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Louisiana's School for Math, Science, and he Arts: 'A Happy Kind of Exhaustion' for the Participants

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Natchitoches, La--Earl Taylor was a 10th-grade pupil in a high school in Baton Rouge, La., last year when rumors began circulating that the state was going to establish a special boarding school for gifted students.

Reading newspaper articles about plans for the school--which noted that it was scheduled to open in the fall of 1983--further piqued his interest. He began calling around--first to the local school board, then to the Louisiana Department of Education. He was, he says, the only one of the 23 students in his school's gifted and talented program who was interested in the new school.

The interest in Mr. Taylor's school may have been modest, but statewide, 3,000 of Louisiana's 70,000 10th graders thought they might want to attend the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. Seven-hundred eighty of them completed the rigorous application process, which includes taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test, writing an essay, and being scrutinized for about 18 qualities, such as leadership and motivation.

This fall, the 207 students chosen to attend the school--Earl Taylor among them--reported here to the campus of Northwestern State University, where the school is housed in a revamped dormitory pending renovation of a former high school, which will house the classrooms and offices. They represent most of Louisiana's 60-odd parishes, or counties; about 20 are members of minority groups.

Busy and Demanding

As anticipated, the first two months of school have been busy and demanding for everyone involved. But as both students and staff members settle into what is intended to be a rigorous routine, they say they are confident that the school will indeed meet its stated goals.

"The basic underlying philosophy was that we would provide a setting that was not available in their local school system," said Robert Alost, the director of the school, who was formerly the dean of the education school at Northwestern State. "The residential system is really quite different. These students are immersed in school, seven days a week, 24 hours a day."

"What we really shot for," Mr. Alost adds, "is a very positive, happy atmosphere where learning could take place, where teachers are contemporaries. I believe we've succeeded with that."

The students, who major in either science and mathematics or the arts, have embarked on intensive programs intended to provide them with a thorough grounding in their chosen fields as well as a solid general education. The students who major in mathematics and science are not required to take classes in the arts, although many participate in the performing arts as a hobby.

By the time they graduate, they will have completed four years of mathematics, four years of English, three years of science, and three years of social studies, plus electives. Students who are majoring in the arts are not required to take as many mathematics and science courses and because their field requires longer stretches of studio or practice time, those students also have fewer electives.

The Louisiana school is the second public residential high school in the U.S. set up specifically to offer intensive coursework in science and mathematics to students accepted on a statewide basis. It is the first to offer a residential arts program for high-school students at the same site.

"We have to be more than a good high school," says Richard Brown, chairman of the humanities department. "There are good high schools in Louisiana. If we're not more than a good high school, we don't need to exist."

The belief that such schools do need to exist is becoming increasingly widespread. North Carolina was the first state to establish residential high schools for academically and artistically talented students, and officials in that state, as well as in Louisiana, report that they receive many inquiries from other states that are considering following suit.

But as faculty members in Louisiana point out, establishing such a school is not a task to be taken lightly. It requires an enormous amount of planning and a considerable amount of money as well, they say.

The Louisiana school has an operating budget of $1.6 million for its first year, with an additional $7.5 million for renovation. School officials stress that they will add to, subtract from, or modify any aspect of the program that seems in need of change.

"We're in the development process and will be for a number of years," Mr. Alost says. "One of the unique things about this school is that nothing is chiseled in stone."

"It's an exhausting thing in terms of the time that's put in, but it's a happy kind of exhaustion," the director says. "I've never done anything in my life that's as much fun as this."

Notes Mr. Taylor: "We're learning, and they're learning."

Early Planning

The idea for the school began to take shape in 1980, when Mr. Alost and Jimmy Long, a state representative from Natchitoches, heard a presentation on the North Carolina school at a meeting of the Southern Regional Education Board. The legislator offered to introduce the bill at the next session of the legislature, Mr. Alost says, if he would write the proposal, which he agreed to do. The ensuing proposal was approved by Gov. David C. Treen. In 1981, the legislature passed a bill establishing the school, and in its 1982 session approved the funding.

Natchitoches was chosen as the site for the school both because declining enrollment had left several dormitories at the state university empty and because the local school board agreed to donate a vacant high school to house classrooms and administrative offices. The declining enrollment also left the university's new center for the performing arts underused, which gave planners an additional reason to locate the two programs in the same school.

