Published Online: December 5, 2006
Published in Print: December 6, 2006, as Math, Science Academies Favored To Challenge Top-Tier Students

Math, Science Academies Favored to Challenge Top-Tier Students

Funders see graduates as helping U.S. stay competitive.

Yearlong research projects. Courses in quantum mechanics and vector calculus. Laboratory projects guided by faculty members with doctoral degrees and uniformly high expectations.

Those are staples of the college experience for many students majoring in mathematics, science, and engineering. But such demands are also the norm at a particular brand of high school around the country: math and science academies, which offer students with superior talent in those subjects a demanding, highly concentrated academic environment.

In states and school districts nationwide, elected officials and business and philanthropic leaders are supporting the founding of specialized academies in math and science, aimed at serving students for whom even a rigorous high school lineup of college-preparatory and honors courses is not enough.

Math and science academies have been a fixture in states and school districts for decades. But they are drawing renewed interest as educators and elected officials search for ways to cultivate top-tier academic talent—students who they believe will eventually become pioneers in research and industry and help maintain the United States’ economic prominence in science, engineering, and technology.

Currently, at least 95 public high schools, serving about 37,000 students, have a special focus on math, science, and technology, and that enrollment is growing, according to a consortium that assists them. Thirteen of the programs are residential high schools, most of them supported by states. Four more residential programs are in the works.

Some schools, such as those in Illinois and North Carolina, operate as stand-alones, with their own campuses and classrooms. Others, such as those in Missouri and Texas, are located on college campuses, where high school students take a full complement of postsecondary courses alongside undergraduates. Still others serve students part time, allowing them to attend home high schools for a portion of the day.

High Standard

“Schools like this are created for a selfish reason—you want to keep the brain trust in state,” said Janet E. Hugo, the director of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts, a two-year residential school that opened in 1993.

Today’s Academies, Tomorrow’s Scientists?

Specialized schools with math, science, and technology themes are becoming more popular. A few programs, with different approaches, are:

Central Virginia Governor's School
• Location: Lynchburg
• Year established: 1985
Nonresidential school with 108 juniors and seniors. Students attend part time, then return to home schools. One of 18 Virginia governor's schools that operate during the academic year.

Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
• Location: Aurora
• Year established: 1985
Residential school serving 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. Average amount of staff's teaching experience is 21 years; 47 percent of faculty members hold a doctoral degree.

Missouri Academy of Mathematics, Science, and Computing
• Location: Maryville
• Year established: 2000
Residential school of 105 juniors and seniors, located on campus of Northwest Missouri State University. Students take college courses alongside undergraduates.

North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics
• Location: Durham
• Year established: 1980
Residential school with 637 students. Believed to be the first residential public math and science academy in the country. Served as model for other schools.

Their proliferation, Ms. Hugo said, is a response to declining numbers of college graduates with science, math, and engineering majors. “People in the business world are realizing that we’re going to have to ratchet up in this area,” she said.

Some, though not all, academies and specialized schools have selective admissions. They are overseen by states, districts, or regional consortia, and some are charter or magnet programs, said Cheryl A. Lindeman, the executive director of the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools, in Lynchburg, Va.

The Arkansas school, housed partly in a converted hospital in Hot Springs, serves about 250 juniors and seniors and has 27 full-time faculty members. Students follow a demanding curriculum, and take electives in robotics, organic chemistry, biomedical physics, and multivariable calculus.

The school receives about $6 million annually in state funding, along with private contributions. Like many state-run academies, it also offers services to students and teachers outside its campus. The school provides online courses to students across Arkansas, many of them in rural or other remote schools. It also hosts regular training workshops for teachers seeking to improve their math and science skills.

Bolstering school performance in math and science has become a national rallying cry among federal officials and business executives. Although much of that interest focuses on raising achievement among the population at large, a movement also is under way to provide more targeted opportunities for high achievers who could later seek postgraduate degrees in math and science and drive research and entrepreneurship. ("Advocates Urge Bush to Boost Federal Role in Math and Science," Jan. 25, 2006.)

That line of thinking was evident in an influential congressionally chartered report issued last year, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which touted specialized math and science high schools as a strategy for helping top-tier students.

