Converting Adversity to Opportunity: AGS 2020

Arkansas Governor's School

The 295 rising high school seniors who completed the 2020 Arkansas Governor’s School conducted by Arkansas Tech University July 5-Aug. 1 overcame the circumstances of a pandemic and grappled with complex social issues during a distance learning adventure unlike anything in the 41-year history of the program.

“We told the faculty and staff at the beginning of the program that this is a social experiment,” said Dr. Jeff Woods, who serves as co-director of AGS at ATU alongside Dr. Robin Lasey. “Can we overcome the obstacles that are in front of us? Can we learn and build a community even in the midst of a pandemic? Everybody embraced that, and we did that.”

More than seven months of planning for AGS 2020 was overturned when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic arrived in Arkansas in mid-March. What was originally planned as a four-week, residential program was converted to a virtual environment.

The daily academic schedule was essentially the same as it would have been in a face-to-face environment.

AGS students participated in intensive study in one of nine Area I academic disciplines: visual arts, choral music, instrumental music, drama, English/language arts, mathematics, natural science, social science or cybersecurity.

Additional class time was dedicated to analyzing the nature of knowledge and developing critical thinking skills (Area II) and focusing on personal and social development (Area III).

Technology resources available through ATU allowed English students to participate in multimedia journalism, drama students to produce short films and music students to learn pieces in isolation and bring them together through editing software.

Woods said the greatest initial challenge in transitioning to a virtual environment was in relationship building.

“There’s something special about being on campus, living together and being away from the pressures of home that really makes Governor’s School a different kind of experience and a transitional one,” said Woods. “We couldn’t replicate that, but we did the best we could.”

Online community groups were created to provide students with a small cohort of peers similar to what they would experience in a residence hall. Resident assistants guided each small group in social and team-building activities. Each Friday included a virtual large group gathering of AGS students. Student clubs were developed just as they are in a typical face-to-face AGS setting.

“A lot of students built relationships,” said Woods. “It took longer and I’m not sure they were as deep as they would have been if they were face-to-face. There was some socialization that we didn’t expect. There was a lot of online communication. Students were messaging each other all the time and we had a general chat they could participate in, so that provided for some socialization that we don’t normally have.”

One of the outgrowths of that socialization was an Area III project by a group of AGS students for the benefit of the Arkansas Food Bank. The project raised more than $5,000 in a span of less than a week.

Curriculum was altered mid-stream to include perspectives on the pandemic as well as the renewed conversation on race in America following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others.

Polly Price, an alumna of AGS and professor of global health at Emory University, and Baratunde Thurston, an Emmy-nominated writer, activist, comedian and host, were added to the list of AGS impact speakers in response to students’ curiosity about the pressing topics of summer 2020.

“We really needed to hit those conversations head on,” said Woods. “These students were really interested in issues related to race. They were aggressive in their interest and wanted to talk about it, so it ended up being a part of every class. Several other speakers addressed the pandemic and race relations. We pivoted pretty quickly. All of that was happening as we were making the transition (to distance learning). I think everybody was really open to moving toward where the students wanted to go.”

Lasey echoed the notion that the faculty’s adaptability was essential to the 2020 program.

“(The faculty) pivoted so quickly and so well,” said Lasey. “They rolled with the punches and did great. There was disappointment that they missed out on the face-to-face interaction with the students and each other. Governor’s School, in a lot of ways, is just as important for the faculty members as it is for the students. They were able to interact through WebEx Teams and focused on getting the students involved. The success of Governor’s School is based upon how much work the faculty did and their willingness to adjust.”

Contributions by the ATU Office of Information Systems were also integral in the transition to a virtual environment.

“The amount of work that OIS did and the support they have given us…they are amazing,” said Lasey. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

AGS is supervised by the Arkansas Department of Education Gifted and Talented Programs administrator with assistance from an advisory council appointed by the governor.

Since taking leadership of AGS in fall 2018, Lasey and Woods have sought to increase the geographic diversity of the program by recruiting students from every region of Arkansas and reaching out to school districts that have not been historically represented in the AGS student body.

“In terms of applications and initial acceptances, we definitely made a leap as compared to the previous year,” said Lasey when asked about the ongoing pursuit of that goal. “I think we’re going to find in the final analysis that we’re not quite where we want to be because of the lack of internet across the state. Smaller towns where students didn’t have access to an internet connection was a limiting factor for some. We will continue to reach out to schools we aren’t currently serving. We’re better, but there’s still work to do.”

