realized - I became that future.

It feels good to give back a little of what was once given to me.


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