Visions and fissions at the North Carolina School of Science and Math
Originally published in Indy Week.
WHEN THE N.C. SCHOOL OF SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS opened its doors in 1980, it was more than a high school for hotshots.
It was considered a bold experiment, an affirmation of North Carolina’s commitment to high-tech education. Here was a school that would cull the brightest teenagers from across the state and immerse them in the most intense learning environment they might ever encounter. They would have small classes, interactive computers, well-equipped labs, teachers with doctorates—and the chance to sit up till midnight in college-style dorms and discuss the latest physics discoveries.
It would be a place where computer whizzes could also be aspiring artists; where blacks, whites and Native Americans would work together; where urban prodigies would bunk down with outcasts from small mountain towns.
Educators and journalists from across the United States flocked to Durham to study the nation’s first state-funded residential science-and-math high school. They discovered a racially integrated place where students raked in science awards and National Merit Scholarships. The New York Times pronounced the school “perhaps the most daring venture in public education today.” Similar schools sprang up in seven other states.
Gov. Jim Hunt, who championed the school, told reporters, “We expect Nobel Prize winners to come out of this.”
Now in its second decade, Science and Math continues to bask in success—for good reason. Students there perform cutting-edge genetics research, help solve water-contamination problems at a local power plant, and design experiments for the space shuttle. They take challenging classes that connect science with history, literature, even religion. The school is reaching beyond its campus too, offering teacher training and technology to public schools across North Carolina.
But at the same time, something is going wrong.
Bitterness and fear have poisoned the institution. Morale has plummeted. Some of the best-respected teachers have left, while others count the days until their own departures. Teachers have grown afraid of speaking their minds or trying out new classroom methods. Students have picked up on the tension. “Things have happened here of a nature that if you don’t work here, you wouldn’t believe that people would behave that way,” says Kevin Bartkovich, who has taught math there since the school opened. “It’s just too wild.”
“It’s like an intellectual concentration camp,” adds Rena Lindstrom, who headed the guidance department and left after 11 years.
A rancor has taken hold that threatens North Carolina’s model school—one that Gov. Hunt envisioned as the state’s educational link to a technological future.
DURING HIS FIRST TWO TERMS AS GOVERNOR, Hunt embarked on an ambitious program to move North Carolina away from its traditional industries — furniture, farming, textiles and tobacco—and toward high tech. As part of his plan, he convinced state legislators to create the School of Science and Math.
Hunt’s vision was to “tie jobs and educational opportunities,” says William Youngblood, the school’s director of special programs. “It’s a vision that any governor should have.”
“The challenge for us is to show these kids that they have a responsibility to return the investment that North Carolina has made in them,” adds John Friedrick, Science and Math’s executive director. “They must be the seedcorns of North Carolina’s future.”
Now, walking through the school, it’s hard not to remember Friedrick’s seedcorn metaphor, to see the campus as fertile intellectual soil. The school sits on a 27-acre rise at the top of Ninth Street; it’s a maze of 80-year-old Spanish Colonial buildings converted from the old Watts Hospital. Mysterious tunnels and light-flooded walkways connect labs, classrooms and dormitories. Computers appear everywhere; so do political posters and drama club announcements. There’s no intercom; no bells clang to mark the end of classes.
This is a place where students push one another to grow, where teachers and students call each other “friends,” where misfits and abused kids find acceptance and support. “Everyone had one or two teachers that they were really good friends with,” says Hope Evey, who graduated in 1990. “If you had personal problems that were eclipsing the rest of your life, you could go to them.” When Evey began dealing with an abusive family relationship, her teachers “were so understanding and helpful, I don’t know if I could have gotten through without their support.”
Science and Math students—selected on the basis of school records, tests and interviews—don’t get taunted for wanting to learn. In a late-morning pre-calculus class, Helen Compton’s students have been charting on computers the increase in North Carolina’s AIDS cases, devising formulas to predict the virus’s spread. They talk about “exponential” growth, a mathematical explanation of why the epidemic has raged out of control.
