LSMSA held its grand opening.
WHIZ-KID HIGH (Published on Dec. 11, 1983 in DIXIE, a magazine supplement in the Times Picayune.)
By Susan Feeney; Photos by G. Andrew Boyd
This fall, the state opened a boarding school in Natchitoches with a special mission to teach gifted students. Its boosters say it’sthe closest thing to utopia public education has ever seen.
It's not a surprise to the rest of the nation that Louisiana is setting the pace for public education of the gifted and talented. It's more of a shock.
With the September christening of the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts in Natchitoches, this state became the first to create a boarding high school for students who excel in math, science and the arts.
In a state that frequently' bemoans the quality of its public education, this is a considerable feat. Robert Alost, director and chief mastermind of the program, knows that better than anyone.
For three years, Alost studied the scholarly literature on educating the gifted and talented. He examined Information from Harvard, Cornell, Chicago, the Bronx School for the Sciences and two schools in North Carolina.
"Aw," he remembers thinking, "we can do better than that.
"So I just sat down in front of a sheet of paper and started dreaming.
"What would you have." He asked himself. "If you could have everything?"
What Alost has is 206 of the brightest high school juniors in the state - 44 of whom are from the New Orleans area - and 17 of the most committed teachers in the nation.
In 1980, Alost, then dean of the Northwestern State University of Louisiana education department, wrote the proposal to create a place where outstanding public school students could realize their potential.
The goal, as almost everyone, at the school recites it, is to cultivate "information producers, not information consumers.” Thinkers, not robots. Scholars rather than test takers.
"It sounds so idealistic, I know," said Shelley Reynolds, a drama student from Marrero who seldom is seen without a colorful bandanna tied around her full head of red hair. "But the problems you have here seem so trite compared to problems at your old school."
She ticks off some agonies she says she left behind at John Ehret High School: racial tension, stagnation, student-faculty strain and an impersonal atmosphere.
The Louisiana School, two renovated brick buildings on a sliver of the Northwestern University campus in Natchitoches, teems with energy and enthusiasm. Its clean bright corridors are packed with students on a mission.
Prudhomme Hall houses offices, classrooms and girls' sleeping quarters. Bossier Hall, separated from Prudhomme by the Northwestern football stadium, houses the dining hall and boys' rooms.
But by next fall, the Louisiana School will expand its quarters and move into the old Natchitoches High School, which is currently being renovated.
"It's going to be magnificent," Alost said, looking beyond stacks of debris and gapping holes in the walls of the auditorium-to-be. "With 70,000 square feet in this building, we'll never have space problems again."
This year the school has only a junior class. Next year, when these juniors are seniors, another junior class will be added. At full strength, the school will have about 750 students.
The work is difficult and the sacrifices are numerous, students say. Instructors, most with advanced degrees, use college textbooks and speed through in a week the material it would take months to cover at schools back home. The homework is more burdensome. The A's don't come as easily.
These students are the class officers, the valedictorians, the cheerleaders and the student council presidents who, at age 16, gave it up and said goodbye to their family and friends for the sake of a better education.
"The way I figure it," said Maureen Mercadel of New Orleans, who had just made the cheerleading squad at McDonogh 35 Senior High School, "four or five years from now they'll still be cheering and I'll be in medical school."
"Everybody has the idea that we're a bunch of eggheads walking around with stacks of calculus books and slide rules in our back pockets," said Allen LeBlanc of Marrero.
Students insist that is not the case.
Many love playing foosball as much as they love practicing for quiz bowls. Some would as soon as listen to Chopin as the Rolling Stones. Above all, the students strive to be well-rounded.
Stephen Speights of LaPlace, who is torn between pursuing law and medicine is the school's finest pianist. Mercadel, a dancer, is set on becoming a pediatrician. Tamela Brantley of West Carroll Parish sings like a nightingale but still she must take physics.
"Here, individualism runs rampant," says Shelley Reynolds. "Students run the gamut from people straight out of 'The Preppy Handbook' to metal heads (fans of heavy metal rock music) to punk rockers to country bumpkins."
