By Brenna R. Kelly
More than 500 Johnson County Middle School students recently filled the school’s gym to cheer for their team. They weren’t cheering for the basketball or the volleyball teams; they were cheering for the academic team.
The 25-member team had made it to the finals of the Kentucky Governor’s Cup competition and was about to depart on a three-hour drive across the state.
“We have a big send off,” said Pam Burton, who has coached the academic team for 24 years. “We decorate their lockers, we do it just like we do for anybody else going to a state championship.”
And, as is common when Kentucky football or basketball teams play for a state championship, Johnson County schools were closed on the Monday that the district’s middle and high school academic teams competed in the state finals.
“Our county has really embraced this as an opportunity for students to excel in an academic area and I’m very thankful for that,” said Burton, who teaches language arts and geometry and is the gifted and talented coordinator.
Since the Governor’s Cup system was created in the mid-1980s, schools, teachers and students across Kentucky have embraced academic competition. More than 30,000 students from 1,100 public and private schools now participate in events sponsored by the Kentucky Association for Academic Competition (KAAC).
“I think it comes down to the results that local educators see,” said John Bennett, KAAC executive director. “There are places in Kentucky that have fundamentally changed their educational culture based on their academic team program.”
The first Governor’s Cup competition was held in 1986 after then-Gov. Martha Layne Collins tasked a committee to create a statewide academic competition to mirror the state’s athletic competitions.
“We want to make studying the ‘in’ thing. We want to make academic achievement the ‘in’ thing,” Collins said when announcing the initiative in 1985.
The task force cherry-picked elements of other states’ competitions to create the Governor’s Cup with eight events – quick recall, future problem solving, composition, and assessments in five areas – math, language arts, social studies, science and arts and humanities.
In most states, being on academic team means a quiz bowl team, but not here.
“In Kentucky, if you’re on the academic team you could be a creative writer, you could be a strategic thinker and be on the future problem solving team, or you could just know a lot of stuff and be taking assessments,” Bennett said.
A curriculum committee makes sure that competition questions are compatible with the Kentucky Academic Standards, he said.
“We try to make sure we align as closely as we can to what’s being taught in the classroom,” said Bennett, “and maybe go a little beyond that.”
The association also offers support to schools or coaches who want to start an academic team and holds a summer camp for student to improve their academic competition skills, he said.
The structure of the Governor’s Cup helps Kentucky perform well nationally and internationally in events such as Future Problem Solving (FPS) because participating in the FPS helps a school gain points in the overall Governor’s Cup competition, he said. In FPS students use a six-step model to research and analyze topics by using critical and creative thinking, problem solving, and decision making.
For the past four years, Kentucky has placed 10 teams in the top 10 in the Global Issues Problem Solving (GIPS) competition in Future Problem Solving Program International (FPSPI) – more than any other state. The next closest state was Minnesota, which had four top 10 teams over the past four years, according to an analysis by the Institute of Competition Sciences.
The Governor’s Cup competition has succeeded in making being smart cool in many schools across the state, Bennett said.
“It used to be a thing of ridicule and now it’s a thing of prestige in a lot of places,” he said.
In one eastern Kentucky school, academics trump athletics in the trophy case.
“When you walk through the front doors into the foyer,” he said. “It’s not the athletic trophies that you see first, it’s their state championship Governor’s Cup trophies that you see.”
Succeeding in academics and the Governor’s Cup takes practice, just like athletics. Many students practice before or after school, or sometimes both.
At Johnson County Middle School, Burton’s team practices after school five days a week until 5 p.m.
“Basketball teams practice every day, football teams practice, so we look at it the exact same way,” Burton said.
And their practice has paid off. Johnson County Middle has more state titles in the Governor’s Cup than any other school and has won the overall state competition 15 times, she said. They have won numerous state championships in quick recall and future problem solving.
“The kids are great. They are smart young people and they do other things as well,” she said. “Sometimes people say, ‘Well, that’s all they do,’ but that’s not true. They golf, they play soccer, they play the violin, they are versatile. They are not one-dimensional kids.”
In this year’s Governor’s Cup, the team placed first in both the quick recall and future problem solving event, leading them to also win the overall Governor’s Cup title.
While Johnson County routinely makes it to the state finals, Casey County Middle Schools’ team made the state tournament for the first time this year.
“I’m really hoping that by doing this well this year, that it’s going to encourage some of the younger kids, maybe they will see that this is more than just a bunch of nerds sitting around,” said teacher Jeremey Costello, the team’s coach.
Costello, who played on his middle school and high school academic teams, has been coaching the Casey County team for three years.
Though his team struggled through their league, in their final game they had a break-out match that boosted their confidence, he said.
“The kids started to be more driven and wanting to practice every day we could. They kept saying, ‘We’re going to win quick recall district,’” he said.
And they did. Then they placed second in the regional competition even without the team’s captain, who had to miss the meet for a band competition.
Making the state tournament gave the team more recognition than they had ever had before, including being honored at the Casey County Board of Education meeting.
“Nobody really knew what it was,” he said. “I think we’re earning respect. We’re in southcentral Kentucky, here; football is all that matters. But now we can say, ‘Maybe our basketball team didn’t get to go to state, but our academic team did.’”