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North Carolina's launching pad for gifted students

By Craig SavoyeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 1983

Durham, N.C.

The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics has come a long way since September 1980. At that time, dedication ceremonies for the new school had to be held outdoors because the buildings that were to house it were too dilapidated.

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Born of the crisis in science and math education in the United States and nurtured by a governor whose commitment to education reform extends to taking time to tutor a student for an hour every Monday morning, the NCSSM has flourished as both a haven and a launching pad for the gifted. It's also a resource for the entire state.

The institution is a two-year residential high school for juniors and seniors who have shown a special aptitude or potential for science and math. Selected from high schools across the state, the 400 students are brought together on the school's campus in Durham. They take several science and math courses a year as well as courses in the humanities, arts, and language.

Framed by ancient oaks, the former hospital and outbuildings form a natural campus setting. The buildings are open, bright, and breezy. Most of the facilities on the 27-acre plot have been, or are in the process of being, renovated. Plans call for construction of a gymnasium and biological research pond. (Legislators are more apt to fund a ''biological research pond'' than a ''lake,'' students say).

The idyllic setting belies the acrimonious legislative debate that greeted the original proposal to found such a school. There was concern that the institution would, by definition, become an elitist ivory tower for the young; that it would siphon off top students and teachers; and that it would draw away badly needed funds from the bulk of public schools.

F. Borden Mace, principal and deputy director of the school, tackles the elitism charge head on. ''What would we do in music or sports if we didn't support an elite? No one questions it there. They just seem to question it when we get around to academics. There is growing evidence that it's the interaction of very bright kids with very bright kids that's the most important contribution that we're making.''

In fact, administrators have built in a rigid set of extracurricular requirements to ensure that the students understand that with the privilege of attending the school comes added responsibility. Each student spends four hours a week on work service, everything from washing dishes to raking leaves. Students graduate from menial labor to become teacher aides, lab assistants, and tutors. In addition, every junior has to give community service, tutoring elementary students, or visiting senior citizens.

The string of successes the young school has notched so far are impressive. One hundred percent of the graduates were accepted last year into some of the leading colleges and universities in the country. Most of the students qualified for advance-placement credits, and the graduating class of fewer than 200 was offered a total of about $1.5 million in merit scholarships. Another mark of success: Louisiana just opened a similar school in September, using the same basic curriculum and list of textbooks.

But for the state legislators who fund the schools, and the taxpayers that administrators ultimately answer to, the fact that the school is highly beneficial to the students who attend it is not enough. A second, tacit obligation is seen - to spread the wealth.