LIMESTONE- If history is any indication, the 43 students who graduated from the Maine School of Science and Mathematics last month have only just begun their education.
A large number of graduates from the school, founded in Limestone 14 years ago, have gone on to college, postgraduate study and beyond, and have become involved in research and other projects that school officials say are typical of the quality of students in Maine’s only magnet school.
“It is hard to tell people what a lot of our graduates are doing just yet because they are still pursuing their educations,” Walter J. Warner, MSSM executive director, said during a recent interview. “We have found that a lot of our graduates over the past decade or so are still in school studying for doctoral or law or medical degrees. They are continuing the hard work that was started here.”
Meghann Lyons Derosier, who graduated from MSSM in 1998, went on to receive a Fulbright scholarship, participated in medical research in Iceland and eventually earned a medical degree.
“While one still needs a great amount of determination and motivation to accomplish such goals,” Derosier wrote in an e-mail last month, “MSSM helped prepare me for the hard work it takes to succeed.
“[The magnet school] helped me focus my skills and expand my knowledge so that every door is one that can open,” she said.
That hard work is nothing new to students or alumni, Warner said, nor is it new to faculty, staff or planners who helped mold the school into what it is today.
“It is a pretty good story,” Warner said of the history of MSSM.
In the beginning
The effort to lure new students to Limestone began in 1993 after the closure of Loring Air Force Base. Enrollment in the local school system plunged from about 1,500 to 350 students. Students in kindergarten through grade 12 were brought under one school roof, but there was ample room for more.
To fill empty desks and provide selected students with a superior education, a proposal was put forth to establish the first state math and science school in Maine.
Over the next few years, school officials in Limestone garnered state support for the school, and in 1994 MSSM was established by the 116th Maine Legislature. Organizers received $320,000 in startup funds.
The establishment of the school was not without controversy. Some legislators opposed providing MSSM with an operating budget, and some educators objected to the thought of losing top students. In May 1995, then-Gov. Angus King included no funding for MSSM in his version of the state’s biennial budget.
But just a few months before the first students walked through the doors in September 1995, the school received funding.
The magnet school welcomed 135 students when it first opened. That first year, students paid only an activity fee of $800. Subsequent classes paid room and board fees.
Thirty members of the pioneer class graduated in 1996.
Enrollment in the magnet school has remained strong for most of its history. During the 2008-09 school year, 120 students were enrolled, with 43 members of the Class of 2009 receiving diplomas on May 23.
The maximum enrollment is 145.
“We did have an enrollment slump four years ago, but enrollment has been on the upswing ever since,” Catherine Bowker, who has been the academic dean at the magnet school for the past eight years, said recently.
That decline may have been linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the desire of some parents to keep their children close to home, school officials indicated.
The school continues to be funded directly by state appropriations, which are calculated on the same basis as Maine’s other schools, and is supplemented by room and board fees, Warner said. The base appropriation for MSSM in the 2008-09 school year was $1.87 million. Figures for 2009-10 are not yet available.
Maine residents pay no tuition, but those who live on campus during the 2009-10 school year will pay $7,800 for room and board. A handful of nonresidents who attend MSSM will pay $31,000 for tuition, room and board during 2009-10.
In general, most of the students come from southern Maine, according to Bowker. Only a handful tend to come from Aroostook County and the Bangor area.
This year there were 70 boys and 50 girls at MSSM.
“We get more applications from qualified males than we do from qualified females,” said Warner. “We take an active role in trying to recruit young women to this school. But it is a struggle here to attract females who are that interested in math and science. It is a struggle not only here, but nationally.”
The school typically receives about 50 completed applications from boys and 35-40 completed applications from girls.
Warner said the school can accept only 57 girls each year due to dorm space; girls are housed in two wings, one for 41 and 16 in the other. The two spaces for boys house 49 and 24.
The school’s dropout rate tends to be 10 percent or lower, depending on the year, Warner said. Most of those who leave the school do so because of homesickness or inability to keep up with the rigorous academic pace.
Daily life for MSSM students is similar to that of other high school students. They take part in sports, clubs and student organizations. They pitch in to help their teachers at school and to keep their living quarters clean. Weekend activities such as trips to the mall, concerts or cultural events are common.
After the fall semester and winter break, the students embark on a 10-day January term, popularly known as the “J Term,” where they dedicate themselves to a particular course or project. Their undertakings have included traveling to foreign countries and embarking on internships at laboratories or research facilities.
Before the school opened, more than 300 teachers responded to advertisements for 11 positions to teach classes. In 2008-09, approximately 25 teachers were offering not only science and math courses such as computational biology and multivariable calculus, but also courses such as British literature, introductory Chinese, and Acadian culture and history. Classes average 16 students each.
While there is not a great deal of faculty turnover, according to Bowker, it’s hard to attract qualified teachers.
“You have to be very involved in your teaching here,” she said. “You have to be ready to stay late at night and come in on weekends. The students challenge their teachers, and the teachers have to keep up with changes in their field.
“I always describe it as saying, ‘You can’t come into the classroom and just wing it,’” she said. “They will catch you. You have to be prepared.”
Warner credited the school’s teachers for the diverse success of the graduates.
“The teachers who have taught here or are teaching here now are phenomenal,” he said. “They challenge the kids while continuing to publish and conduct research experiments. They are practitioners of their discipline.”
Since its doors opened, the school has garnered several accolades, including being part of U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top 100 of America’s Best High Schools in 2007 and 2008.
The students who graduated in the early years of MSSM have gone on to do great things, Warner said recently.
“We have had one of our graduates win a Rhodes scholarship and attend Oxford University,” he said. “We have graduates who have earned medical or dental degrees. Some are involved in research projects or have done great things in the technology field.”
Warner said that virtually all of the students who attend the magnet school do so with the intention of going on to college. He estimated that 75 percent to 80 percent of MSSM grads go on to pursue higher-level degrees.
“Generally speaking,” he said, “our graduates have a passion for a particular subject and are committed to studying it at the highest level.”
That was true for Jack O’Brien, who graduated from MSSM just three years after the school opened. According to a statement provided by the school, O’Brien went on to become a Fulbright scholar in Norway before returning to the United States to earn a doctoral degree in mathematical biology. He now lives in the United Kingdom and is a researcher in statistical genetics.
Shannon Smith earned her diploma in 1997 and is working toward a doctoral degree in social psychology at the University of Rochester in New York. Her husband, fellow 1997 graduate Nathan Theriault, is a mechanical engineer for a Rochester company.
Bowker emphasized that hard work is a big factor in the success of MSSM students.
“Our students spend upwards of four hours a day studying,” she said. “It is a very demanding schedule and it takes time to get used to it.”
Bowker said the school does not designate honor parts at graduation, which helps ensure that the students do not compete against each other.
Bowker said she expects the future will bring changes to MSSM as the school creates new courses to keep up with the times. More courses focusing on new technology and mathematical and scientific breakthroughs are likely to be offered, she said.
“I have no doubt that there will be new courses here to challenge the students,” she said. “I think that the students will challenge us to do it.”