Alternative School Looks for the Perfect Equation

Students give high grades to the School of Math and Science in rural Maine

Math teacher Patrick Farrell has ceded his place at the front of the class to junior Kate Reilly, who is busy projecting the day's hyperbola onto the wall.

With only five students in the class, Mr. Farrell often sits back, allowing his students here at the Maine School of Science and Math to teach and coach each other.

His emphasis on teamwork has been so successful that the class completed its precalculus book in one trimester and has started in on calculus. "In 14 years of teaching, this is the first time I've ever had a class complete a book," says Farrell, who came to the Maine school from a similar school in Indiana.

The Maine School of Science and Math is the newest of 11 academies across the country to offer a specialized math and science curriculum for juniors and seniors as well as on-campus living as part of their public school systems. And as its first senior class prepares to graduate Saturday, Maine's educational experiment is racking up some impressive achievements.

Students, who hail from all over this rural state, have won state and regional awards in math, science, Latin, and jazz band. All but one of the 30 graduating seniors are headed to colleges and universities across the country, taking a half-million dollars in scholarship money with them. Of the school's 87 juniors, 86 applied to return for their senior year.

"The first year could have been a nightmare," says Limestone's superintendent of schools, Jim Morse. "But ... the school opened gloriously. I don't think it could have been more of a success."

In a decade during which magnet schools, charter schools, and school vouchers have been the educational buzzwords, math and science schools are starting to garner more attention.

The schools serve as an educational alternative for anywhere from 200 to 500 of a state's brightest high school juniors and seniors. They often attract students from rural or poor areas whose schools cannot offer advanced courses.

The best of these institutions are dedicated to improving the math and science curriculum of all public high schools in their state - not just luring away the best students with better facilities and smaller classes. They often develop textbooks, provide teacher training and student satellite courses, or test the latest in technology for the classroom.

The nation's first math and science school opened in North Carolina in 1980. John Friedrick, executive director of the North Carolina School of Math and Science in Durham, expects the number of math and science schools to mushroom in coming years. "Eventually, I expect you'll see one per state, and schools in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil," he says. "They're an excellent investment."

Maine's school, which is located in a wing of Limestone High School, offers valuable lessons for other states. It is the first of its kind in the Northeast. It is also the first to use military-base redevelopment funds, available because Limestone High lost so many students when nearby Loring Air Force base closed in 1994.

At first glance, MSSM looks much like any other high school. 117 students chat over meals, meander through the halls holding hands, hunch over books between classes, and catnap in the student lounge.

But the students hardly follow a typical schedule. They are at the school from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., taking two two-hour courses and two 90-minute courses on a rotating schedule. In between, they've started a chess team and a jazz band, as well as launched their own yearbook.

In many ways, the school seems a study in an ideal learning environment. The class size is often no larger than 10 students. Elective offerings are impressive, including seven foreign languages.

Teachers say discipline is rarely a problem. "I don't have problems with kids sitting in the back fooling around because they all want to be here," says biology teacher Debbie Eustis-Grandy. "They all know if they screw up too much, they'll have to go back to their sending school."

Students, for their part, praise the quality of education as well as the creativity of the teachers. "I had no lab techniques when I got here," says junior Holly Adkins as she stirs chemicals furiously in a beaker. "Now it's a big part of our class. I get so much more out of labs than I ever did before."

They also say they appreciate an environment where they aren't the only ones interested in learning. "I went from not doing anything to doing rather well," says T.C. Nguyen.

Special projects meld the lessons of disparate classes and help fulfill a mission of community outreach. This summer, for example, 23 students and three teachers will follow the route explorer George Weymouth took in his 1605 investigation of Maine's coast. The group will use history and science to compare today's coast with what Weymouth found. They will make a videotape and CD-ROM of their journey for middle school classes.

No one pretends that the school doesn't have problems. Relations between MSSM and Limestone High students are strained, students say. MSSM students share Limestone's cafeteria and participate in its sports, drama club, and marching band.

Other students complain that weekend activities are lacking and that school rules are too strict. "I would not discourage anyone from coming here, but I would encourage people to think hard before coming," says Nicole Spencer, a senior who says she has had a tough year.

The school has also struggled to convince many in Maine that it is not a detriment to the state school system. When students move from their home communities to attend MSSM, they often deprive their old high schools of their best pupils. Schoolwide test scores can drop and a school may lose some funding.

The school was conceived in response to the announcement in 1991 that Loring Air Force base would be shut down. Officials knew that schools would empty out when thousands of military families moved away. So school superintendent Morse formed a task force to decide how to "keep education alive in Limestone."

In June 1994, the Maine legislature approved the math and science school bill, allocating $2.5 million. With an additional $3 million in federal aid and $1 million from the town of Limestone, and an available facility, school planning began.

School director Jim Patterson started hiring teachers and selecting students. He arranged for students to live at the Air Force base and leased buses to take kids home for a weekend every three weeks.

Now, teachers and administrators are focused on planning the school's second year. They will add 60 students and open new dormitories right next to the school.

The reward for their hard work, they say, comes from students like Angie Wahler. "Just the whole thing is such a great experience," she says of MSSM. "I'm so glad I came here.

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