ATU is scheduled to host the 42nd Arkansas Governor’s School during summer 2021. Members of the Arkansas high school graduating class of 2022 may learn more about applying to become an AGS student in the coming months by visiting

“We turned the adversity into an opportunity,” said Woods when asked to sum up AGS 2020. “In some ways, this might have been the most special Governor’s School we’ve ever had. This was a tumultuous year, and these kids were stressed out and tense with each other and the faculty. They knew their world was upset, but they learned to communicate through all of that and they learned how to make their world a better place even when everything seems to be going downhill. They kept that optimism. That’s pretty remarkable. It wasn’t your standard AGS and we didn’t get to do all the things we’d normally do, but man, it was special. It was special because it was hard.”

Below is a list of AGS 2020 completers, organized alphabetically by the names of the high schools they represented:

ACADEMIES OF JONESBORO HIGH SCHOOL — Sarah Rebecca Havdala, Aria Xaviera Jenkins, Deanna Elizabeth Jones;

ALMA HIGH SCHOOL — Delaney Bryant Baker, Emma Grace Boyd, Stephanie Rayne Daniels, Chaarlee Kealonee Hickman, Talon Xavier Johnson, Zachary Ian McCoy;

ARKANSAS SCHOOL FOR MATHEMATICS, SCIENCE AND THE ARTS — Bryson Ahmad Austin, Steven Michael Lynch, Takoya Lashelle Marks, Emersyn Grace Rackley, Hyunseo Seok;

ARKANSAS VIRTUAL ACADEMY HIGH SCHOOL — Sage David Carpenter, Julia Moura, Bristol Dale Strang;

BARTON HIGH SCHOOL — Hailey Nearns, Kasey Renee Smith;

BEEBE HIGH SCHOOL — Brooklyn Shae Russell, Haylie Lynn Thorpe;

BENTONVILLE HIGH SCHOOL — Jamie Suzanne Anderson, Evan Augustus Beck, Danielle FayeLynn Brumbelow, Manas Chithirala, Pranit Dodda, Haven Leigh Gabbard, Elizabeth Avery Harrison, Alison Sue-Jeanne Jang, Dheeksha Krishnan, Abhinav Srivenkatasatyasai Krovvidi, Anushri Kulkarni, Leilani Michelle Mack, John Daniel Milliken, Pradyun Pandey, James Frederick Quirk, Laasya Ravipati, Jackson Thomas Springmann, Rithvik Siddhi Talluri, Anirudh Tavva;

BENTONVILLE WEST HIGH SCHOOL — Harsha Sai Dokku, Soumya Kolluru, Maansvi Kotturi, Nikhil Kalsank Pai, Siddharth Reddy Sunkireddy, Ananya Reddy Vangoor;


BISMARCK HIGH SCHOOL — Joshua Wayne Sheets;

BRYANT HIGH SCHOOL — Alexia Nicole Beyerlein, Jackson Zander Bumgarner, Jacob Carl Fannon, Brianna Elizabeth Lewis, Sarah Jessica Roberts;

CABOT HIGH SCHOOL — Abigail Victoria Asimbaya, Kelly Renee Erzar, Valeria Fernandez, Erika Annelise Fredricks, Sara Elizabeth Hammonds, Luke Montgomery Haskins, Erin Bailey House, Mattison Marie Juarez, Kenneth Clayton Kincade, Courtney Nicole Lane, Harrison Jackson Mobbs, Tess Julianna Monroe, Caitlyn Elizabeth Pettis, Zoe Sienna Schultz, Natalie Grace Stocks, Brianna Paige Wallace;

CARLISLE HIGH SCHOOL — Izzy Marcel Blair, Sienna Rayne Johnston;

CLINTON HIGH SCHOOL — Ian Hunter Thompson, Robert Cade Williams;

CONWAY HIGH SCHOOL — Matthew Frederick Ablondi, Margaret Elizabeth Batson, Chiara Abrianna Bunting, Andrew Taylor Clark, Sydney Paige Greene, Ryan Alexander Hatch, Sunny Alexander Jones, Ethan Thomas Moss, William Gabriel Parrack, Zoe Catherine Russell, Cade Fisher Smiley, Matthew Douglas Stephens, Ahmed Mohamed Tolba;

COTTER HIGH SCHOOL — Landon William Francis, Carlie Lanay Williams;


