North Carolina's launching pad for gifted students

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.

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.

Administrators have devised a series of outreach programs to do just that. Much of the specialized equipment that corporations have donated to the North Carolina school is shared throughout the year with other local schools. There are special summer workshops for teachers from all over the state, and also conferences. Teachers and administrators also act as consultants to local schools.

This summer, because of costs associated with bringing some of the teachers to the campus, the program went on the road. And to the delight of school administrators, teachers who had been through the summer program the year before were used to teach the new crop of teachers who were seeking additional training.

Despite their best efforts, administrators are still having to justify the $3 .5 million a year their budget drains from state coffers. They argue, in the first place, that their funding comes not from the overall state education budget, but from a special fund in the governor's budget.

The school has also raised more than $7 million from private donors, ''new'' money that would not have been attracted otherwise, and money which, through the school's outreach program, will eventually benefit all the schools in the state.

It is no accident that the school was placed on one corner of the much-publicized Research Triangle Park, the high-tech research park that has attracted some of the top corporations in the country. In addition to tapping Triangle companies for talent, cash, and hardware, the school places upwards of 90 students in internship slots with various companies. Still, neither the companies nor the school expects to see a direct return on corporate investment.

''We are not set up to be a feeder school that will turn out engineers and reseachers who will then go to companies in North Carolina,'' says NCSSM director Charles R. Eilber. ''We are not a trade school for IBM.''

The school took on the residential component entirely by necessity - the distances across the state making daily commutation an impossibility - but that doesn't mean living-in hasn't become a vital part of the educational process at the school.

Says Mr. Eilber: ''I think it's a crime that throughout this country the lights go off at 3:30 in most high schools and the kids get on buses and go home. The library doors are closed 10 minutes after the last bells ring; the computers are shut down. I think communities ought to make available this marvelous resource of time that we have here.''

Just as important as making resources available to the students is bringing them together with their peers, a practice administrators find helps unlock potential.

''We try to have a bias-free, culturally enriched environment,'' says Mr. Mace. ''We not only mean the usual biases, but one more that is often overlooked , and that is an anti-intellectual bias. Very often those among the brightest in their class may have had to conceal that fact. You don't have to do that here.''

David Petranick, a junior from Concord, N.C., speaks directly to the issue. ''At my old school if you said, 'I'm going to study,' some guy would say, 'You think you're so smart,' and would think you were stuck up. Here you can study with other people and talk about it and it's no big deal.''

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