School that drew grumbles now earns high praise

When North Carolina decided in 1978 to create a residential high school focusing on science and mathematics, there was considerable grumbling around the state. Such a school, critics said, would result in a small, centralized elite and drain top students -- as well as precious state funds -- from local schools.

A select few would benefit, the naysayers said, but the great majority would be hurt.

Five years after its doors opened, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics is accomplishing much of what might be expected from a high school with a nationally selected faculty, 400 of the state's top-flight juniors and seniors, and proximity to Research Triangle Park -- a nationally recognized research and technology center, many of whose companies willingly supply the school with funds and its students with mentors.

Student experiments receive national attention; relations with an innovative private sector are close; and test scores are high. The school has developed strong programs, not just in math and science, but in the humanities as well. Virtually 100 percent of graduates go on to college -- many with fat scholarships to the country's best institutions.

But perhaps what is most impressive about this school, situated here in a former hospital, is the degree to which it has become an educational resource for the entire state. In its few short years of existence it has sponsored summer sessions for students and teachers from around North Carolina, welcomed visiting teachers for one-year, mid-career sabbaticals, served as a vehicle for providing schools with top educational software, and even begun making its teachers available by telephone hookup to schools lacking teachers in certain subjects.

And in so doing, the school has quieted the criticisms that accompanied its establishment.

``We've worked tremendously hard to show people around the state that we are sharing our wealth with thousands of other teachers and students,'' says Charles Eilber, the school's director. ``I am able to take lists to state senators and representatives and say, `Here are the people we're serving in your district.' ''

The school is in the initial stages of a $4 million expansion that will increase capacity by 50 percent, to 600 students. In part the growth is a response to calls for establishment of a second school in the western part of this wide and narrow state.

In the meantime, efforts continue to put the school to work beyond the Raleigh-Durham region.

This year the school becomes part of the University of North Carolina system, a move that facilitates using the university's geographically dispersed campuses. The school will administer and coordinate summer courses this year for about 600 high school students on five campuses around the state.

As with the two-year residential school, students selected for the summer program will attend free of charge.

According to Keith Brown, the school's director of outreach, some 2,000 teachers have benefited from the programs, which range from one-day workshops to two-week summer sessions. Topics covered range from teaching math and using computers in elementary school to physics and chemistry for high school teachers who are not yet certified in those subjects.

``People now realize we're not just skimming off the cream of the crop so we can do our thing here,'' says Mr. Brown. ``We attempt to make ourselves available to everyone.''

This year the school began its ``extended classroom project,'' whereby the school's teachers will be able to give classes via telephone lines to schools that don't have qualified physics and chemistry teachers. The program will be especially valuable to the state's rural counties.

James Wilkerson, principal at Warren County High School northeast of Durham, says students in his school are already excited about the ``teleclasses,'' even though they haven't begun yet.

``We believe it will encourage more of our kids to take more-advanced classes and to stick longer with the sciences,'' Mr. Wilkerson says.

The project is now expanding to include computer links to the outlying schools.

In much the same way that the school ``shares its wealth,'' it is finding that area companies are willing to open their doors -- and coffers -- to the school.

Private funds have made it possible for several teachers to come to the school each year and spend most of their 10-month stay increasing their knowledge in the subjects they teach. Companies such as IBM and Burroughs-Wellcome regularly donate equipment and fine instruments to the school, or open their own labs to the school's students and teachers.

All told, about 10 percent of operating costs are met through private sources -- mostly companies in Research Triangle Park. It is seen as a profitable investment, since two-thirds of the graduates go on colleges and universities in North Carolina.

Students at the school say they witnessed little resentment, but much pride, in their former high schools when they were accepted at the Durham school.

``If anything, they resented the fact that before me, others they felt were really qualified hadn't been accepted,'' says Beth Tripp, a junior from Murfreesboro, in the northeast corner of the state.

Ty Lowry, a senior from Pembroke, says he got ``nothing but encouragement'' at his old school when he decided to apply to come here. Now when he goes home, he often talks to teachers and students about the state school.

Mary Louise Bellamy, a biology teacher at the school, says she feels the school's outreach across the state and to all education levels has done much to allay fears that a state school for math and science would quickly result in a cloistered elite.

``I think some teachers worried that we'd constantly take their best students,'' says Ms. Bellamy, a sprightly woman who fits in well among the students here. ``But what they're finding is that when you take away the two top students, there are quickly two more.''

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