In addition, a bipartisan bill sponsored by incoming U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would establish competitive grants to support specialty schools in math, science, and engineering. While that proposal is unlikely to pass in the waning days of the lame-duck Congress, the Nevada Democrat will pursue it again in the next Congress, a spokesman said.

How Elite?

For many students and families, the benefits of attending a specialized math and science school are obvious. The Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science gets about 400 applications a year, and it can accept only about half those students, said its dean, Richard J. Sinclair.

Applicants must take the SAT. (The average score on the former version of that college-entrance test was 1300, out of 1600.) They must also submit high school transcripts and letters of recommendation, and sit for an interview with academy officials.

The school, which receives $4 million a year in state aid, recruits across Texas. Students attend school on the campus of North Texas University, in Denton, as juniors and seniors, taking only college classes. They graduate with high school diplomas and associate’s degrees from the university. Costs to students, mostly room and board, run about $7,000 a year. Financial aid is available.

The elite nature of some academies leads critics to question whether state money might be better spent elsewhere. Some Kansas legislators objected to a decision last year to establish an academy for 40 students, pending the state’s ability to finance it.

State Rep. Ed Trimmer questioned arguments put forward by academy backers, who said it would help Kansas’ economy by producing students with skills in science and engineering.

State lawmakers are constantly saying, “We don’t have the funding—but we have enough funding to create specialty schools?” Mr. Trimmer, a Democrat, said in an interview. “I’m not opposed to improving math and science education, but I’d like to widen it to a broader range of kids.”

But supporters of such academies believe they can broaden a state’s talent pool. Three-fourths of the Arkansas academy’s graduates end up choosing math, science, technology, and engineering majors in college; roughly 70 percent attend in-state universities, Ms. Hugo said. Other academies’ directors report similarly high percentages of students staying in state, though they also gain admission to top-notch campuses nationwide, as is the case with the Arkansas students, she said.

Many Backgrounds

The backgrounds of students who attend math and science academies, even selective ones, can vary enormously. At the Arkansas academy, the vast majority come from low-income backgrounds, and roughly 30 percent of its juniors are minority members, Ms. Hugo said. At the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, only one-quarter of the students are eligible for financial aid, Mr. Sinclair said. About 50 percent are Asian-American; Hispanics make up 10 percent, and black, white, and other racial or ethnic groups make up the rest.

“Many of their parents have graduate degrees,” he said.

Some advocates are taking steps to give underprivileged students access to specialty schools. The National Academy Foundation, a New York City nonprofit group that promotes career-themed schools around the country, plans to open engineering academies in more than 100 urban areas in the years ahead, said Gregg B. Bethiel, its senior vice president.

The enterprise, which is being supported by private industries, will target many schools in high-poverty areas.

“We’re going to need to develop a diverse cadre of graduates who are ready to go into these professions,” Mr. Bethiel said, “and for us, many of those students are found in urban centers.”

One student who was able to attend the Texas academy through financial aid was Jemma Alarcõn, who spent most of her childhood in Mexico before moving to the United States in high school.

She spoke limited English when she left Mexico, but had strong math and science skills, scoring 620, out of 800, on the math portion of the SAT as a high school sophomore. Those skills prompted her to apply to the academy.

At first, Ms. Alarcõn worried about moving to Denton, a nine-hour drive from her family’s home. She recalled once having to stay with a host family near campus, because she couldn’t afford to travel home during a break.

But Ms. Alarcõn quickly adjusted to academy life. She bonded with other students. She took music lessons, in the viola, from the college. And she immersed herself in undergraduate courses in biology, calculus, English, and political science.

“It opened up my eyes,” said Ms. Alarcõn, now a 20-year-old public-health major at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Without the academy, she said, “I don’t think I would have gotten interested in genetics, or gone to a research university. … It showed me a different window to the world.”

PHOTO: Missouri Academy students hang out in a commons area in Cooper Hall on the Northwest Missouri State University campus. They're eligible to earn a high school diploma and an associate's degree.
—File Photo by Orlin Wagner/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 14, Pages 1,18

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