“That’s the focus of our math programs — to focus on real-life applications,” says Compton. “If politicians knew what exponential growth meant, they would do things differently.”
In another building, Anita McCoy talks about a different disease. Her immunology class, the only one of its kind in the country, is discussing a genetic illness called “bamboo spine.” The students begin talking about the biology of the disease, but then veer off into the ethics of genetic testing. Should the law permit a company to test the genes of its workers? What if a healthy worker has a “bamboo spine” gene—should the employer be allowed to fire him? The discussion gets lively; tonight, students will ponder the issue more in a homework assignment.
With such stimulation surrounding them, some students get swept up in the love learning. “We began realizing our inner dreams,” says alumnus Jon Fulbright. “I fell in love with physics—I knew at that point what I wanted to become.” Fulbright, who now attends UNC-Chapel Hill, did a project on astro-photography at Science and Math. He also tutored other students, helped run the school observatory, studied German and took a research course on the history of the Vietnam war.
“It was OK to be a geek,” Fulbright says—but not all Science and Math students get excited by programming computers or discovering new chemical compounds. While all applicants must show an aptitude for science, the school attracts a good share of non-science-minded kids who simply want a stimulating education. Some realize their dreams in drama and poetry; others work late at night in the stained-glass studio. There are budding socialists, young Republicans, and students who enjoy dabbling in everything.
“The students where always challenging teachers intellectually,” says Michael Matros, a former English teacher. “They liked using different parts of their brain than the part they used for calculus four hours a night.”
NOW, IN KEEPING WITH ITS MISSION, Science and Math has moved into the next stage of its growth: educating not just the own 550 kids, but also students across the state. “We’re trying to take the wonderful courses we offer and provide them to students who don’t have a chance to come here,” says Friedrick, who has raised $5 million for outreach in the last 1½ years.
In the school’s basement television studio, physics teacher Andres Manring stands in front of a camera and lectures to students at two Durham high schools. In his “Science of the Mind” course, he relates the Tower of Babel story to current scientific theories of language development. In another room, a technician scans in illustrations with a computer called a “video toaster.”
No only can the seniors at Southern and Riverside high schools watch Manring, but they can ask questions. Their voices crackle through a loudspeaker into the studio. Eventually the technology will become available for broadcast well beyond the city limits, from Mattamuskeet to Marshall.
This is “Down-to-Earth Distance Learning,” a three-year, $670,000 electronic-classroom program funded by RJR Nabisco. It is one of the School of Science and Math’s many corporate-funded outreach programs. The school is now seeking $8 million in state bond money for an Educational Technology Complex that will allow teachers to beam courses like advanced physics—only available in 11 percent of North Carolina’s schools—into classrooms across the state.
Some of the school’s outreach programs involve more flesh-to-flesh contact. For example, an $800,000 Glaxo-sponsored program at two rural Wake County middle schools—Zebulon and East Wake—trains science teachers to do sophisticated lab work with their students.
“If we are to attract students into careers in science and math from rural North Carolina, someone must provide them with an experiential learning environment, which shows them they are capable of doing science,” says William Youngblood, the special programs director.
VETERAN SCIENCE AND MATH EMPLOYEES remember a time when, swept up in the newness of the mission, everyone functioned harmoniously. Before the school opened, teachers and staff pitched in to mow the lawns and put sheets on the dormitory beds. The school, says former counselor Rena Lindstrom, was “born in blood.”
During those early years, “the administration made a lot of effort to include the faculty in decision-making,” recalls biology teacher Ross Baker.
But once the initial zeal wore off in the mid-1980s, relations deteriorated. Teachers began clashing with then-director Charles Eilber over control of the school. “You’ve got—I don’t want to say high-strung people—you’ve got brilliant people working together. There is a natural tension,” says school trustee Susanne Gatchell. The angst eventually grew so wide-spread that the board of trustees created a Task Force on Shared Governance to help decide how the school would be run.
