N.C. School of Science and Math: A Flame Burning Brightly

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Durham, N.C.The shrill whine of a power saw breaks the stillness of the clear autumn day. Groups of students sit on the steps of a building, talking and waiting for a van that will take them to laboratories and community centers around Durham. Nearby, construction workers install the wiring and plumbing that will transform the gutted third floor of part of the former Watts Hospital into new science laboratories for the only state-sponsored, residential, science and mathematics high-school in the U.S.

Construction--of buildings, programs, curricula, and plans--remains very much a part of the scene as the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics moves into its second year of operation. Opened in September 1980, the school adopted an ambitious agenda that addressed not only the needs of the 11th- and 12th-grade high-school students who would study there, but also, through workshops and other programs, those of students and teachers elsewhere in the state.

High-Technology Era

The school, which proponents hope will provide the state with a pool of highly trained scientific and technological workers, is also part of a larger effort to bring North Carolina into the high-technology era, according Gov. James B. Hunt.

The school's staff had to build, from scratch, programs that would meet the needs of their several constituencies--teachers and students. The students selected to attend had to adjust to an academically rigorous program, a new group of people, and, for many, their first extended separation from their families. Both groups went about their business accompanied by the publicity that is the lot of "pioneers," and the construction noise that is the lot of people who convert old hospitals into boarding schools.

It was not, the staff and students agree, an easy year.

But, with the first year behind them, they also agree that the ambitious experiment has, so far, been successful. "It would be terribly presumptuous for us to say this is the answer," said Michael E. Collins, assistant director and dean for student personnel services. "But it is an answer."

The school's success is visible in tangible ways: 95 percent of the students who came to the school have stayed, as have all the faculty; it has a higher percentage of National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists than any other school in the country (Stuyvesant High School, in New York, has a greater number); many of the students who took the Educational Testing Service's advanced-placement examinations in, for example, biology, achieved the highest possible score; and discipline problems are rare.

Less tangible elements also figure into the picture. Enthusiasm is high. "Challenging" is one word frequently used by both students and staff in describing the school. "Rewarding" is another.

"I think most of them really love it," said Virginia S. Wilson, head of the humanities and social-sciences department and an instructor of social sciences. "They feel very free to be themselves. Given their interests, this school has a great deal of appeal for them."

'Energy and Enthusiasm'

Faculty members also seem content, if extremely busy. "It's a wonderful situation," said C. Stephen Davis, head of the department of mathematics and computer science. "In this environment, you can translate energy into results. They have a real energy and enthusiasm for learning that enables you to overcome problems and frustrations. It's what makes me realize that the idea is really sound."

First proposed in the early 1960's by then-Gov. Terry Sanford, the idea for the school began to be realized in 1978, when Governor Hunt succeeded in getting the enabling legislation through the North Carolina General Assembly.

Governor Hunt said, in a recent interview, that he plans "to take North Carolina into a high-technology future," and that the school, as a means of providing highly competent, scientifically trained personnel, is part of that plan. The governor also views the school as a means of remedying some of the problems involved in providing high-quality science education.

"We have been aware that within our public schools, even in the best situations, we have not truly challenged the brightest young people,'' he said. "We wanted to put them in a situation where they'd push each other, to challenge them to the maximum."

"We also wanted to stimulate and upgrade math and science in schools across the state," he continued. "We see this school as sort of a flame burning brightly in the middle of our state."

Industrial Transformation

The school, explains H. Braughn Taylor, its director of development, is part of the statewide campaign to transform North Carolina from a rural into an industrial--although not necessarily urban--economy and to attract industry to smaller communities.

"North Carolina is still a rural state," Mr. Taylor said. "That's one reason this school is so needed and so feasible." Though it is the 10th most populous state in the country, he noted, it has no city with a population greater than 250,000.

Consequently, most North Carolina schools are relatively small, with few resources to provide advanced mathematics and science courses for at most a handful of accelerated students. But by bringing the most gifted students, who now come from 85 of North Carolina's 100 counties, together in one facility, the advanced course offerings become financially feasible, Mr. Taylor suggested.

