Friday, July 13, 2007

Stephanie Pace Marshall and the creation of IMSA

The Illinois Math and Science Academy, a residential high school for gifted kids in Aurora, IL is now 20 years old. It appears to be well-established. The newly appointed school president is actually the former Illinois state superintendent of schools. But none of this could have been predicted when Stephanie Pace Marshall, IMSA's first president, helped establish the school. She recently decided to step down, and this article from the Chicago Tribune talks about her legacy. IMSA has become a leading light in the field of gifted education, training hundreds of kids each year to see math and science as cool (I wish the school name included the humanities, but the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities in Indiana does, and it's partially modeled after Marshall's creation in Illinois). The school has survived budget cuts and constant criticism about its elite nature. It was always a great idea, but great ideas need practical people in order to bring them to fruition. Marshall managed to be both visionary and builder. While about a dozen states now have residential high schools for gifted kids, hopefully Marshall will use some of her free time to push the rest to step up to the plate. I recommend reading the linked article from the Chicago Tribune to get a feel for the debate over these specialized secondary schools, and to learn more about one of the best education ideas to come along in the past 25 years.


Laura Vanderkam said...

This is Laura, continuing the post after thinking about it a bit more...

The Chicago Tribune article had a fascinating few paragraphs on Marshall's philosophy on math and science, which deserve their own post. So here we go:

"After all these years, Marshall's passion for math and science is as strong as ever. She hates when adults joke about being horrible in those subjects, as if it's a badge of honor. So she will continue trying to spread her enthusiasm through national education reform initiatives that encourage a more exciting and rigorous scientific curricula for all schools.

'We're all naturally inquisitive scientists,' she said, describing a child's wonderment at a jumping frog or a buzzing cicada. 'Then we get to school and we're told we don't have time for that. ...'"

How many of us have heard similar excuses about math and science from adults? "Oh, I'm just not good with numbers..." Or the glazed over face people sport when anyone uses statistics (which are easy enough to lie with as it is!) We view math and science as the "hard" subjects, though they're no more difficult than rigorous interpretation of complicated literary texts, or writing an engaging paper with a strong thesis. Teachers are subject to these same prejudices as the rest of us, and their nervousness comes across when they approach these subjects with young kids.

But math need not be all dull drills, and science certainly isn't boring worksheets. Physics can be as simple and natural as my two-month-old baby trying to figure out what happens when he hits a toy with his hand (it moves!) and forming a theory as a result (things move when I hit them!) We are all naturally curious from the time we discover these action/reaction rules. It's a shame we later learn to approach these subjects with trepidation. I'm not sure how Marshall plans to combat that, but it's certainly a great cause.

Anonymous said...

It is my understanding that the IMSA was modeled on the North Carolina School of Science and Math, founded in 1980. NCSSM suffers the same criticism of elitism and resultant threats to its funding as apparently does IMSA but is a wonderful school for those who need its unbounded challenges. I hear it also has a great pottery class.

SlithyToves said...

The Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics & Humanities has struggled with various budget issues over the years (it was completely cut out of a Senate-passed budget bill when I was a senior in 1993. Funding was later restored in the House and confirmed in the joint bill).

I was able to visit IMSA during my time at IASMH and met with delegates from all of the public, residential high schools. I would say, based on my discussions with students at the other schools, that they all operated (at the time of my discussions) with the guiding principles embraced by Ms Marshall, regardless or their origin. I hope that all of those schools have continued along those lines.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura,

I'm glad that I bump into your blog today. I found lots of useful information for my children. My 11-year-old son took the SAT test in Februray through the Illinois Lake County Talent Search program. He scored 650 in Reading and 690 in Math. He got the highest overall scores and the highest reading score among Lake County 6th graders. His math teacher suggested to prepare him to go to IMSA after 8th grade (thus skipping 9th grade). I have been getting mixed feedbacks about sending young kids to IMSA from parents who did it. I have been to the information meetings offered by IMSA. Still I'm not sure if it is a good idea to send him there or to move to a better school district for high school. Any suggestions? Where can I find more information?



Slithy Toves said...


Though I don't spend my days immersed in gifted education discussion like Laura, I do have some anecdotal experience with your question re: young students attending a residential, gifted high school.

The inaugural class at the Indiana Academy included a 14-year-old graduate, with whom I was acquainted through goegraphy (he lived 4 doors down from me in the dorm). Academically, he was certainly qualified to be there, but the key to his success was that he was also qualified socially.

Many gifted children become accustomed to that familiar sensation that they are the most advanced student in the classroom. Once they set foot into a gifted school, however, that feeling might be conspicuously absent. I was on track to breeze through my high school as validictorian with a list of extra-curricular activities as long as my arm. When I started classes at IASMH, I realized that, if anything, I seemed to be the token "jock" at my new school. The academics were far beyond anything I'd experienced previously (though I still did fairly well without having to lock myself in my room with stacks of books). And when it came to comparing myself to my classmates academically, I was in unfamiliar territory -- likely in the 50th percentile at best.

I was the traditional age for a high school junior having skipped no grades during previous academic years. At 16, I had a relatively strong sense of self that allowed me to adapt to my new surroundings and new position in the academic pecking order.

As I was in just the 2nd graduating class of IASMH, they were still experimenting with their admissions process. (**This next statement is my opinion only based on my discussions with friends and does not suggest I have any inside information or actual knowledge of the admissions process outside of my own experience**) With the Class of 1995 (the 4th graduating class), it would appear that IASMH had changed their admissions criteria to rely more on grades and test scores and less on extra-curricular/well-rounded student criteria. Again, my opinion only, but the 2 suicides that IASMH experienced with that class (the only 2 that I am aware of in the history of the school) may have had more to do with the students lack of social coping skills than anything else.

Given all of this, my larger point is that, if you feel your child is socially ready for dorm living and an entirely new academic paradigm, I am a strong proponent for IMSA attendance. My only concern would be that I knew many "proper" age students who were not socially ready to attend my high school. Their decision to return to their home schools came as no surprise as we got to know each other as a class.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Thanks for everyone's responses on this. As for younger students attending these schools -- I think with IMSA it's even more common (I've heard of people doing a "freshmore year" that combines their freshmen and sophomore years of high school). I'd suggest sending your child away to an academic camp for a few weeks if that's possible to help him get a feel for that kind of life, and whether he'd like it. Obviously, living in a dorm is a huge change from living at home with family, but some kids really take to it at any age. Others don't. You know your child best.

Anonymous said...

Hi Slithy and Laura,

Thanks for your comments and suggestions. I'll find ways to evaluate my son's social readiness, and seek opportunities to send him to an academic camp.