How Mississippi School of Math and Science innovates in the face of state funding cuts
By Kayleigh Skinner
COLUMBUS — Faith Ivy was 15 when she moved away from her parents’ home in Hernando to go to college — sort of.
The bubbly high schooler was accepted to the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science, one of two residential public high schools in the state, where she wasted no time acclimating to her new environment.
“It’s definitely different, this school from my old school. One because, of course, we’re living away from home, and we’re on a college campus and we’re having to adjust,” Ivy said. “I’m a really outgoing person, so instantly when I got here and I moved in, I just made friends.”
Housed on the campus of Mississippi University for Women, the school since its founding in 1987 has offered bright teenagers an on-ramp to a college environment paired with advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses. This is important in a state like Mississippi, where less than half of students exceeded grade-level expectations in math in the 2017-18 school year and where racial disparities exist in student achievement and access to advanced courses.
What's happening here seems to be working — the school's composite ACT score for juniors in 2018 was 27.3, while the statewide average in the same year was 17.8. The class of 2018 accepted $9.6 million in scholarships, according to the school. Since 2013, 60 percent of students stayed in Mississippi to attend college.
By many measures, the school is one of the best public high schools in the state. This distinction comes despite shrinking support from the state, which considers the school a point of pride. Unlike traditional public schools that receive their funding through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, MSMS is funded by the state Legislature directly through appropriations. School officials note the school receives about $400,000 less than it used to 11 years ago. They are working with local legislators to get more funding in the 2019 legislative session, but the school has also turned to the private sector to seek out grants and donations from businesses.
This year, the school is requesting an additional $700,000 from the Legislature to expand the engineering and computer science program, enroll more students, and expand outreach opportunities like the distance learning program.
Lawmakers say they will try and secure more funding for the school, but the Legislature won't begin working out appropriations until later in the session.
"I’m not on appropriations, but I’m hopeful that they will be given more funding," said Rep. Gary Chism, a Republican who represents Columbus. "Their funding has been stagnant or even less, and it’s put the hardship on them because they can’t offer (enough) to all the bright students."
The admissions process
The school’s executive director, Germain McConnell, is frank about the kind of student that thrives here.
“MSMS is not for everybody. Just because you’re the smartest person in the school doesn’t mean that MSMS is a good fit,” he said. “We need students who are a little bit more mature because this is about personal responsibility.”
The school seeks out Mississippi high school sophomores with strong grades and standardized test scores. Admissions coordinator LeighAlison Jones travels across the state in the fall to host "Super Nights," informational meetings to spread awareness about the school and explain the admissions process.
This year's application deadline was Feb. 1. The school pairs applicants with a current MSMS student emissary who can answer questions about campus life and the school experience, Jones said. If students come visit the school, those emissaries, current MSMS seniors, lead tours for prospective students.
The application process has all the rigor of gaining college admission. Through an online application, students submit a resume, say why they want to attend and write two short personal essays. They are also required to provide ACT scores, transcripts and three teacher recommendations, plus one from a school counselor. Modifications to these requirements are made for home-schooled students.
A committee comprised of one MSMS faculty member, an educator and a non-educator sift through applications (ACT scores and transcripts are removed from the applications to prevent bias) to determine who should be invited to the school in March for a final interview.
Parents are excluded from the end of the process to ensure the kids who make it to the in-person interview actually want to attend the school. During the interview, they take a math placement test and write an additional essay on-site as a kind of plagiarism safeguard.
"If they submit ‘Pride and Prejudice’ online and write Dr. Seuss when they get here, it’s probably a red flag," Jones said.
Brainiacs, artists and athletes
Accepted students are notified in April. This is where that maturity McConnell described comes in — students move into MSMS dorms on campus as juniors. They are expected to get up on time for classes, do their laundry, eat at the campus cafeteria and complete the other tasks that come with moving out of their parents’ homes for the first time.