By design, students hail from nearly every parish and major city in the state. Twenty percent are minorities. About 12 percent are black, and a number are Vietnamese, Hispanic, Indian or American Indian.
Hal Bui, a Vietnamese from Metairie, is awed by the nonchalance toward race. "I haven't been called 'Chink' yet," he laughed.
"We're different," said Tam Vuong of Harvey, referring to all the students, "but we're all the same."
They are all pioneers, for one.
With the administration, students are establishing school regulations and traditions which will remain long after they have graduated. They chose blue and gold as the school's colors and tapped the eagle as its mascot. They designed their own class rings.
The shadow cast by these students stretches beyond Louisiana. Alost said 23 states are watching the Louisiana School before deciding whether to establish similar programs.
And students are all on their own for the first time.
In many cases, this new independence translates to adventure and freedom. But for some, it also means wearing hopelessly wrinkled shirts or light blue socks and underwear that were white before meeting with blue jeans in the wash.
Students live two to a dorm room, where posters are as standard as desks, bookshelves and bunk beds. Shelley Reynolds tacked up a print of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" along with pictures of the Doors. Debbie Stringer of Bossier City added other comforts of home - like a small refrigerator, a hot plate and a popcorn popper.
Students survive without their own telephones. They stand in long lines at hall payphones to call home. And some have pushed their parents' telephone bills over three figures.
Many students are balancing a checkbook for the first time. And many say they are getting a lesson on how much it costs to live.
There were blue skies, pots of chrysanthemums, festive music, triangular sandwiches and lofty speeches for the September 29 official Grand Opening as parents, friends and townspeople, along with Gov. David C. Treen, gathered to [whisk] the school on its way.
Alost pinched himself, he said, to make sure it was for real.
Three years earlier, the school was a dream shared by Alost and Rep. Jimmie D. Long, D-Natchitoches, House Education Committee chairman. In 1981, the enabling legislation passed overwhelmingly. And in 1982, with almost no opposition, the Legislature dished out
$7.5 million in capital outlays. Earlier this year the state granted the school $1.6 million for first-year operating expenses.
It costs the state just over $7,000 per student per year, Alost said, though that should drop to about $6,000 once start-up is complete. The state pays for tuition, books and room and board. Students absorb their own personal, entertainment and travel costs.
In defending the sizable state expenditure. Rep. Long notes that it costs more to keep someone in jail or in a mental hospital than at the Louisiana School.
The amount the state has spent on the school is about three times what it will spend this year on services for the blind or a little more than the annual operating budget of the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The chief prototype for Alost's program was established in the 1970s in North Carolina, where there are two schools for the gifted and talented - one for math, and science in Durham and one for the arts in Raleigh.
The North Carolina project proved that gifted students could get a better specialized education at high-powered public boarding schools. But Louisiana officials decided to offer a broader education in one place and not to separate math and science students from arts students.
The arguments that nearly quashed the North Carolina schools never surfaced in Louisiana.
Many North Carolina legislators said they felt state-run boarding schools for the gifted and talented benefited too few students and cost too much money. Some wanted the money spread out among the state's school districts.
Alost said the Louisiana School proposal sailed [through] the Legislature because "we did our homework." He and Long obtained the endorsements of the state associations for gifted and talented, principals, superintendents and school boards before going to Baton Rouge.
And with the promise of accepting students from each parish, says one school official, "it was like voting for motherhood or apple pie."
The logistics of starting a school - such as assembling a board of directors, hiring staff, selecting students and ordering supplies - took North Carolina officials more than two years. Alost and a team of eight did it in one. And it went down to the wire.
More than $2 million in building renovations were completed in only six months. The jackhammers were still pounding in the background when Gov. Treen called to inquire about opening ceremonies.
Signatures were put on the food contract two days before students arrived. Instructors and administrators were pushing beds into the dormitory rooms hours before students showed up.
There were plenty of rough spots. Boys arrived to find desks but no chairs. Lounges were bare.
And it didn't take long to realize that there were no trash cans - anywhere.
