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Education

New NC School of Science and Math-Morganton opens its doors

NCSSM Morganton.JPG
Margo Metzger
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Courtesy of NCSSM-Morganton
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The North Carolina School of Science and Math campus in Morganton is celebrating its grand opening this week. The publicly funded high school seeks to offer the same opportunities the original campus in Durham has given gifted students across the state since 1980.

In August, an inaugural class of 150 high school students will move to the residential campus in the foothills of western North Carolina to begin their junior year. As soon as next week, middle and high school students will begin attending STEM-related summer programs on site.

NCSSM Morganton admitted students.jpg
Margo Metzger
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Courtesy of NCSSM-Morganton
A family tours the NC School of Science and Math campus in Morganton on a welcome day for students admitted to the inaugural class.

This day is about six years in the making for the school's Chief Campus Officer Kevin Baxter. He's been on the project since shortly after the General Assembly first appropriated funds for the school in 2016.

“I had never heard of Morganton when I saw this job posting in 2016, I will confess, and I drove out here, and I immediately understood why Morganton,” Baxter said.

Morganton is a city of about 16,000 in Burke County, between Asheville and Charlotte. Baxter said he was impressed by some of the tech resources in the area, including a Google data center in nearby Lenoir.

Google representatives have met with Baxter and discussed partnering on classes and mentorships for students. The new campus will offer the same core curriculum as the Durham campus, with an added focus in data science.

“The way that we're bringing data science to life in the curriculum is through pathways like financial technology, climate science, renewable energy, kind of domains that are emerging,” Baxter said.

Baxter said the location also attracted many applicants, especially from the Charlotte-area and rural counties statewide.

“There are students whose families have told us this spring, we would not have applied if Morganton was not an option, because they were either drawn to the distance from home, or they were drawn to a campus set in a more rural community as opposed to an urban metro environment,” Baxter said.

The idea to expand the offerings of the two-year, tuition-free high school in Durham to western North Carolina came from lawmakers, not from the UNC System or school administrators

At the school’s opening ceremony Friday, State Sen. Ralph Hise joked to the audience about the legislative study that determined where the second campus would be:

“I’ll let you in on a little secret. Sometimes the legislature knows the answer of a study before we actually put it into legislation,” Hise said.

Some members of the North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) community initially had concerns about a new site. In a 2016 blog post, alumnus Tucker Jones questioned whether the new school would exacerbate regional divides and whether it would be able to provide the same experience. Jones said in an email he has since met Baxter, who assuaged some of his concerns about the location.

Baxter said other alumni feared the new site might weigh on the Durham school's resources. Recent state budgets have paid for the campus's construction and operating expenses, with the help of more than $12 million in private fundraising by the NCSSM Foundation.

The school’s building costs have also nearly doubled, from an original bond of $58 million to a total construction cost of $102 million.

“The big implication that we've had to overcome, as it relates to the pandemic, has really been the challenges with the impacts on construction, labor shortages, cost escalation, you name it, we've had to overcome it on this project,” Baxter said.

The school was originally slated to open in fall 2021, but that was pushed back due to a delay in the passage of the state budget, which funded the school’s operating expenses.

Today, Baxter said many alumni embrace the new school, which creates an opportunity for more students to access its STEM-focused classes. Like the Durham campus, NCSSM-Morganton draws its students from all congressional districts across the state.

“We have 150 more students who would not have been given an opportunity to enroll in our programs this year, were it not for this campus opening its doors,” Baxter said. “And that's absolutely an impactful opportunity to touch more lives, bring more economic impact to our state, and actually influence the pipeline of tomorrow's leaders.”

The school is set to grow to 300 students the following year, increasing the NCSSM’s student population in Durham by about half.

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