Added to those responsibilities is an increased workload. The school offers a broad range of advanced placement and dual enrollment courses, and classes in subjects like calculus, engineering, game theory and animal physiology. Students can take courses from MUW or nearby Mississippi State University in Starkville to earn college credits.
For many students, their first semester at MSMS is also the first time they earn a failing or less than perfect grade, which chemistry teacher Elizabeth Morgan said frequently results in tears. When this happens, she requests students come to her office to go over what they got wrong.
“I always kind of start with trying to put things in perspective,” said Morgan, who is also a trained chemist. “Getting a failing grade is not the end. Taking that as a defeat is the end.”
Every MSMS teacher is required to have office hours, like a college professor, and they rotate who oversees student study hours each weeknight from 7 to 9. Designating a time for students to do homework at night and work through classwork during office hours also allows lessons to be more intensive, Morgan said.
"I think because we have those small group or one-on-one opportunities for the students, that adds to our ability to have really in-depth, rigorous classes," Morgan said.
Ivy said most students don't do their homework during the day.
"The problems really arise at night when you’re doing your work," Ivy said. "So just having that option to just go and get help at night is really good."
Senior Kaelon McNeece agrees.
“That first transition here is very difficult,” he said. “You’re going to have to go from not really having to study things that just come to you naturally to really having to prepare for everything that you’re given.”
For Hamilton Wan, a senior, the school has helped him socially as well as academically. At his old school in nearby Starkville, "It was hard for me to talk to people sometimes but here, I found it a lot easier and it's definitely helped me grow out of the box a lot more," Wan said.
The students embrace the self-appointed title of "nerds," but several who spoke with Mississippi Today said there is more dimension to that.
"We aren’t just a whole bunch of smart brainiacs," said Morgan Emokpae, a senior. "We are athletes, we are artists and all of that."
The school offers sports and clubs like cross country, swimming, soccer, student government and Wags and Whiskers, an extracurricular opportunity for students to walk dogs at the Columbus Humane Society nearby. Ivy, the friendly senior from Hernando, founded the Spirit Team club, which cheers on the schools' sports teams.
The student government association’s senators meet every Tuesday to debate changes to MSMS policy. For instance, Wan said, he and his peers passed a bill this school year to reduce student stress that says homework assigned after 5:30 p.m. cannot be due the next day. Student Victoria Gong said the homework levels come in “sinusoidal patterns,” meaning it fluctuates.
Not all student legislation is successful, though.
“For years we’ve tried to have goldfish as pets in the dorms, but they’ve been declined every time,” Gong said.
The equity question
Many students said the residential environment fosters a family atmosphere at the school.
“They’ve seen me in my room in my natural state, in my natural habitat just being Morgan,” Emokpae said. “They’ve seen me at some of my lowest points in my room crying because of something that happened, they’ve seen me at my happiest, and they’re just always there.”
The school also serves as a first opportunity to meet people from different cultures and backgrounds.
Data from Mississippi Department of Education from the current and past school year shows the student body has remained about 60 percent female and 40 percent male. This year the number of Asian and African-American students has increased slightly, to 15 and 24 percent, respectively. Currently 57 percent of students at the school are white, and a small percentage of students are Native American, Hispanic, or two or more races, according to MDE data.
Data provided by the school shows 63 percent of Mississippi’s counties are represented at MSMS this year, with DeSoto County accounting for the largest tribe with 20 students.
“Coming here, being exposed to so many different cultures, I found out that I really love languages,” Emokpae said. “So when I get older I want to use that in the field that I go into.”
The school is a member of the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools, a nonprofit that supports the advancement of STEM education. Executive director Todd Mann said about 150 member schools pay dues.
A common argument with schools that serve exclusively high-performing students is that they cherry pick bright kids and excel as a result. Ensuring accessibility to all students is a common concern among STEM schools, Mann said.
"Everyone worries about making sure there is as much equitable access as possible," Mann said.
The residential setting is one way schools are combating this. Having students live on campus not only opens it up to kids from all over the state (versus only those who live nearby), it creates more opportunities for students to immerse themselves in what they are learning, Mann said.