"These kids come from all over the state," Mr. Collins said. "But we do feel that there's a special place for the rural youngster," who might otherwise not have the opportunity to take advanced math and science courses. "This is an opportunity for these youngsters to really enhance their talents," he added, noting that for students from urban areas, "magnet" schools that offer a rigorous academic curriculum may accomplish the same thing. "For a kid from a rural area, the idea of a magnet school just isn't real," he said.

The school has not, as some critics feared, "siphoned off" all the good students, leaving other state high schools with the mediocre students. Charles R. Eilber, director of the science and math school, points out that this is impossible simply in terms of numbers, since the school now has only 300 students and will have, at most, 900 within several years. "We have a sample of the top students," he said.

The student body is also fairly evenly balanced in terms of sex and race: 55 percent are male, 45 percent are female, and 22 percent are black, native American, or members of another ethnic minority group.

However, providing a specialized science education at the new facility is not cheap, officials say. It costs about $6,000 per student per year--about three times the state's average per-pupil expenditure.

Computing costs for each student, however, is complicated by one-time expenses like beds, desks, and the other accouterments of a residential school. The students pay no tuition or room-and-board.

But the costs have been eased to a degree by donations from the private sector.

"It's a good model in public-private partner-ship," Mr. Eilber said. The state pays the basic costs, he said, but private donations have provided a number of important supplements. The school's vax750 computer--one of its most heavily used facilities--was paid for almost entirely by a private grant.

Rigorous Courseload

The juniors and seniors who attend the school take a rigorous academic courseload and also participate in a school-work program and a community-service program, each of which takes up about five hours a week. These activities are included, Mr. Collins said, be-cause school officials believe that it is important that students have nonacademic experiences as well.

Many also participate in a "mentor experience," in which they are matched with a researcher from a local academic or industrial lab.

In the sciences, students are expected to take at least one course in each of the areas of biology, chemistry, and physics. Courses offered include advanced biology (virtually all have taken first-year biology before they arrive), organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, two levels of physics (pre-calculus and calculus), as well as some physics electives (astrophysics and modern physics) according to Charles V. Britton, head of the science department. The courses are taught, Mr. Britton said, from "a problem-solving point of view."

In mathematics, the courses range from an accelerated second-year algebra course to calculus bc (the most advanced level of calculus taught in high schools, covering material included in the Educational Testing Service's "bc" level advanced placement calculus test). Students are placed in the appropriate course depending on their previous coursework, Mr. Davis said.

In addition to classroom instruction, mathematics students attend a lecture series given by academic and industrial mathematicians.

The goals of the math department, Mr. Davis said, include--besides teaching students mathematics--improving their problem-solving abilities and "nurturing an interest that's already there." The students are enthusiastic, he said: "You don't have to drum it up. It's there."

Both mathematics and science courses emphasize the use of computers, staff members said. Students learn programming, as well as how to use the computer as a tool in science and mathematics. They also learn how to use computers as research tools for on-line searches and other tasks.

The humanities--history, English, foreign languages--receive an equal amount of attention. Students are required to take two years of English, a total of two years of a foreign language (many have had one year before coming to the school), and a year of American studies. Many go beyond these requirements and many also elect to take art and music. "We want to develop the total personality," said Ms. Wilson. "We're trying to bridge the two cultures."

Science Provides 'Edge'

"Most students, I think, enjoy this end," Ms. Wilson said. "There are a few who would spend all day at the computer terminal, but most students want to keep themselves broadbased." She added, however, that "the reality is that they have to look at the job market. Science will give them an edge."

Ms. Wilson cited the example of one of her students who excels in history but who will probably turn to mathematics as a career. "History is going to make a wonderful hobby," he told her.

In the humanities, Ms. Wilson said, the emphasis is on skills: research, written and oral communication, information retrieval, using computers in the library, and the like.

