Science And Math, 24 Hours A Day
It’s probably not much of a surprise to learn that the car line to drop off new students and all their stuff at the North Carolina School of Science and Math runs like a well-oiled machine.
Vans and cars, loaded with suitcases and boxes, pull into the temporary unloading zone. When they stop, senior students in blue t-shirts descend on the cars, unload them, mark the correct rooms, and off they go, on hand trucks and trolleys. An entire car unloaded in a few minutes.
The speed in which it all happens can seem a little overwhelming for a 15-year old, who has to feel like she’s going to college before she’s ever been to a prom.
But these are not average 15-and-16 year olds.
“I feel like it’s going to be an adjustment, but I think I’m prepared as well,” says Mary Christopher, a junior from Greensboro. “I’m ready to work so I’m hoping I’ll be able to do it.
A swimmer, Mary admitted that making the choice to forego her last two years at Grimsley High School wasn’t easy.
“Leaving all my friends was kind of tough, but I feel like I’m going to make lots of new friends,” she says. “So I’m excited.”
The School of Science and Math was created 35 years ago for kids like Mary – serious students with grand aspirations. Governor Jim Hunt led the effort to turn the old Watts Hospital down the road from Duke’s East Campus into a residential school for high-achieving students.
It was the first residential school of its kind in the country. More than a dozen states have since created similar schools, using NCSSM as a model.
The School of Science and Math is one of the 17 members of the UNC system, but it’s a public high school. Getting in is difficult. About 1,300 students apply for around 330 spots in the class. The school has regional admission quotas, broken down by congressional district, to assure geographic diversity.
Once the students get here, the benefits are endless. The course catalogue rivals a major university, with classes in robotics, biomedical engineering, and astrophysics as well as fine art photography and poetry. Science and Math students often win national science competitions and gain admission to Ivy League schools and elite universities in North Carolina.
And, for students, it’s all completely free.
“It really allows any student in the state to have this opportunity, who is motivated and talented and wants to, as we say, accept the greater challenge of coming here,” says Todd Roberts, the chancellor of the School of Science and Math. A Durham native, he was actually born on the grounds, when it was the Watts Hospital.
For those students who aren’t able to attend the school, Science and Math has expanded its online course options.
For those kids who do come here, the School of Science and Math can be both a lifeline and a challenge to their confidence – especially for kids from rural areas.
“Sometimes they come in and look around at all these smart people and they think ‘I’m not that good. What am I going to do with myself?” says Charlie Payne, a physics teacher.
The residential aspect of the school allows much more one-on-one tutoring and faculty office hours to help personalize the experience for students. That helps keep the rate of attrition much lower than at most colleges.
It also doesn’t hurt that Science and Math teachers are highly-qualified and tend to stick around a long time.
“You know, to teach here you have to have at least a graduate degree,” says Payne. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smarter than anyone else, but it does mean you’ve done the extra work to get to the next level. The kids know that and they understand that means the expectations are going to be a little bit higher.”
One of the main reasons for the creation of the School of Science and Math was to keep high-achieving students in the state, after college. A program to offer the school’s graduates free college tuition at one of the UNC system schools took that effort to another level – but the Legislature ended that program in 2009.
“The goal really was to not only take talented students from across the state and give them a great education in STEM and prepare them to be leaders in our state, the goal was to take talented kids, give them a great education, and get them to stay in the state and help it to grow educationally and economically,” says Chancellor Roberts.
About 60 percent of the school’s alumni still live in North Carolina and work as engineers, faculty members, entrepreneurs, tech executives, you name it.
That successful track record certainly appeals to families making the tough choice to send their kids here. But knowing the future is bright doesn’t ease the pain on drop-off day.
Beth Christopher, Mary’s mom, is standing next to her daughter and trying to put on a brave face.
“It’s hard to send her away from home and her older sister just left for college last week,” she says. “It’s a big adjustment. But it’s a great opportunity and we’re really excited and proud of her.”