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Above: 75 Communicative Arts Majors at 2023’s Georgia Governor’s Honor’s Program.

Photo: Gillian Miller/GHP, shared with permission to VOX ATL

What Is the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program? Teens Share How GHP Could Improve Public Education

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Editor’s Note: The author of this article was a participant in the program during summer 2023.

The Georgia Governor’s Honors Program (GHP) is a prestigious summer program for gifted high schoolers. How does GHP help students excel, and what is it like to attend the program?

The GHP website defines GHP as a “program for skilled, knowledgeable, and talented high school[ers]… [it] is designed to provide students with academic, cultural, and social enrichment necessary to become the next generation of global critical thinkers, innovators, and leaders [sic].” It takes place every summer–typically at Berry College, but this past summer it was held at Georgia Southern University. Only 20% of the 3,000 state-wide nominees will be selected to attend the program.

According to GHP’s 2019 Evaluation Report, 644 students were picked and 97% were satisfied with their GHP experience. Additionally, 92% stated that “diversity was evident at GHP”, and 94% said that they “learned new content or skills at GHP that will further their academic development after high school.”

Stephanie Tatum, a teacher at Harrison High School (HHS) in Cobb County, attended GHP in 1991, and now she nominates students for the program. “It was such a refreshing experience because everybody was there to learn and grow,” Tatum told VOX ATL. She went on to describe it as “academically refreshing” and said that it would best benefit “kids who are just naturally curious, who love to learn and aren’t afraid to be nerdy.”

Senior Isabella Fonseca, a GHP veteran, described her time at GHP to VOX ATL as “a super special and rare experience [that she] wouldn’t trade for the world.” Fonseca also alluded to the term “GHP magic” which Tatum also referenced. This term is often used by GHP veterans to describe GHP, and Tatum believes it originated from the “magic square,” which was the term used to describe the area of Berry College’s campus where the GHP students could roam.

Fonseca explained, “When I was applying I thought [the GHP magic] was an exaggeration, but no, it really is just magical.” When asked what tips they had for current GHP applicants, Tatum and Fonseca both replied that applicants should show the interviewers how “passionate” they are about their study area.

Donna Blankenbecler, the GHP coordinator at HHS, reinforced their advice by adding that “interviewers look for students who genuinely want to grow in their areas, not kids who just want to slap it on a college application.”

Blankenbecler, Tatum, and Fonseca all agree that they would recommend GHP to students: “GHP finalists are really the cream of the crop-they’re the best students in the state, and being able to say that you’re part of that group will open up a lot of opportunities for you in the future,” Blankenbecler explained. Tatum agreed adding, “I’m still in touch with my GHP roommate, the relationships you make there are so unique.”

How GHP’s Methodology Can Improve Public Education

This past summer, students at GHP expressed distress at returning to their typical public education environments with many alums describing returning to public education as “surreal” and “painful.” In a survey conducted by VOX ATL, 36 respondents across different majors at GHP responded to questions about their experience and the impact it had on them. The vast majority said that their mental health improved during their time at the program, citing a decrease in anxiety and a newfound excitement for what the next day would bring. However, these effects were seemingly reversed once the program ended and public school resumed in August.

After returning to public school, students are stuck with the sudden introduction of grades, a GPA to maintain, a competitive style of education, and a significant decrease in free time. When asked “What would you change about the education system if you could?” Chemistry major Shawnak Samaddar replied with a short and simple “Make it like GHP.” This sentiment was not an uncommon one.

Of the 36 responses, 31 of them referenced aligning public education with GHP’s methodology. Several students, such as Communicative Arts major Nikhila Vincent stated “Grades should be less important, [they can] make students lose sight of discovering what passions they have, who they are, and who they want to be.” Another Communicative Arts major, Nate Occilien-Similien, said that “the grading system needs to be changed.”

“I want to learn, but sometimes the pressure of grades makes me study just to pass a test, not to learn,” says Meritt Hornbuckle, a Social Studies major. “I wish there was a way to measure academic performance while also keeping students engaged and eager to learn.” 

At GHP, students were not graded or scored on anything, which was largely considered one of the program’s best aspects. However, two students, Shivangi Ranjan–a Biology major–and Jackson Malcom–a Communicative Arts major– explained in the survey that they found themselves “lacking motivation” to complete coursework without a GPA to maintain. 

Despite this, 32 respondents said that the lack of grades was refreshing; however, it should be noted that this sample population is biased since they are all high-achieving, passionate individuals. They wouldn’t be GHP Alumni if they weren’t. As a result, they cannot be fully representative of the entire student population in America.

So, if grades are stressful and have a negative influence on the mental health of students, but are necessary to motivate them, how can the grading system be improved? Perhaps a change in functionality?

“The open discussion and lack of a curriculum [at GHP] allowed the class to focus on the subject of the class rather than drilling for exams or assessments,” said Shivani Trivedi, Communicative Arts major. “The focus of the class fostered friendships and honest, open thinking.”

Logan Huntsman, an Engineering Major, adds “We were here to learn and explore what we wanted to explore, not worry about getting a good grade and slave away to tests and state curriculums.”

The idea that grades serve the government and the education system as businesses, sometimes at the expense of the students, is not a new one. It is a long-standing criticism of America’s current grading system. 

Grades are stressful. They contribute to class rank, highlighting the competitive nature of public education today, and can determine college acceptance, one of the biggest sources of anxiety for high schoolers. However, they are important because they keep students focused on classwork, but surely there must be a middle ground.

“Grades should show you where you’re at rather than where your future is at,” says Hayden Buckman, a Jazz Major. “[Grades] have such a large impact on our future and options in life, but it really shouldn’t.”

In a system such as Buckman’s suggestion, grades would serve the students by providing teachers with a reference to see which students need more attention and which ones could be exposed to more advanced material, but with the end goal of helping students understand the content, not ranking them and forcing them into a rat race.

GHP offers an environment focused on cultivating passion and engaged participation by removing the competitive atmosphere. Students are encouraged to work together, not to get ahead, but to develop their understanding and interest in the topics at hand.

This is in stark contrast to American public schools, where students struggle to compete with their peers to maintain a strong GPA and develop a strong college application, often at the expense of their mental health. 

Of course, the grading system has been scrutinized for years, but nothing has ever been officially changed about it.

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  1. Simone Rajput

    SO TRUE!