Governor's Schools Get 'F' for Fantastic!
By Richard G. Johnstone, Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

It began as a fledgling effort almost 30 years ago, during a testy, tumultuous time in the nation’s schools and in most of our other institutions, from the presidency to the Pentagon. It was the summer of Watergate hearings and Roe v. Wade. Of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Exorcist. Of the passing of LBJ and J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s likely that few of Virginia’s political or school officials had any idea at the time that they were creating an educational model that has become one of the finest such efforts in the nation. During that harried summer of ’73, when Governor Linwood Holton established a summer residential program for 400 gifted students, it’s unlikely that he or anyone else envisioned just how far and how fast the concept would take root and grow and prosper over the three decades that would follow.

Who could have imagined then that the breadth of the eventual enrollment in the Virginia Governor’s School program would grow to cover virtually every corner, nearly every county, city, suburb, small town and rural area of the Commonwealth. And who back then could have imagined, too, the full depth of educational enrichment to which thousands of eager young learners would have access in 2002, thanks to that start-up effort in ’73.

“The concept that we stress in the Governor’s School program is that we are building a community of learners,” says Dr. Barbara McGonagill, who is the Virginia Department of Education’s principal specialist for Governor’s Schools and gifted education. And she’s quick to stress, also, that this “community of learners” is neither mandated nor made at a state level. “This whole program is a strong response by the General Assembly to regional and local initiatives. These schools start because there’s a regional interest and a regional need.”

Today, the program literally touches almost every region of Virginia, with about 90 percent of the state’s approximately 130 school divisions within geographic reach of one or more Governor’s Schools. The enrollment, likewise, is impressive, with more than 7,500 Virginia students able to enrich their high school learning experience through the state’s 43 Governor’s Schools. In addition to the 16 full-time academic year schools (such as the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School featured as this month’s cover story), there are also 20 summer regional schools that last from four days to four weeks, and seven summer residential schools, lasting four or five weeks.

These summer Governor’s Schools focus intensively in a limited period of time on a given academic or artistic field, such as environmental science or the visual arts, and allow students interested and gifted in those areas to expand their knowledge and stoke their enthusiasm. Sure, these kids could be hanging out at the mall or lounging by the pool, but they would rather be studying marine biology at False Cape State Park, or buffing their painting skills under the tutelage of a seasoned artist. And that’s the whole point: The program provides the wings for kids who want to fly.

And the “local option” aspect of the program allows each school division to participate as and how it sees fit. In this way, local folks decide on the academic or artistic focus areas that are needed or wanted in their region. And, as Dr. McGonagill points out, sometimes needs change, or grow. “The Shenandoah Valley Governor’s School started out as a math and science center, because of the needs in the valley,” she points out. “Ten years later, there is a burgeoning arts community in the valley, and they’ve expanded the school to include an arts component in addition to the math and science.”

Another important element is that this local control also involves combining local dollars with state dollars to fund the schools. Local control also has seen some regions develop full-time schools, others summer programs. And the course offerings vary by region as well, with some emphasizing government and international studies, and others focusing on math and science, or technology, or the arts, or global economics, or marine and environmental studies. “Our model here in Virginia is one of the most comprehensive in the nation,” Dr. McGonagill notes. “No other state has the totality of coverage that we do.”

In a time of Wall Street woes and governments having to do more with less, of corporate corruption and global terrorism, Virginia’s Governor’s School program is a wonderful breath of fresh air in a stale news environment, and a wonderful antidote to the cynicism of our age. As they approach their 30th birthday here, may they continue to grow and prosper and provide educational enrichment to our most valuable resource, our young people.

If you’re interested in learning more about the state’s Governor’s School program, contact your local school division’s gifted education coordinator, or call Dr. McGonagill at (804) 225-2884, e-mail her at bmcgonag@pen.k12.va.us, or write her at P.O. Box 2120, Richmond, VA 23218. Also, there’s a wealth of information on the program at the Virginia Department of Education’s Web site, www.pen.k12.va.us. Once there, look for “Most Requested Information,” and the Governor’s School portion will be under that heading.

Pull-Out Quote

As they approach their 30th birthday, the Governor’s Schools are a wonderful antidote to the cynicism of our age.


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