Students endured cold showers on mornings when the boilers went down. Dozens of dead crickets in the drawers of math instructor Horace Butler's desk are lingering proof of a three week cricket invasion, which subsided only after a seasonal drop in temperature.
"The greatest thing, I think," said Alost, "is how the staff and students have ignored all the exasperating situations over which they had no control."
At 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon noon, the Prudhomme Hall student lobby is deserted except for one young man wearing blue jeans and an electric blue Louisiana School T-shirt. With a can of Coke nearby, his feet up on the coffee table and an open calculus book in his hands, he is fast asleep.
The academic rigors are unlike anything the students have experienced. Although most were straight A-students at their old schools, few had to spend much time studying.
Merrill Laurent of Westwego, who got mostly A's at Archbishop Shaw High School, said he used to polish off his homework at lunchtime or before school.
Here, as a drama student, he said he studies great deal more with less stellar results. When nineweeks grades were released recently, he had three A's and - hard as it was to swallow - three B's.
Maureen Mercadel, who earned four B's and two C's, said, “I was second in the sophomore class. Here, I'm in the top 200."
A small percentage of students will not be asked back next year because of poor academic performance, said Stanley Powell, the school's deputy director.
Many students never mastered the art of studying before enrolling. And many more had trouble managing their time, said guidance counselor Terry Johnson. Consequently, the Academic Survival Skills Course is swamped. The problem, Patrick Breaux of St. Landry Parish explained in the school's Success Tips Sheet, is: "When you're out of money, you can get some more. But when you're out of time, you're out of luck."
One counselor frets that the students may be subjected to too much pressure.
“I have mixed feelings,” said counselor Don Barker.
"We've asked them to be mature beyond their years. They have to structure everything - even their play."
On the blackboard in a deserted study room, someone has written in careful script: "Today I am better than I was yesterday, but not as good as I will be tomorrow.”
Nearby, written in large, bold letters is another anonymous message: "I don't want to stay here no more."
While most students paint a positive picture of life at the Louisiana School, some admit to bouts with insecurity, despair and homesickness. About 25 percent of the students have rushed into the guidance office, some in tears, with notions about going home, Johnson said.
Four students have left. One had family problems. One wanted to play football, and the school has no interscholastic sports teams. And two students went home, Alost claims, "because the parents were homesick."
But the competition alone is enough to send students packing.
"We call it the Matt Dillon syndrome," says Bill Ebarb, administrative coordinator. "They were all big wheels in their one-horse towns. But welcome to Dodge City where everyone is a big gun."
"You get the feeling," says Stephen Speights, "that you were the 207th person chosen."
Louisiana School students say standard ploys such as cramming and reading and regurgitating, which worked well at home, are futile here. The academic emphasis is on comprehension and application, rather than rote memorization. There's really no beating the system here, says one student, "we've tried."
For Shelley Reynolds, the school's theory of teaching first hit home one afternoon in Lloyd Richardson's math class.
"He'd give us a formula and we'd all go 'OK' and write it down," Reynolds said. "That's the way we've always learned. Then he'd say 'Don't just accept things! People could be lying to you! Don't you want to know why it is the way it is?' And we'd say 'Yeah, yeah, we do.' "
Instructor Martha Talbert put it to her 8 a.m. trigonometry class this way: "My goal as a teacher is not to do every problem you'll ever have to do," she said. "My goal is to teach you so you'll know how to attack any problem you'll have to do."
Students select their courses from the more than 98 offered, including eight languages, five levels of calculus and a course in three dimensional design. Students can choose from sculpture, play writing, Louisiana history, archaeology, stage lighting or ancient history.
School officials are firm in their belief that no scholar is truly a scholar if he does not share his brilliance with society. Thus, each students spends three hours a week in community service, working for local hospitals, law offices, libraries, museums and charities.
In addition, each student performs a job at the school. Suzanne Means of Metairie scoops out the likes of green beans or macaroni in the cafeteria, Shelley Reynolds sorts mail at the front desk in the girl's dorm. Allen LeBlanc of Marrero scrubs toilets.