DARDANELLE HIGH SCHOOL — Michael Jeremiah Finkenbinder, Joseph Turner Morris;

DOLLARWAY HIGH SCHOOL — Freddiemae La’faith Thompson;



E-STEM HIGH SCHOOL — Nikolai Ilyich Gordeev, Margaret Grace Henning, Rory Grace Jones, Nekyehia Denise McDonald, Larissa Cary Temple, Ruby Rae Cheer Zorn;


FAYETTEVILLE HIGH SCHOOL — Victoria Borisova Bogomilova, Caitlyn Elizabeth Jacobs, Bella Rose Kieklak, Josh Jing Yuan Kueh, Tillie Faith Lefforge, Chloe Liu, Ashlyn Brooke Mayer, Madalyn Grace Minton, Devon Constance Mullins, Anna Belle Packwood, Sakura Rieck, Olivia Marie Steinert, Ella Sue Van Horn;


FLIPPIN HIGH SCHOOL — Brenna Celeste Metts;

FOUNTAIN LAKE CHARTER HIGH SCHOOL — Haley Rae Evans, Sandor Granger Hampo, Aleksandr Michael Johnson;

FUTURE SCHOOL OF FORT SMITH — Hai-Lee Jo-Ann Cooper, Alivia Faith Hill, Abigail Rose Spiotto;


HAAS HALL ACADEMY — Brandyn Cole New, Jahzara Shakina Osborne, Hailey Elizabeth Young;

HAAS HALL ACADEMY AT THE JONES CENTER — Faith Elizabeth Gaston, Rory Marie Lawless, Kevin Rosas;


HAAS HALL ACADEMY BENTONVILLE — Andrew Michael Maurras, Jareth Atreau Shawn McGhee;

HAMPTON HIGH SCHOOL — Rylee Nicole Griffis, David Bear Moore;




JACKSONVILLE HIGH SCHOOL — Madelynn Joelle Ritchie;

JASPER HIGH SCHOOL — Aubrey Lynne Hill, Bethany Grace Long;

JOE T. ROBINSON HIGH SCHOOL — Abby Elizabeth Bobo, Alyssa Genevieve Chaffin, Malachi David Giddens, Kennedy Marie Hicks, Haven Tiara Jackson, Evan Charles Kind, Avani Mikayla Reynolds, Avery Michelle Wall;

LAKE HAMILTON HIGH SCHOOL — Delin Jasmin Argueta, Juliana Nicole Berry, Sarah Grace Bullen, Jonathan Grady King, Colleen Noelle Miller;

LAKESIDE HIGH SCHOOL — Connor Joseph Johnson, Henley Sean Queen, Sophia Grace Shunk;

LISA ACADEMY HIGH SCHOOL — Dana Nader Abou-Diab, Emma Kathryn Durand, Sarah Jennifer Durand;

LISA ACADEMY NORTH MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOL — Melina Yasmin Hernandez, Nathaniel Richie Wayne Hibbard, Elizabeth Anne Phifer;

LITTLE ROCK CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL — Paavan Atluri, Alex Roman Borengasser, Kesav Prasad Chandrasekhar, Zeina Ehab Eltahawy, Robin Paul Eluvathingal, Deniz Erdag, Surabhee Eswaran, Madeleine Eleanor Gess, Kathleen Emily Jackson, Tania R. Kelley, Samuel Elliott Lu, Adain Paul Luckadue, Saitej Venkatareddy Mummadi, John Peters Newbern, Edward Nicholas Onisei, Jonathan Sanghyun Park, Lily Ann Parson, Dev H. Patel, Amitkumar Manojkumar Patil, Natalie Marie Larey Pettit, Sreelakshmi Sai Raghav, Riya Robin, Saad Shabbir, Han Lin Siew, Anna Jane Spollen, Mary Ruth Taylor, Anna Cay Kaemmerling Vernon, Victoria Ann Walker, Milo Magnus Williams-Thompson, Anna Raquel Yates, Michael Vladimir Zabiko;

LITTLE ROCK CHRISTIAN ACADEMY —Alex Rena Bratton, Katelyn Grace Lyle, Kylie Michel Robinson;

MAGNOLIA HIGH SCHOOL — EmmiGrace Elizabeth Miller;

MAUMELLE CHARTER HIGH SCHOOL — Kennedy Lee Livernois, Jacob Michael Strawn, Haley Nicole Tipton;