"I think that states are realizing...that if we're going to grow future leaders in technology and engineering and math, we need to create an environment — not just some classes — and a culture that fosters greater learning and greater skill sets in these fields," Mann said.
Additionally, students need to be exposed to STEM opportunities before they get to high school, so everyone has the chance to get a handle on complicated math and science concepts early on that gives them the confidence to apply themselves, he said.
"Think of kids who think they’ll never pass a test so they never even try," Mann said. "It’s incumbent upon us as a society to work at the middle (school) and lower levels to make sure kids get the coaching, mentoring and practice necessary to develop the confidence to try.”
'Money should not be a barrier’
In response to a funding shortfall that limits the school from serving all the students it can, MSMS officials have decided to get creative.
One way to reach students in other districts is through a distance learning program that allows an MSMS teacher to teach algebra to eighth grade students through tele-education.
"I think that all of us have some role we can play in that, so being here at MSMS I recognize the tremendous responsibility we have to be able to impact other students as well," McConnell, the executive director, said.
The distance learning program resulted from a $500,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture and Rural Development grant the school received in 2015. The grant paid for equipment for MSMS and a handful of participating schools in the Choctaw, Leake County, Noxubee and Canton school districts beginning in 2016.
"If students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade now, it broadens the number of advanced math courses they can take in the future before they graduate," McConnell said.
There was no funding to hire faculty specifically for the program, though. McConnell said some schools pay for the service. MSMS is working with schools in the Choctaw School District, and Choctaw pays for a faculty member to teach Algebra 1 to eighth-graders, and geometry and Algebra 2 to the high schoolers.
"Even if certain schools in this state have money for teachers to teach those advance level math and science classes, it's so hard to recruit them," McConnell said. "If we have them here and we can pipe those courses to them, what student wouldn’t want to say I took a class at MSMS?"
Currently there are 22 full-time faculty members and an adjunct professor who teach the 240 students who started the 2018-19 school year. All of the teaching faculty have a master's degree and nearly half have doctoral degrees as well. They are regarded as one of the best faculties in the nation.
LeAnn Alexander handles the non-academic factors at the school. As the director of student affairs, she describes her office's role as “the parent in place of a parent." When a student falls ill, it’s up to Alexander and her staff to get in touch with families and ask if they want their child to see a doctor. When teenagers inevitably end up arguing with their roommates, resident assistants are there to help smooth things over, and if the disagreement is a big one, it’s brought to Alexander.
"We are in the business of life lessons in student affairs," she said.
Every student at MSMS has a "work service" requirement — for juniors, that means emptying trash cans or mopping the floors in their residence halls. Seniors get slightly more enjoyable assignments, like working as teachers' assistants.
"Some of these students have never picked up a broom or never had to clean up after themselves," Alexander said. "It's an effort to keep our facilities clean and to teach them also how to do those things."
Her office also arranges the school's extracurricular activities, like planning prom and hosting adult coloring book night in the residence halls. On Fridays, a shuttle takes students to Walmart and the local mall — "this may seem mediocre but they love it" — and occasionally groups will take weekend trips off campus arranged by the school, since many students' homes are too far away from campus to visit every weekend.
There is actually room for up to 300 students in the residence halls, but McConnell said the school can't afford to serve that many students.
House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, told Mississippi Today that lawmakers will "absolutely" try to send more funding to the school.
"I think they’ve shown their success and I think that, if something’s going good...we’re trying to reward people who are doing a good job," Bennett said. "We’re going to look at it and see."
MSMS is a public school, so students do not pay tuition, but years ago the Legislature also instituted an annual $1,000 room-and-board fee families must pay for their children to attend. The fee is waived for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, and families who need additional help can reach out to the school's foundation for help in covering the cost, McConnell said.
While they await word whether lawmakers honor their appropriation request when the state budget is finalized later this spring, McConnell and fellow school leaders are determined to continue the school's mission.
"Money should not be a barrier," McConnell said. "If families really need help, we’ll get them what they need."
This story was produced with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities.