ELEVATE: National Merit Finalists Spark Success


High achievers bring out the best in students, teachers around them

BURNS FLAT, OK (March 14, 2018) – One might not expect one of the top students in the nation to come from a graduating class of 31. But here in this one-stoplight town, that student is inspiring others to push themselves further and tapping into the energy of high-achieving educators, including a Grammy-winning math teacher.

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Ryne Garrison is the first National Merit Finalist in the history of Burns Flat-Dill City High School and one of 150 exceptional high school seniors across Oklahoma who have advanced in the National Merit Scholarship competition that awards about 7,500 scholarships worth more than $32 million.

But this confident, soft-spoken young man who uses “sir” and “ma’am” is more apt to talk about his classmates’ academic accomplishments than his own. He’s quick to credit the freshman who is leading the school’s academic team or the girls’ cross-country team that has won the state academic championship for the last three years. Ryne praises his teachers and counselor for opening up opportunities, and the principal of this western Oklahoma high school describes their success as staff-assisted and student-driven.

“We’ve told all our students, if you can achieve it, we’ll get you to the place you need to do it. We’ll hand you the tools,” principal Cliff McCown said.

Ryne took that as a challenge. As an eighth-grader, he approached math and science teacher Chris Price and asked for a chance to take calculus in high school – even though the class wasn’t offered.

“We started talking, and he asked me if there was something I thought would challenge me a little bit more than what was being offered,” Ryne said. As a result, Price worked with the administration to add calculus to the school course offerings despite only Ryne and one other student taking the class, but Ryne said underclassmen are seeing their success, and the popularity of higher-level courses is gaining momentum.

“Now there are a few students in the grade below who are interested in taking calculus. After that, there will probably be four or five in the next class and hopefully nine or 10 the next year,” Ryne said.

The versatility of Price, who co-wrote the Grammy-winning song, “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again” with Roy Orbison in 1981, was critical in offering the breadth of higher-level classes Ryne requested. Price is certified to teach 16 subject areas, including physics and calculus, and is also Ryne’s school golf coach.  

 

Exam as an equalizer

Ryne is headed to Oklahoma State University this fall to study industrial engineering and management. He is interested in working for the government in resource distribution -- in  essence, getting water and power to regions that need it, such as Puerto Rico after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.

McCown said assessments like the PSAT, which qualifies a student as a National Merit Semifinalist, give high achievers like Ryne global exposure and level the playing field for postsecondary opportunities.

“What I want Ryne to do is be great on a way bigger stage than Burns Flat-Dill City High School,” McCown said. “Now he’s competing for scholarships with students from everywhere. Sometimes in western Oklahoma, geography is a factor. But for Ryne it’s not.”

Students are automatically entered into the National Merit competition if they take the PSAT/NMSQT assessment in their junior year. From there, students with the highest scores in each state are selected as Semifinalists. About 90 percent of Semifinalists go on to become Finalists, who are highly sought after by universities across the country.

Over the last 34 years, the recruitment of National Merit Scholars has been a top priority for the University of Oklahoma. It ranks No. 1 among both public and private universities in the nation in the number of freshman National Merit Scholars over three of the last four years. 

For OU, the National Merit designation reflects more than just a test score.

“National Merit Scholars lift the academic performance of all students,” said OU President David Boren. “They help attract outstanding faculty members to the institution. They are catalysts for excellence and impact the entire university.”

While there are many paths to college scholarships, the PSAT/NMSQT is the only way to qualify for National Merit Scholarships around the country, not to mention the unmatched prestige that comes with being a Finalist.

“The National Scholars Program staff has heard time and again students’ misunderstanding of the full opportunities this exam can unlock. It’s important for schools and families to encourage eligible juniors to take the exam,” said Tyler Nunley, director of the National Scholars Program at OU. “Oklahoma students will find that being a part of the National Merit competition opens incredible doors in the way of financial affordability for college.”

OU offers National Merit Finalists a scholarship package of $64,000 that includes tuition waivers, technology/textbook stipends, cash funding and study abroad/research stipends.

Now some Oklahoma juniors can even take the PSAT for free. The College Board fee-waiver service assists qualified, economically disadvantaged students who plan to take the SAT, PSAT/NMSQT or AP exams. School counselors and testing coordinators must initiate the request for fee waivers and can find more information at the College Board website: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/psat-nmsqt-psat-10/k12-educators/requesting-fee-waivers.

“The PSAT exam is an equalizer for students who want to go to college but may not have all the economic advantages or geographic connections as other students,” said Kristin Atchley, executive director of counseling for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. “With access to fee waivers, many students who would never be able to afford college can earn a full ride to a number of incredible universities in Oklahoma as well as all over the country, and school counselors can help students break through that financial ceiling.”

High-quality assessments like the PSAT/NMSQT are part of OSDE’s 8-year Strategic Plan, Oklahoma Edge, as they enable educators to meaningfully use data to increase student learning. In addition, the plan supports opportunities for no-cost testing to reduce barriers to equity and close the opportunity and achievement gap for all students.

Serious work ethic

Just down the road from Burns Flat, Weatherford High School’s Bud Lamke has seen it all since he began teaching 51 years ago, and he predicts great things in store for Jackson Li, another of Oklahoma’s 2018 National Merit Finalists. Lamke said Jackson’s well-rounded interests and incredible work ethic set him apart from his peers.

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“Jackson is one of those kids that whatever he does, he wants to do well,” Lamke said. “That’s the way Jackson is, hard work. He’s just committed to his hard work ethic.”

With neuroscience on his mind, Jackson has narrowed down his collegiate choices to OU, Duke, Johns Hopkins and Harvard. He’s active in robotics and is taking AP Calculus and AP Physics to prepare for medical school. But when asked about the teacher who has made a profound impact, he cites Lamke, the school’s band director who pushes his students to be “mountain climbers” in their music and in their studies.

Lamke first met Jackson when the boy would loiter outside his room, waiting for friends. 

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“I said, ‘Jackson, you’ve been hanging around my band room so long, I’m going to have to start charging you rent unless you want to become a band member,’” said Lamke, who offered to teach him how to play an instrument during lessons after school. Jackson accepted, and now in his senior year, he is part of the marching and jazz bands, and thrives on improvisation and solo work on the tenor saxophone.

Jackson said Lamke has helped him develop a love for music, which has aided him in other classes as well.

His favorite piece is a John Philip Sousa march that the band tabled in the fall because it was too challenging. Jackson said he wants to take it to contest this spring.

“Jackson is determined,” said assistant principal Stuart Purintun. “He is successful at whatever he does because he puts his mind to it and strives to be successful. He just has a hard-working attitude and sticks to it.”

After serving three generations at Weatherford, both as a teacher and principal, Lamke is emotional when he talks about retiring at the end of the school year.

“Kids like Jackson make you want to stay with it as long as you can. I don’t think he’ll ever not be able to do what he wants because he’s just got that type of attitude about things,” Lamke said.

 

 

 

 

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Annette Price is communications and constituent services specialist at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

PHOTOS: Ryne Garrison is Burns Flat-Dill City High School’s first-ever National Merit Finalist.

National Merit Finalist Jackson Li plays tenor sax at Weatherford High School. He wants to be a neurosurgeon, but he credits his band director, Bud Lamke, as having the biggest impact on him in school.

Weatherford band director Bud Lamke says students like National Merit Finalist Jackson Li are a big reason why he’s been in education for 51 years.

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Last updated on March 14, 2018