Students have shown significant gains in all areas, according to faculty members interviewed. "The seniors are remarkably more dedicated to studying than they were last year at this time," said Mr. Britton. "The amount of [unsupervised] academic study in the evenings is much greater."

In mathematics, Mr. Davis said, "their study skills have improved dramatically. It's hard to believe that our seniors were ever where our juniors are." In the humanities, Ms. Wilson said, there is "a definite improvement from last year" in organization, study skills, and other areas.

Not all the students plan careers in science or mathematics, school officials said; many are interested in business, law, or other fields. "We don't see it as missing our mission if some students want to go into other fields," Mr. Taylor said. And, Mr. Britton noted, "I think we need scientific, analytical people in all walks of life."

'Ripple Effect' Seen

The school's planners and faculty also expect to have an effect on schools throughout the state. In fact, Mr. Taylor believes, it is already visible. "The school is already having a ripple effect," he said. "There are principals who are spending money on computers instead of athletic equipment. Parents are demanding it. They want their kids to get into this school."

School and state officials hope also that the school will affect the teaching of mathematics and science in a broader sense. "We will be studying the most effective teaching techniques, what works best," Governor Hunt said. "We hope to be replicated in schools across the state. There are a lot of things that can be replicated in the schools; not all of them will be." It takes money, which not all school districts can provide, he said, but it also takes more than money.

Staff from the school will also have direct contact with personnel from other schools around the state. Last summer, the new institution sponsored a workshop on "computers in the classroom" for science and mathematics teachers. The response was overwhelming; a workshop originally planned for 30 teachers eventually included 151.

For many, Mr. Davis said, it was their first encounter with computers, and they found it difficult and challenging. "No one threw in the towel," he said, and many returned to their schools as advocates of computers.

A high percentage of those schools now have computers, he said, some purchased by principals who had been reluctant to invest in the equipment because none of the teachers knew how to use it. School officials plan another beginning workshop this summer, which will be followed by a more advanced course for those who took last summer's course.

Model School Offers Solutions

For educators in other states, especially those where most of the population lives in small towns or rural areas, North Carolina's science and mathematics school may be a model; it is one of many possible solutions to the problem of providing gifted students with intensive training in science and mathematics.

Mr. Eilber outlined some of the factors that educators in other states might want to think about should they contemplate following North Carolina's example.

"Make sure that you get as broad a base of support--political and financial--as possible," Mr. Eilber counseled. Such support is crucial, he said, in working out the important issues in planning a school of this kind--the cost of the residential program, for example. ''You must justify the residential program, and provide resources the students couldn't get no matter what," he said. "It isn't just a day school, but a commitment to total education."

In addition, Mr. Eilber said, development of such an ambitious program for an alternative school requires "a real dedication by someone in the public sector," someone--Governor Hunt in this case--who can convince the state legislature to put the necessary funds into the school.

Also, Mr. Eilber said, "Hire very qualified, experienced people."

Moreover, he suggested, North Carolina's new school--and others like it--must be prepared to answer the "cries of elitism." People worry, he cautioned, that the students will become snobs.

"That hasn't happened here," according to Mr. Eilber. He said work and community-service programs help to give students "a grasp of reality. They don't see themselves as a little island of privilege."

Governor Hunt agrees that elit-ism is not a problem, nor is it a criticism leveled at the state's science high school. "I think we're well past that," he said. "Now, quite the reverse is true. Teachers and administrators are sort of competing to have their best students get into the school."

The admissions process is another important factor in determining students' success, Mr. Eilber said. The school uses Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, administered no later than January of 10th grade, but they also use a test of nonverbal reasoning ability, which is one way of circumventing possible problems of cultural bias. School officials visit as many districts as they can to talk to students, parents, and educators. In addition, students write supervised essays; finalists are brought to the school and interviewed there.

Currently, the school's officials are in the process of gathering applications By the time the new class arrives, the first class of seniors will have graduated; most will have gone on to college. Eventually, they may join a high-technology industry in North Carolina.

"I don't know if we can make an impact," Mr. Davis said, "but I can't think of a better way to try."

Vol. 01, Issue 17

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