Education Commentary

Public Boarding Schools for Gifted Deserve Support

By Pearl Rock Kane — April 26, 1989 7 min read

It is hard to understand why proposals for public boarding schools for high-school students gifted in mathematics and science continue in many states to encounter vociferous opposition--or even mild indifference.

Already in place in six states--Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas--such schools have been quietly going about their business with major success. Given the unsettling reports and staggering statistics about the deficiencies of American education in mathematics and science, the nation sorely needs schools that nurture talents in these fields. And these programs also hold the promise of improving the quality of teaching and learning for all children. The movement toward state boarding schools for mathematics and science deserves our full support.

Opponents of the schools charge that they could drain academic and social leaders from local high schools, that they would be elitist, and that they would cost too much. But the experience of the existing schools indicates that these objections are ill-founded.

The public boarding schools appear to draw primarily students who are isolated in their local schools, not high achievers and social leaders. Gifted students are interested in esoteric matters that don’t interest their peers; some choose to camouflage or deprecate their abilities rather than reveal their knowledge and suffer the social consequences.

Braughn Taylor, deputy director of North Carolina’s School of Science and Mathematics, says that when he asks graduating seniors what they gained from their school experience, “they don’t talk about physics and calculus; they say they learned to get along with other people.”

School officials claim that students become more verbal and socially adept--skills necessary for job success. While a great deal of attention has been paid to the ability of the Japanese to produce high-quality technological products, it is in the social sphere that the Japanese have made their most important contribution to industrial development: They have introduced new ways of making decisions and building consensus in organizations. The boarding-school environment fosters the growth of these skills.

The schools hardly perpetuate an elitist attitude. Students accustomed to earning A’s with minimal effort in their local schools find that B’s and C’s are commonplace; those who never had to study before find they must cultivate good work habits and budget their time. Patrick McWilliams, head of the English department at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, says, “We’re a remedial school for gifted youngsters.”

The schools also break down elitism by involving students in service activities. In North Carolina and Illinois, students must spend three or four hours a week on such tasks as working on the grounds, serving meals in the cafeteria, or shelving books in the library.

And ability to pay does not influence eligibility for state-funded residential schools as it does for private boarding schools. Selection is based solely on academic ability, and officials say that some students need financial aid just to have adequate funds for transportation and spending money.

Fear that districts with a record of high achievement will lose their best students to these schools has proven to be unfounded. Students in the wealthier school districts that offer advanced courses in math and science have fewer incentives for leaving.

In fact, most students in the special schools come from either small, rural districts or large, urban areas where resources are limited. These poorer districts cannot cater to the needs of one or two youngsters with special talents. Many of the young people in the residential schools have exhausted all math and science courses available locally, but are not socially ready to attend college.

Recruitment almost guarantees fair representation. Illinois limits the number of participants from each district; the current student body represents more than 100 districts in the state. To ensure a diverse population, the Illinois school has set up a recruitment center in Chicago’s inner city. In North Carolina, students represent each Congressional district and reflect the state’s ethnic population.

Another misconception about the residential schools, according to their administrators, is the notion that they take money away from the local school districts. In fact, funding comes directly from the state legislature. But the schools also receive financial support from private foundations and industry.

Parents have been generous with their support as well. In North Carolina, parents sponsor all athletic and social activities; last year, 83 percent of the parent body contributed.

If the allocations for the special schools were instead distributed throughout the state, the funds would not be sufficient to support programs in each school. The most economical way to educate youngsters gifted in mathematics and science is to bring them to one location.

Officials also say regular schools would not attract such unusually talented faculties. The special schools have drawn teachers with unconventional backgrounds--computer experts, actuaries, and scientists, many with Ph.D.'s. Even with funding, a national shortage of math and science teachers would preclude the necessary staffing in most districts.

Courses that are rarely available at the high-school level--for example, organic chemistry, molecular biology, and mathematical modeling--are standard fare at most special schools, where four years of study in science and mathematics are typically required for graduation. Students may win exemption from courses by taking examinations, and those who want to complete a course at their own pace and style may pursue individualized study options. Independent study is also available for students wishing to explore a topic not offered in the curriculum.

Through mentorship programs--another feature of special-school curricula--upper-level students can choose to spend a year participating in the work of professional researchers at area universities and industries.

Like our finest private schools, the public boarding schools provide the advantages of a total academic community. Opportunities for fostering social and moral development are numerous. Saturday classes and evening seminars allow more extensive use of the facilities.

These schools also provide optimal sites for improving curriculum and methodology for the general school population. Approximately 4,000 teachers have participated in workshops at the North Carolina school during the last 7 years. To encourage the teaching of physics, the school even lends equipment to other schools in the state. In Illinois, the school philosophy includes a dual commitment to nurturing student talent and serving as a laboratory for developing, testing, and disseminating innovative techniques for secondary-school teachers.

The recent report of the College Board’s task force on curriculum reform and instructional strategies recommends the establishment of research and development centers to help improve mathematics and science education. With their experienced, broadly trained faculties, public boarding schools would make ideal locations for these centers.

The belief that curricula for the gifted students are inappropriate for regular students is erroneous; challenging material that emphasizes higher levels of thinking is good for all.

The students currently enrolled in public boarding schools are achieving impressive results. Of the 170 students who make up the Illinois school’s first graduating class this year, 56 are semifinalists in the National Merit Scholarship program--the highest number for any school in the state. At the North Carolina school, 42 percent of the current seniors are National Merit semifinalists, placing that school at the top of the state. Performance on the verbal as well as the mathematical sections of the Scholastic Aptitude Test is equally strong, with the average scores exceeding national norms by 150 to 200 points for both schools.

Perhaps most impressive is the number of students who continue their study of mathematics and science beyond high school. Eighty-two percent of the 1983 graduates of the North Carolina school majored in mathematics, science, or technology in college, and of those who went on to graduate school, over 80 percent are pursuing advanced studies in these fields.

Providing programs for gifted young people is a source of discomfort for those who think equality means the same education for all. As the gifted-and-talented educator James Gallagher has observed, society likes the products of gifted people but doesn’t like them. Historically, our nation has supported the nurturing of special talents only when there was an urgent need to do so.

The current shortage of people skilled in science and mathematics threatens our economic security and ability to compete in world markets. Developing the talents of each individual to the fullest through public education is consistent with democratic principles--and more important, necessary to our survival.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 1989 edition of Education Week