Funding cut may transform state's gifted academies

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Katherine Boyer got her hands on a saxophone when she was in third grade and started teaching herself how to play.

"At the time it was as big as I was, but I was determined," said Boyer, who will be a senior at Perryville High School.

In high school, Boyer said, she was also determined to prepare for and gain entrance into the Missouri Fine Arts Academy to study music. She will spend three weeks at the academy at Missouri State University in Springfield starting today.

"I'm looking forward to everyone being as serious about it as I am," Boyer said. The experience, she said, will provide a taste of college and give her skills to bring back to the school as drum major next year.

In Columbia, 330 students are arriving today for the Missouri Scholars Academy at the University of Missouri.

Next year, with a lower level of state support, the academies could exist under different versions, said Jim Morris, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The programs will receive $259,000 in the upcoming budget, which is awaiting a signature by Gov. Jay Nixon. That figure is about a third of the current level, $718,306.

"The initial recommendation was to zero out the budget," Morris said. "So we had to fight to get this level of funding."

The money pays for staff as well as food and lodging for the students, he said.

Morris said the department is considering several options, including tuition charges, consolidating the academies, making them shorter or having the universities contribute money.

High schools nominate students for the program, and the students go through an additional application process with the state, which includes essays, portfolios and tests. Students stay in dorms and attend classes based on their area of study. This year, 12 students from area schools will be attending the academies, which are funded primarily by the state.

Steve Schaffner, the music department chairman at Cape Girardeau Central High School, said an average of 10 students apply for the Fine Arts Academy every year.

"Typically the kids we send are the cream of the crop," he said. "They're the children who you want to represent your community later on."

Ali Yuen, who recently graduated from Central High School, attended the Scholars Academy in 2007, the summer before her junior year.

She said she attended class about five hours a day, six days a week. Her curriculum focused on philosophy studies.

"We got into some pretty deep conversations that I wouldn't have here," said Yuen, who will attend Vanderbilt University next year to study math and economics.

Yuen said she left with a network of friends who kept her on her toes throughout the remainder of high school. They proofread each other's college essays and wrote letters to state legislators, encouraging them to continue funding the programs, she said.

"I know so many people who say MSA has changed their life," she said, pausing. "I guess I'm one of them."

Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, who serves on the House Education Appropriation Committee, said many academy alumni reached out to him to save the program.

"I'm going to say that they had the most organized network for grassroots lobbying," he said.

He said the program was a top priority for him because he saw the impact the scholars academy had on his son. Because funds were tight, he said, he advocated maintaining some level funding for the programs so they would not disappear.

Hodges said he worries about next year's budget.

Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said the programs could face more problems if the economic conditions continue.

"There's no doubt if revenue continues to come in at these low levels that some of these programs will be in jeopardy of being completely eliminated," said Mayer, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Both legislators said no one doubted the effect of the programs.

"The fine arts academy program obviously is a good one, but we feel like that was an area we could make a reduction and causes less harm to students than other areas of the education budget," Mayer said.

abusch@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

1000 S. Silver Springs Road, Cape Girardeau, MO

326 College St., Perryville, MO

Area academy attendees

Missouri Scholars Academy

* Lessley Dennington, Central High School

* Blake Kidd, Central High School

* Lydia Meece, Jackson High School

* Jonathan Olson, Saxony Lutheran High School

* Prithvi Rudrappa, Central High School

* Jordan Thomas, Jackson High School

* Lydia Welker, Perryville High School

Missouri Fine Arts Academy

* Lauren Bishop, Central High School

* Katherine Boyer, Perryville High School

* Brittany Hastings, Jackson High School

* Keith LeGrand, Notre Dame Regional High School

* Alicia Petzoldt, Saxony Lutheran High School

Map of pertinent addresses

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