With that framework established, Mr. Alost, who was named director, began to work on developing a program, hiring a faculty, and recruiting students.

One key element of the planning, Mr. Alost says, was soliciting the support of local administrators and principals. Initially, the planners had to contend with the criticism often leveled at programs for gifted students--that they skim off the best students, leaving local schools with average or below-average pupils.

"That argument kind of went out the window when they saw how few students would be involved," Mr. Alost says. "Out of 70,000 statewide, 207 is not much of a dent."

The following school year, 1982-83, Mr. Alost and others began interviewing applicants for teaching positions and making sure that all 10th-grade pupils knew that they could apply to attend the new school in their junior year. That process, which involved working with local school officials as well as with newspapers and education groups, yielded about 3,000 candidates.

The announcement that teaching positions would be available at the new school brought a proportionately large and enthusiastic response. About 1,400 applicants responded to the advertisements and announcements sent to universities and published in professional journals.

The applicants were required to have at least a master's degree in their field. "The strong emphasis is on subject-matter areas," Mr. Alost says, noting that many of those hired held doctorates. Equally important for candidates, Mr. Alost says, was a strong personal commitment to their work. Evening tutorials are part of the job, and because the pupils are away from their families, teachers find themselves standing in occasionally for parents.

"The thing we looked for most is the hardest to identify," Mr. Alost said. "Could they adapt to working with these high-school students?"

The teachers do not have the job security afforded most of their counterparts in other public-school settings. "No teacher at this school has tenure," notes Mr. Alost. All were given one-year contracts at first, a practice that school officials plan to continue for at least five years. After that, the contracts may be extended to three years, and eventually to five. The average salary for teachers is $23,300 annually, an amount comparable to college and university faculty salaries in the region.

Many faculty members cite the freedom to teach or work in an atmosphere "not bound by a lot of restrictions," as one faculty member puts it, as the factor that drew them to the job. Many also link their interest to the chance to build, more or less from scratch, a high-quality program. Most say they are undisturbed by the absence of tenure and note that at least there is not likely to be any "dead wood" on the faculty.

"I came here because I believed there was an opportunity to build a program committed to excellence in science education, and a program that had the resources to do the job," says Eugene Mosca, head of the science department and until this year a physics professor at the University of South Dakota.

Mr. Mosca and others also praise the willingness of the school's administrators to involve teachers in the planning and development of programs. "Two days before I came for my interview, there had been a hurricane and hail storm. The building was torn apart for construction. It was enough to turn anybody back," says Horace Butler, a mathematics teacher who came from a public school in South Carolina. "But there was a cohesion. They said 'our program,' not 'my program."'

Adjusting to the Demands

With maintenance and construction workers still tidying up the revamped dormitory that holds offices, classrooms, and living quarters, an aura of newness hangs over the school. But students and staff members alike say they are gradually adjusting to the demands of the situation.

"They've come together as a very cohesive group in a very short period," Mr. Alost says of the students, adding that he suspects the unrelenting public attention has fostered a sense of community among them. "There are so many people looking at these youngsters that they kind of sense they're in a glass bowl. But they're really responding well to the rigorous situation they're in."

The demands placed on students are both academic and psychological. They are required to take six courses but many are taking more, and each hour in class is generally accompanied by an hour of homework. About half of the students are involved in the performing arts as a hobby. Many participate in the school's extensive intramural and fitness programs. They also have assigned work tasks on campus, such as helping to serve meals, and are required to do community-service work in Natchitoches.

For most, these responsibilities must be carried in the context of living away from home for the first time, without the support of friends and family. And academically, many are facing far stiffer competition than they had at home.

"From the beginning of the admissions process, we really try to get them to understand it's a serious commitment," says Lynda Tabor, the director of admissions. "We undersell the program. We try to emphasize how difficult it is."

Underlying the instruction at the school is the belief that students should work at their own pace. "Most curricula are based on chair time, the amount of time a student has to sit there and do it," Mr. Alost says. "This program is based on mastery of content, and we don't care if it takes you two weeks or two years."

The school also offers students a chance to explore topics that they might never encounter again and gives teachers a chance to put to use their own philosophies of in-struction. "In terms of building curricula, it's a chance to try your hand," says Lloyd Richardson, the chairman of the mathematics department and a former associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Mr. Richardson, for example, does not favor the "straight acceleration" approach used in some programs for gifted students. "Here, you have the opportunity to provide acceleration and to step back and give them breadth in areas they may never touch in college."

