A rare look inside Gatton Academy at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky.
Video by Olivia Brotzge
By Cristina Thorson, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School
Gatton Academy, a nationally renowned residential high school for gifted students, will celebrate its 10th anniversary this summer.
Founded in 2007 and based in Western Kentucky University’s Florence Schneider Hall, Gatton is geared toward advancing gifted STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) students in their education. Students at Gatton Academy simultaneously complete their high school education at WKU and receive credit for at least 60 hours of college.
The program has garnered a reputation through the successes of its student body. WKU President Gary Ransdell credits Gatton Academy and the Mahurin Honors College with creating the “intellectual heartbeat for Kentucky.”
In 2017, students received recognition for achievements ranging from becoming U.S. Presidential Scholars to National Merit finalists to Scholastic Art & Writing award winners. Gatton Academy was also named top high school in the U.S. for 2012, 2013 and 2014.
“It’s nice to have prestige and to have had nice ratings in the past, but I don’t think that’s the reason to choose Gatton,” said director Lynette Breedlove. “I think students should choose Gatton because they’re ready for an intense, academic challenge. I think students should choose Gatton because they want to be part of our community.”
The school previously enrolled roughly 60 boys and 60 girls for a total of 120 students, but recently expanded its dorms with a $10 million donation from Carol Martin “Bill” Gatton. The academy is now able to house 192 students, which is the number of students that will be attending Gatton in the fall of 2017.
The academy prioritizes closeness with its students. The staff tries to maintain personal relationships, taking into consideration that the students are usually far away from home at a young age. A larger student body presents challenges in preserving the community feel, Breedlove said.
The staff is attentive and the relationships with them are more defined than they would be elsewhere, rising Gatton senior Brian Zhu said.
“I definitely feel super close to my peers,” Zhu said. “Especially the ones that live on my wing, since we’re around each other a ton.”
Even with the expansion, Gatton still experiences rigorous competition among applicants. The expected number of applicants in the upcoming year is at least 400, and less than a quarter of that number are accepted.
Attending the academy has provided the students with opportunities they would not otherwise have had. Many students choose to attend Gatton because of the research opportunities that are offered.
“I’ve always wanted to do astronomy-related research, and that wasn’t an option in my hometown,” said Gatton student Morganne Williams. “However, at WKU, that option was very real.”
Williams is pursuing her dream of researching dark matter through Gatton Academy programs. Although she plans to apply for WKU to continue her college education, only 25 percent of Gatton students typically attend the university after completing the Gatton curriculum.
Gatton alumni will return to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the program from August 19-21. The anniversary is a “huge mile-marker” for Gatton, Breedlove said.
According to the Gatton alumni website, 10 events are planned, ranging from nostalgic “classes” to prom. The weekend will end with a solar eclipse festival that invites Gatton alumni, family and friends to attend.
The anniversary is not only significant for the alumni, as “the first graduating class is now in the workforce and the true economic effects that Gatton graduates are making can be measured,” Zhu said.