"Somebody has to do it," he said.
"Education," said deputy director Stanley Powell, "is more than book learning."
Martha Talbert, who taught gifted students at Natchitoches High School, said most instructors consider it a privilege to teach at the Louisiana School. Many left tenured positions at universities, other gifted schools or other high schools to come here, where there is no promise of job security.
More than 1,200 applications were submitted for 17 teaching positions with an average salary [of] $23,300 a year.
The salary is “not enough to buy people,” said Gene Mosca, a physics instructor who left a tenured post at the University of South Dakota. Mosca said working conditions and the school’s commitment to excellence lured him.
Instructors are not required to be certified in Louisiana, Alost said, so the school can draw from a national pool of applicants. The emphasis in hiring, he said, was on commitment and subject knowledge rather than experience.
This facilitated the hiring of history instructors James Findley, a Florida attorney, as well as Stephen Kamer, who has a doctorate in history from Harvard.
Teaching at the Louisiana School also has its thorns. Instructors work at least one night a week and one Saturday a month. And a few complain that although students all are considered gifted, they have varying levels of education. This makes teaching particularly taxing, they say. Some students, for instance, have not had basic algebra while others are calculus buffs.
Students were selected from 750 applicants on the basis of grades, school evaluations, Standard Aptitude Test scores and tryouts, interviews and testing conducted by Louisiana School officials.
Administrators crisscrossed the state three times last year to talk with students and parents and to conduct the tests. A repeat performance to recruit next year's junior class is in progress.
The volume of applications is up significantly over last year, said Lynda Tabor, admissions coordinator.
When Tam Vuong of Harvey was chosen to attend, his family threw a party for him. Congratulatory letters from the governor and a state senator were prominently displayed along with his acceptance letter.
“I feel very, very proud of my son,” Tam’s father said. “I hope, just hope, he will become a scientist.”
Maureen Mercadel's mother, Maida, said, "At first I was a little apprehensive about letting her go away. But we talked it over, and decided it was something she was ready for. I think it will open up doors to her. She'll now have a better chance of a good education by way of scholarships."
One young man who came to the school wanting to attend McNeese State University in Lake Charles recently wrote to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to inquire about admissions requirements.
The big-hearted people of smalltown Natchitoches adopted the school and the students in it. When the school didn't have money to buy refreshments for the grand opening, local businesses and residents provided them. In October, Natchitoches Senior High School invited students to its Homecoming football game and formal dance.
Stores regularly offer students discounts on school supplies. Banks waive service charges for students and are soft on overdrawn accounts. A City Bank and Trust Company executive had the entire school to his farm for a picnic.
"We're proud and pleased to have them," Natchitoches Mayor Joe Sampite said, "Their presence increases our quality of life."
He said the school has brought new Jobs to the area. And, he said, 200 sets of visiting parents are a boost for the city's motel and restaurant business.
Through area churches, most students were matched with host families. Whether the host families take students to church, or have them over for Sunday supper, students say the arrangement makes it easier to be away from home.
"It's a family while you're here," said Mitzi Harris of New Orleans. "I can walk right around the corner anytime and they're there for me."
"We from New Orleans live so far away, we get a lot more homesick than other people," said Hai Bui. "We don't get a chance to go home very often."
Janine Gray of New Orleans figures that if she goes home only once a month on the weekend when all students are required to leave, she will have paid Continental Trailways $328 by the end of the year.
Sara Delk once counted more than 20 movie theaters in the vicinity of her home in Gretna. In
Natchitoches, she laments, there is only one.
But to students such as Patrick Breaux of Leonville, whose sophomore class had fewer than 50 students, Natchitoches seems like the big city.
"It was like this big door being opened," Breaux said.
"I never even heard of Natchitoches," Mitzi Harris said over a dinner of ham, mashed potatoes, corn, milk and a chocolate brownie in the school dining hall.
"Are you sure that's in Louisiana?" Janine Gray recalled asking when she applied for admission. "Now, how many people know where Natchitoches is?"
"Two hundred and six" Harris chimed in.