Because of this philosophy, faculty members have spent considerable time finding the right level for each student in each subject. For example, courses labeled French III may vary from school to school, so it was not safe to assume that all the students who had completed that course at their home high schools could be placed in French IV, according to Mr. Brown of the humanities department.

Some students have skipped through several courses, as they demonstrated their mastery of each successive level. One student started out in an algebra class, moved to precalculus, which he also found overly familiar, and finally settled into calculus. "The scary part," one teacher says, "is that he could come back and say, 'This is boring."'

Not all students are equally advanced or able, but overall, the teachers say they are academically well prepared in most areas. In the humanities, many are unaccustomed to taking the essay tests that Mr. Brown says will be used almost exclusively. They have not had to write a great deal, and although the English teachers say the pupils are well grounded in the mechanics of grammar, they are still mastering such skills as developing a theme.

The teachers, in response, are trying to convey the notion that these skills require time. "Learning to read better and write better means to labor and labor," says Virginia Wray, an English teacher who taught in college before coming to Louisiana and who likens the students' difficulties to those experienced by college freshmen.

"We're looking for a synthesis of ideas," says James Findley, a history teacher who practiced law before changing careers. "They're not used to being asked for their ideas."

Learning to deal with the many demands on their time is viewed by school officials as one of the students' most urgent tasks. Equally important is learning to understand their own limitations; teachers say that some students, judging courses by the less demanding standards of their local schools, overestimated the number they could manage.

"I think time management is the area we're working hardest on," Mr. Alost says. "Because of their great interests, they haven't set priorities. They have more homework than they had. It's the same problem that confronts college freshmen."

Faculty members also point out that the students' eagerness to learn about a wide range of subjects makes them impatient. "The problem I am having is that they want to learn everything at once," Ms. Wray says.

In many cases, too, the students are confronting for the first time the need to work hard to succeed. "They've never had to study before,'' notes Martha Kay Talbert, a mathematics teacher who taught in the Natchitoches high school. "They've been able to 'wing it' 99 percent of the time."

The school's counselors, who are working on the problem of time management, say that many students find that they can budget their time once they make an effort to do so. "When we asked them to monitor their time, they said, 'Why, I didn't do anything today.' We tried to get them to see that any plan takes a lot of effort," says Terry Johnson, a counselor.

High Quality of Teachers

The students acknowledge that they find the workload heavy and are still unaccustomed to planning their own use of time. But they say that the high quality of the teachers and the ability to move at their own pace offset the problems.

"We learn a lot faster and we learn a lot more," says Suzie Meshell, who comes from Zwolle High School in Sabine Parish.

"It's difficult, to say the least," says Michael McCoy, formerly a student at Airline High School in Bossier City. "It's not only hard, there's so much of it." Mr. McCoy, who plans to major in music, says his biggest problem is finding adequate time for practicing and studying. The instruction in music, however, has been "awesome," Mr. McCoy says.

"It's a much better curriculum. Most of the courses that are offered here I would never have expected to have at home," says Elizabeth Pellegrin, who came to the school from Vandebilt Catholic High School in Houma, La. "When I was at school at home, you went out for things. You never studied or anything. The only reason you had school was for the social life."

Although they find the workload, at times, almost overwhelming, the students are enthusiastic about their teachers. "The teachers are most cool," says Mr. Taylor. "They're tops in their fields and they're in touch with the students."

The students' main complaint is the absence of a normal high-school social life--which, they are quick to add, they were warned about in advance. They miss the privacy they had at home, and some complain that they have to study so much that they have no time for sleep. They are also markedly unenthusiastic about the food.

But they still like it. "If the good points didn't outweigh the bad, I'd be long gone," one student says.

With the arrival of another class of 11th graders next year, enrollment will expand to 700. Faculty members say they will probably modify curricula further as they see how much progress the students make this year and what the needs of the new class are.

The students, however, are thinking much farther ahead than that. Mr. Alost tells of driving back from a presentation that he and three students gave in a nearby community. The students asked him whether they could get some advice on how best to plan their 20th class reunion.

"They think ahead," he says. "They do think ahead."

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