40 Years of Excellence: ESU 11's nationally-recognized Summer Honors celebrates milestone

40 Years of Excellence: ESU 11's nationally-recognized Summer Honors celebrates milestone


NCSA Communications Specialist

The brightest high school minds in South Central Nebraska, ESU 11’s 129 Summer Honors Program students radiate with potential.

They’re smart, some sensationally so. Their brilliance is somewhat untapped, the full spectrum of a high school curriculum comfortably mastered. They’re pleasant, covered in smiles as they shuffle down the hallways of Holdrege High School on a Friday morning.

And while they will go on to accomplish wonderful things, sugar-ridden breakfast pastries and refreshments are their next salvation.

The Holdrege Chamber of Commerce hosted “Coffee A.M.” at the high school, the site of the 40th consecutive Summer Honors Program, one of the best-kept secrets in Nebraska education. Members from the community, some of which serve as hosts for out-of-town students, mingle with the most gifted learners from ESU 11’s 13 school districts.

“It is neat to see the kids mingling with the community,” said Janelle Jack, an ESU 11 board member for four years and a parent of two former Summer Honors alums. “That’s what keeps a small town going, everyone working together.”

Out of the 129 participants, 89 will stay with host families throughout the Holdrege community, which has embraced the nationally-recognized program.

“We can’t thank the community enough for all the housing opportunities, but also how they support the program in so many other ways,” said Dr. Paul Tedesco, serving his final day as ESU 11 Administrator after six years in the position. “If we’ve ever needed anything, all we’ve needed to do is ask, and they’ll find out who has some abilities to bring that to the forefront and to help out.”

A career in school administration preceded Tedesco’s move to ESU 11 in 2011, so when he talks about the Summer Honors Program, about the gifted students and brilliant instructors, some who have been coming for a long, long time, his words carry weight.

Sometimes, gifted learners can unfortunately fall by the wayside. It’s not a slight to the area’s public schools. These kids are just that smart. Their capabilities extend to the far reaches of science and creativity, far beyond curriculum.

“Some of these kids are super, super exceptional,” said David Fleischmann, ESU 11 President and a board member for the better part of the last decade. “This particular function allows them to be them, and they are able to find out who they really because they are around other individuals that are just like them.”

Fleischmann, like Tedesco, came to ESU 11 after working several years in schools. He taught business and computer tech at Alma High School, and says there is no competition between the students, no matter if they’re from Bertrand, Elwood or Eustis-Farnam.

“They compete to better themselves, and their team or small group, as they go on,” Fleischmann points out. “It is definitely unique.”

The selection process is a grueling one. Teachers from the 13 schools nominated nearly 600 students this year, for example.

Grant Alberts graduated from Minden in May, and a month later started his fifth consecutive Summer Honors Program. He will head to Morningside in the fall and has his sights set on a career in computer science. Unfortunately, his high school doesn’t offer a wide array of courses in that subject, making those five Junes spent in Holdrege that much more beneficial.

Alberts considers his instructor a friend, as well as all of the Summer Honors organizers.

“They know me well and we joke around together,” Alberts, who carries a genuine appreciation for the opportunity, said. “Our ESU really seems to want to take care of its students, and you can really feel that with programs like Summer Honors.”

The service unit is constantly working on ways to keep the Summer Honors train chugging along. Planning is a year-round process, as is finding volunteer host families. Nobody knows that better than Tim Burke, who directed this decorated program for 27 years.

“This program, it just runs,” said Burke, four years removed from Summer Honors but still a friendly and recognizable face at events like “Coffee A.M”. “It is so popular and the kids support it so well, that it can’t help but to continue to run. And there are great instructors that come back year after year after year.”

The instructors build the same kinds of bonds that the students do. Summer Honors become a part of their lives. They don’t have to be teachers necessarily, just experts in their respective field with gifted minds of their own.

“I think the instructors look forward to it because they have such a comradery among themselves,” said Susan Perry, an ESU 11 board member since 2003. “They really look forward to being around one another. They usually go out to eat and do different activities like that.”

Burke remembers his first program in 1987, when the creative writing class rented two type writers from Eakes in Kearney and the Apple’s looked more like Igloo coolers than computers. He’s interrupted from his short trip down memory lane by a hug from a former student. He keeps tabs on the program, and how it’s doing. Not that he has any say anymore, he jokes. The same way he keeps tabs on former students. Like the one who just hugged him, now a program instructor

“You don’t hear all of the stories out there, but I get goosebumps thinking about some of the students that now have big stories to tell,” Burke said. “This program is a well-kept secret. I tried not to make it a secret. I went out and talked about it, but it’s just one of those programs that is hard to replicate.”

The program started in 1977 with a federal grant, which ended two years later. ESU 11 picked up a majority of the expenses 38 years ago. The fee is still manageable at $175 per student. A small price to pay considering the high-level coursework offered.

In Doug Walters’ classroom, for example, students spent Friday morning interviewing author Anthony J. Marchese about his book, “Design”, through a live video stream. Walters, by the way, has been an instructor in Summer Honors since the start, a remarkable run of involvement that will end with the 2017 program.

It’s a worthwhile investment. All of ESU 11’s members on hand are quick to attest to that.

“It’s phenomenally important for the board to make these types of investments in our students,” Jack said. “For an individual school, they wouldn’t have the money or the manpower to support a program like this on their own. But by working together, we are able to bring this wonderful program to these kids.”

“Every single one of these kids are touched by this program,” Fleischmann said. “They want to give back, and they will. It will go on and on. It’s like they’ve built a community amongst themselves. You can see it as you just open your eyes and watch them grow. It’s just remarkable.”

They are the leaders of tomorrow. Their stories, while sure to be fascinating, have yet to be written. Wherever they go, they’ll have a board at ESU 11 cheering them on.

For now, they are the 40th chapter of another story.

The timeless tale of ESU 11’s Summer Honors Program.