DURHAM, N.C. — The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics was suffering a brain drain. Many of the state’s brightest high school juniors and seniors were sitting behind desks in urban magnets, not cracking the books at the public high school.
That, school officials and lawmakers believe, is about to change.
A legislative initiative gives the school an advantage that no other specialized school in the country provides: free tuition for its graduates who enroll at public North Carolina universities.
“A lot of my friends would die to go to (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and I have free tuition handed to me on a silver platter,” said Leah Hawkins, who will graduate in the spring with the first class eligible for the grants.
Officials of the School of Science and Mathematics saw the number of applicants steadily decline in the late 1990s as the growing emphasis on accountability forced public schools to improve. Applications to the school bottomed out at 654 in 1999, the fewest in the school’s 23-year history.
Other specialized schools nationwide have seen a similar decline.
Applications to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., soared to 948 in 1994 when the school received widespread publicity for its all-girl, calculus-based physics class. By 2001, the number had fallen to 539.
The Illinois academy turned to a vigorous recruiting approach that reaches into middle schools and opens the campus up to prospective students at least once a month, said LuAnn Smith, director of institutional research and enrollment management. Applications climbed to 570 this year for about 200 spots.
The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics used many of the same strategies and had modest success in pulling up the number of applications.
But the offer of free tuition is what has re-energized supporters and gotten students and parents across the state to look at the school.
Admissions officials now are bracing for an avalanche of applications, perhaps a 1,000 or more for roughly 300 spots. That would be the most in school history.
The National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology knows of no similar offer. “That’s a tremendous incentive,” said President Dennis Lundgren.
About two-thirds of the School of Science and Mathematics graduates enroll at colleges in North Carolina, said Stephen Warshaw, the school’s senior vice president of academic programs.
Its reputation extends nationwide as well. Ivy League schools have enrolled 49 students since 1998, enough to land it on Fortune magazine’s list of the nation’s top 50 Ivy League feeder schools.