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Mississippi School for Math and Science

On the Mississippi University for Women campus in Columbus quietly sits a brick building displaying the name Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science.

Teacher Dennis Reed explains sound waves in an MSMS physics class to student from across the state. Students are (from left, back row) Amber McFarland of Mayersville, Kiara Moss of Byram, Mikhal Gaerlan of Tupelo and (from left, front row) Amy Wilcosky of Seminary, Madison Burchfield of McCool and Leena El-Sadek of Terry.

Teacher Dennis Reed explains sound waves in an MSMS physics class to students from across the state. Students are (from left, back row) Amber McFarland of Mayersville, Kiara Moss of Byram, Mikhal Gaerlan of Tupelo and (from left, front row) Amy Wilcosky of Seminary, Madison Burchfield of McCool and Leena El-Sadek of Terry.

It’s not your typical public high school. MSMS only admits juniors and seniors who have passed a rigorous application and interview process. The average ACT score is 28. Students live on campus, participate in mandatory janitorial chores and take classes like Calculus IV, Robotics and Logic & Game Theory. Most of their professors come from universities. The kids come from all over the state and make up Mississippi’s most diverse study body.

In the fall of 1988, Mississippi became the fourth state in the nation to open a specialized school that sought to prepare students for leadership in mathematics, science and technology. Only 28 other states have schools like MSMS, which is part of the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology (NCSSSMST).

“Everybody needs a good education. That doesn’t mean that everybody needs the same education,” said MSMS Director Charles Brown. “It makes sense to spend some money on brighter kids who can make a difference for the state…We’re training kids that state businesses need.”

Sometimes sharper students don’t get challenged at their local public schools, which is not the fault of the home schools, Brown said, as high schools are required to teach a broad range of students.

MSMS Beginnings

MSMS was created to serve as an economic development tool that would attract highly educated families to Mississippi and produce highly educated workers.

Brown

Brown

The push for the school began with late state Rep. Charlie Capps of Cleveland, who did not feel that gifted students were being appropriately challenged in Mississippi public schools. The Legislature passed a bill creating the school in 1987, which was then passed by Gov. Bill Allain.

The school is almost fully funded by the state, which spends approximately $16,000 per student.

MSMS currently has 272 students, which is the largest group it has had in 10 years. Brown’s target is 300.

“There are at least 300 kids in the state of Mississippi who need to be here,” he said.

However, MSMS won’t let in kids who can’t make the cut. Entrance requirements include submitting essays, a resume, an independent work project that cannot be school-related, four letters of recommendation, ACT scores and GPA numbers and interviews.

For the current junior class, about 65 percent of those who applied were accepted.

Stepping Up PR

In past years MSMS has not promoted itself like it did when the school first opened. Brown said he can only assume that was due to funding issues. That is changing now.

MSMS spokesperson Wade Leonard made 60 stops over the past year, spreading the word in numerous high schools and town halls that although the school is physically located in Columbus, “MSMS belongs to the entire state of Mississippi.”

So far, next school year’s applicant pool is looking good with 52 of Mississippi’s 82 counties represented.

MSMS is also reminding future students that the school is not just for kids who want to go into the fields of math and science. The school emphasizes hands-on learning and teaches students how to problem solve and think for themselves.

“If I could rename the school, I would call it the ‘Mississippi School for the Advancement of Critical Thinking,’” Leonard said.

Unique Teaching Environment

Zarandona

Zarandona

Lauren Zarandona of Seattle, Wash., moved to Hollandale as part of the Mississippi Teacher Core before coming to MSMS.

“I went into education because I felt like the system wasn’t working. And then I came here and found that it was working,” Zarandona said. “Kids here are getting what they need… We offer classes you can’t get at other high schools.”

Among other subjects, Zarandona teaches trigonometry, pre-calculus, calculus, robotics and logic and game theory, where students actually learn to play blackjack and count cards.

Although teachers don’t live on campus, teachers are available to students during the day and often offer tutoring from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Eisler

Eisler

Senior Daniel Eisler appreciates the small classes and academic freedom MSMS provides for students. Eisler formed an a capella singing group on his own with the help of the choir director.

Eisler also likes the family atmosphere. Living in the dorms on campus is “kind of like being at your friend’s house all the time,” he said.

He has applied to the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University and seven other colleges.

MSMS students also have the opportunity to be in the Research & Mentorship Program so they can test drive a career while still in high school. Students have watched open heart surgeries and worked on plasma physics research at nearby Mississippi State University as part of this program.

What do MSMS grads do?

During its more than 20 years of existence, approximately 75 percent of MSMS graduates have attended in-state colleges.

An MSMS survey of the classes of 1990-2000 revealed that approximately 80 percent of those who left the state for school returned to live in the state later in life. The school does not have statistical information on the career paths of graduates.

Will Longwitz, who recently ran for Madison County Judge, said MSMS “was challenging across the board and rewarding in about every way you can imagine. It prepared me for the education I got at Georgetown.” He returned to the state to attend Ole Miss law school and later left a position at a federal agency to work on Mississippi’s Katrina recovery efforts before going into private practice.

Everitt

Everitt

Many MSMS students have gone into medicine, law and engineering, as well as journalism and other fields. One is currently singing on Broadway.

Others are entrepreneurs like Leslie Henderson, part of the class of 1994, who opened the Lazy Magnolia microbrewery in 2004 in Kiln, along with her husband Mark Henderson, also an MSMS grad.

Henderson earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in hazardous waste from Mississippi State University and is one of the few female brewmasters in the United States.

She worked for Mississippi Polymer Technologies before turning to Lazy Magnolia full-time. The company now has 16 employees and sells beer in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee and soon in Georgia.

Henderson said her MSMS experience was “amazing.” Although Neshoba Central High School where she attended was a good school, there was no one to challenge her.

“In my school I was everybody’s tutor,” and advanced placement classes were not offered because there were not enough students interested in taking them, Henderson said. “For people who want those advanced classes, it makes so much sense to give them a place where you can put forth those resources.”

Another entrepreneur is Kyle McGrevey of the class of 1999. Using knowledge he gained in high school, McGrevey opened Express Computer Service in Oxford in 2004, and has not experienced the effects of the economic recession.

“My biggest problem is too much business,” McGrevey said. He has five employees, about 1,600 feet of store space and theorizes that while people may have been more prone to buy a new computer before the recession, they are now more likely to try to have a broken one fixed first.

During his senior year at MSMS, McGrevey completed a start-your-own-business project in which he researched setting up a computer repair shop. Years later when he started his business “out of the back of [his] car,” McGrevey had a head start with the knowledge of licensing he gained from the project.

Cass Everitt, who entered MSMS during its first year of operation, recently came back to the school to speak at an opening convocation. Everitt said he was not challenged at the high school he attended prior to MSMS and was on his way to making some bad life choices.

“I definitely had been spending a lot of my spare time not focused on academic pursuits and didn’t really have a crowd of people around me who were interested in science and math,“ he said.

MSMS got him headed in the right direction. He currently works at NVIDIA, a global company specializing in the development of graphics processing units and chipset technologies for workstations, personal computers and mobile devices.

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