“When I first stepped into Ricky Thacker’s classroom, I was surprised by how unusual it looks,” entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates wrote in a blog Tuesday about his November visit to Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County. “There are no desks. White boards hang from every wall. The entire room is painted bright orange and yellow, like candy corn.
“Ricky stood in the middle of the room, calling out coordinates on a giant x-y axis he had taped to the floor as students rushed around him from quadrant to quadrant,” Gates wrote about the 30-year-old son of a coal miner who has taught at Betsy Layne for nine years. “Ricky’s enthusiasm inspired everyone else in the room. No one was sitting down. Everyone was engaged, including me.”
Gates said he and his wife Melinda visited Thacker’s classroom in a state “where schools have been making some amazing progress.”
Since 2011, ACT scores have been going up. Kentucky’s graduation rate has risen from 80 percent to 86 percent since 2010, well above the national average of 81 percent.
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During the last 10 years, students from Floyd County have outperformed many of their peers across the state and country, Gates said.
He noted that the county was ranked 12th among the state’s 173 public school districts based on academic performance, up from 145th in 2005. ACT scores continue to improve. And Floyd County’s graduation rate now tops 91 percent, 10 points higher than the national average, Gates said.
Gates, 60, is the richest man in the world, Forbes magazine said last year. The magazine’s website said his net worth is more than $79 billion. The couple’s foundation, based in Seattle, supports education and other initiatives on a global scale. Floyd County school officials said in November that his visit was a surprise. News media were not notified of the visit beforehand.
In an interview Wednesday, Thacker told the Herald-Leader, “Mr. Gates was a phenomenal individual” who “was very intrigued by our school.”
He said Gates expressed interest in students and in how the school has made academic strides.
Thacker said he told Gates about how he had redesigned his classroom by removing traditional desks.
“I made it more student centered” so they can work in groups, Thacker said.
“I’m just trying to help our students,” he said. “Any changes we can make in our classrooms, if it benefits our students, we will try that.”
Gates wrote that a highlight of the trip was having lunch with students.
“Over pepperoni pizza and soda, we talked about what it’s like to grow up in Eastern Kentucky and what their plans are for the future. One of the students we met was Lakeisha Crum. She’s a senior at the high school. A stellar student and volleyball player, LaKeisha will be the first person in her family to go to college,” he said.
LaKeisha, 17, told the Herald-Leader on Wednesday that the couple asked in-depth questions about what their teachers did to make them successful.
“He seemed like he cared a lot,” she said.
Melinda Gates, she said, “was an amazing woman.”
“She cared a lot about education,” LaKeisha said.
Gates wrote of his visit: “Being a teenager is an exciting time in everyone’s life. It can also be quite hard. (I know. I’m the father of three of them, and a former teenager myself.) You’re just starting to figure out who you are and what you want to do with your life.
“For decades in Eastern Kentucky, the coal mines provided young people with answers to those questions. The pay was good. Work was steady. You could stay close to home, raise a family and build a career.
“But the collapse of the coal industry left behind a giant void. Now, many students are filling it with education. Instead of going to the mines, they are going to college.”
During the visit, students also interviewed Bill and Melinda Gates in rapid-fire fashion, asking them questions such as, “What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?”
Bill Gates likes Cocoa Puffs. Melinda Gates likes Wheat Chex.
What actors would they like to portray them in a biographical movie?
Matt Damon and Sandra Bullock.
Did they know about the popular dance whip/nae nae?
Melinda Gates said their 13-year-old daughter tried to teach her the dance but was not impressed with the results.
Gates said in the blog that Thacker was one of several innovative teachers at the school.
“During our visit, Melinda and I never spotted a teacher just standing in front of the class lecturing while the students just sat and listened. Instead, students were the ones doing the most work. They were actively engaged, sharing their ideas, solving problems and, as a result, learning. Weeks after my visit, I still remember all the lessons vividly,” he wrote.
Gates noted that Floyd County educators remain humble about what they’ve achieved.
“‘We’re a diamond in the rough,’ Thacker likes to say of his school. Maybe at one time that was true. But no longer. As an example for other schools to follow, it shines brightly.”