KAMS students receive a warm welcome during meetings with state officials in Topeka

TOPEKA, Kan. — In what seemed at times more like a victory tour than a routine educational field trip, the “Pioneer Class” of the Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science visited Topeka on Wednesday to learn about state government but also to testify about their experiences thus far in the inaugural year of the statewide academy for exceptional high school students.

The 24 KAMS students — all high school juniors — received standing ovations when they were recognized on the floors of the Kansas Senate and the Kansas House of Representatives. Both houses of the Legislature unanimously passed resolutions commending the students and Fort Hays State University, which is the home of the new academy.

Besides touring the Capitol and the nearby Kansas Judicial Center, where they met with the Kansas Supreme Court, the KAMS students and Dr. Edward H. Hammond, FHSU president, reported on the status of the new academy to the Kansas Board of Regents, the House Education Committee and the Senate Education Committee.

If it is fitting to think of KAMS as a victory, then it is a victory shared by the Legislature, the university at Hays, and, of course, the students themselves. That was apparent during testimony to the education committees and during informal conversations with lawmakers.

The Legislature established KAMS to promote mathematics and science education, to reduce the “brain drain” in which many of the best and brightest young Kansans go away to out-of-state universities and never return, and to promote economic development by providing a well-educated workforce. Kansas becomes the 16th state to have an early-entry-to-college program that offers a unique residential learning experience for high-achieving high school juniors and seniors.

KAMS was established at FHSU following a selection process by the Kansas Board of Regents. The Legislature originally appropriated about $700,000 a year to fund the first five years of operation, but the budget crisis that began in the fall of 2008 put that funding in jeopardy. Nonetheless, the Legislature has provided funding of more than $600,000 thus far to support a smaller version of the academy, which President Hammond has dubbed “KAMS Lite.” Instead of starting in fall 2009 with 40 juniors, which would expand to 80 in fall 2010 with the 40 returning seniors and 40 new juniors, the 2009-2010 class has just the 24 juniors.

During lunch with the students on Wednesday, Senate President Stephen R. Morris, R-Hugoton, commended President Hammond for his “can do” attitude during the budget crisis, when legislators were hearing complaints from others who were concerned about funding cuts. Morris said it was Hammond’s “ingenuity” — which is the typical approach to challenges at FHSU — that made it possible for KAMS to be launched in a somewhat scaled back version.

“Eddie Savage from Holcomb is a member of this first class of the Kansas Academy of Math and Science,” Sen. Morris added. “His success demonstrates not only his own commitment to academic achievement but the effectiveness of the educators who helped prepare him for this venture. I sincerely congratulate Eddie. I know his family, friends and community are very proud, and as his state senator, I share that pride!”

During their formal testimony, four of the KAMS students — Leo Budy from Basehor, Tyler Clark from St. John, Alexis Greb-Bonham from Wellington, and Kathryn Schmidt from Atchison — thanked the legislators for creating and funding KAMS, explained the application process and the curriculum, and shared their personal experiences from halfway through the first year of the two-year program.

“We are committed to academic excellence,” Tyler said of himself and his fellow students, “and we are truly fortunate to live in a state that values education.”

Kathryn testified that it was like applying for a job. “And that’s the way it should be,” she said. “You’re applying to do what you love.”

Noting that “We’re teenagers,” Alexis said coming to KAMS was a risk that took the students out of their comfort zone. “It’s a really big responsibility and a really big task,” she told the lawmakers. “Homesickness happens. … There are going to be those times when you think, ‘Man, why am I still not in high school?’ The goal I have is why I’m staying, and it’s not available in my high school.”

President Hammond emphasized to lawmakers that KAMS was creating an atmosphere that will convince many of the graduates to pursue future education and careers in Kansas instead of leaving the state.

In addition to thanking legislators, the students said KAMS Director Ron Keller and his staff and the FHSU faculty had provided the help they needed to make the early adjustment to college life. “We had to develop study skills,” said Mersadez Tanner from Hays. “If we really needed help, we could go to anyone.”

The students also spoke passionately about how they had learned to depend on each other. “Without KAMS, we would not have gotten to know each other,” said Christian Sellers from Fort Scott.

Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, and Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Hays, presented the KAMS resolution on the floor of the House, and Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington, presented the KAMS resolution on the floor of the Senate. “This may be the first time you have heard yourselves referred to as intellectual capital,” Lee said, “but indeed you are intellectual capital. We hope you will each find a way to apply this opportunity for the betterment of Kansas.”

Other legislators also offered comments about the visit by the KAMS students.

Sen. Jay Emler, R-Lindsborg: “I am very proud that a young man from my district, Bryant Davis of Wilson, is a member of the inaugural class of the Kansas Academy of Math and Science. KAMS provides tremendous opportunities to the students fortunate enough to be accepted. I am certain Bryant will build on this experience and continue to excel academically. I commend Bryant’s family, teachers and community for giving him the educational and personal support that have brought him this far, and I wish him every success in his future endeavors.”

Rep. Dolores Furtado, D-Overland Park: “Students with an aptitude for science and math must be nurtured while being challenged. The program at FHSU is a great opportunity for our students to become aware of future career possibilities.”

Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe: “The future of our state lies in the development of our best and brightest young students. KAMS is the ‘opportunity’ in the land of opportunity.”

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