MAUMELLE HIGH SCHOOL — Clayton Thomas Boothe, Rebecca Nicole Forrest, Miles Canyon Spencer;

MONTICELLO HIGH SCHOOL — Lucas Anthony Babst, Ariene Vanora Thompson, Michael Gage Underwood;

MORRILTON HIGH SCHOOL — Emmarie Gabrielle Wilson;

MOUNT ST. MARY ACADEMY — Ella Grace Connery, Savanna Renee Delavan, Josie Mae Fitz, Chloe Jane Gourde, Caroline Ashton Gunderman, Mary Helen Owen, Emily Autumn Van Ecko;


MOUNTAIN VIEW HIGH SCHOOL — Kaytelynn Rose Buazard, Whitman William Fowlkes;

NEMO VISTA HIGH SCHOOL — Emilee Grace Burroughs;

NETTLETON HIGH SCHOOL — Brooklyn Carol Panneck;

NORTH LITTLE ROCK CENTER FOR EXCELLENCE — Kaile S. Johnson, Austin Taylor Strawn;

NORTH LITTLE ROCK HIGH SCHOOL — Cidney Renee Davis, Marshall Cooper Donn, Anna Elizabeth Fetherston, Lauryn Nicole Johnson, Liam Macqueen Selhorst, Tallulah Rose Selhorst;

OARK HIGH SCHOOL — Isabel Ann Ward;


OZARK HIGH SCHOOL — Aaron Xavier Breshears, Jayden Jo Cook, Margaret Elizabeth Kile, Eli Dakota Mason, Joshua Kendall Moore, Gabriella Nozomi Stokes;

PARKVIEW MAGNET HIGH SCHOOL — Taylor Ann Ballard, Via Benjamine Gahi, Leah Rose Kline, Christopher Blake Luckie, Mariah Elizabeth Perkins, Hieu Hoang Pham, Miles Benjamin Richard, Sessilee Eve Shavers, Shermar Arnez Simmons, Courtney Nicole Starlard, Sarah Eliza Stuckey;

PEA RIDGE HIGH SCHOOL — Morgan Elizabeth Humphrey;

PRAIRIE GROVE HIGH SCHOOL — Ian Thomas Howerton, Ella Louise Nations;


QUEST ACADEMY — Lorah Lee Chudy;

ROGERS HERITAGE HIGH SCHOOL — Alonzo Hernandez, Juan Enrique Ramos, Emma Grace Robbins, Jose Angel Torres;

ROGERS HIGH SCHOOL — Melissa Danai Alvarez, Alyssa Renae Perkins, Allison Kate Vaughn;

ROSE BUD HIGH SCHOOL — Madison Taylor Larkins;

RUSSELLVILLE HIGH SCHOOL — Tawni Grace Bacorn, Carolina Agustina Chang Carballo, Dominick Pacheco Deaton, Mary Katherine Duffield, Jordyn-Joycelyn McElle Ellington, Camryn Elizabeth Manning, Nathaly Marin Marin, Courtney Nicole Moore, Lauren Alyssa Owens, Abigail Leigh Robbins, Rayan Shuja, Brooklyn M. Smith;

SILOAM SPRINGS HIGH SCHOOL CONVERSION CHARTER — Macie Laine Herrel, Benjamin Levi Humphries;

SMACKOVER HIGH SCHOOL — Anniston Elaine Ross;

SPRINGDALE HIGH SCHOOL — Isabel Adriana Dye, Keiry Daniela Flores, Ian Paolo Gelicame;

STUTTGART HIGH SCHOOL — Logan Ray Heinzelman, Heidy Hernandez, Nikita Singh Rohila;

SUBIACO ACADEMY — Kya Joseph Schluterman;

THADEN SCHOOL — Alisha Shahriar, Marcus Joshua Teoh, Claire Evans Wise;

VALLEY VIEW HIGH SCHOOL — Frances Yi-Ping Chen, Ella Anneliese Layton;

VAN BUREN HIGH SCHOOL — Shelby Paige Harris, Natalie Num Neung Ophaso, Madison Faith Rotter, Pearl Mook Sayarath;

WEST FORK HIGH SCHOOL — Stephen Austin Hale;

WHITE HALL HIGH SCHOOL — Emily McKenzie Granderson, Hannah Elizabeth Howell;

WONDERVIEW HIGH SCHOOL — Ethan Mitchell Williams.