When Eilber resigned four years ago, the staff grew excited about the prospect of a new director. “We wanted someone who could heal those rifts,” says former history teacher Tim Lehman, who served on the search committee.
Enter John Friedrick, the founder of a science magnet school in Austin, Texas. “I had the impression of [Friedrick as] someone who was student-centered and collegial,” Lehman recalls. “He placed a real emphasis on cooperative efforts.” Friedrick was hired and came on board in July 1989.
A soft-spoken man who has spent most of his adult life in Texas, Friedrick has a next-door-neighbor sort of manner. On the walls of his office, near his University of Texas doctoral diploma, are photos of the community soccer and football teams he’s coached (including the Ralph’s Pizza Vikings of College Station, Texas). Buttons supporting solar power and opposing nuclear energy hang nearby. When he takes his brisk walks around campus, Friedrick greets teachers with a gap-tooth smile. He’s been known to bake cookies at home with his students.
Friedrick came to the job knowing no one in North Carolina. He didn’t understand how much of a voice the teachers wanted in running the school. And he says he received “bad advice” about how to handle certain faculty members.
Bad advice or no, within weeks of his arrival he managed to alienate most of his teaching staff — and set a tone of hostility and fear that has lasted for 3½ years.
“The very first meeting, he told us that he was going to stay here, and if we didn’t like things he did, we could leave,” recalls one teacher. Like several teachers interviewed for this story, she fears getting fired or disciplined if the Indy Week publishes her name.
“He came in and started to change things right away,” says Marilyn Mitchell, a German teacher who chairs the faculty council. “He needed to observe and get to know us and let us get to know him. Some of the issues, we felt, questioned our professionalism.”
Friedrick admits, “There were areas I moved too quickly and without enough input.” Nonetheless, he says, some reforms needed to be made. He says he tried to promote up-to-date teaching methods and make better use of new technologies. Also, he says, “the autonomy of the teachers” went overboard and Science and Math and needed to “be adjusted.”
But it was his style, not his zeal to change things, that most upset teachers. “John Friedrick was almost physically incapable of listening politely to someone he disagreed with,” says Michael Matros, the former English teacher. “He would come to faculty council meetings and he would just roll his eyes when someone was saying something he disagreed with. He would try to humiliate teachers.”
The first public humiliation came during a retreat at the Durham Arts Council building, shortly after Friedrick came on board. The staff was trying to write a mission statement, and a small group had gone off to work on a particularly contentious section. When the group returned, several teachers recall, Friedrick stood at the microphone and scolded the members for circumventing his will. He singled out Tim Lehman, then the faculty council chair, for a verbal thrashing.
“He, in essence, called us dishonest,” recalls Lehman, Friedrick remembers the incident differently. “I stated to them, ‘That wasn’t the task you were given,'” he says. “If that was a reprimand, so be it.”
But others share Lehman’s recollection.
“We couldn’t believe, in the very first meeting with a new director and the entire staff, that he would be so bold and threatening in his behavior,” says one of Lehman’s colleagues.
Stung by the scolding, Lehman argued back. The next day, he says, Friedrick “called me into his office and gave me a reprimand. It was how a drill sergeant would talk to a recruit. No one has ever spoken to me in such a demeaning way in my life.”
Friedrick has refused to discuss his relationships with individual teachers, citing personnel privacy laws.
After that, “it was one confrontation after another,” says one humanities teacher. Friedrick criticized teachers and issued new rules restricting what they could do in the classroom. One of his deputies ordered Matros to stop showing a surrealist film that contained disturbing scenes. The new director also threw out the work of the Task Force on Shared Governance, which had held weekly four-hour meetings to hammer out a more harmonious relationship between teachers and administration.
“Instead of working with the teachers, it was almost as if he was working against the teachers,” recalls James Banner, a former student body president who now coaches the school’s wrestling team.
That first year careened toward an ugly conclusion.
Frustrated by the new director, Matros and Lehman quit their jobs. Their colleagues still mourn the departures. One teacher says of Matros: “The guy could twitch an eyebrow hair and the kids were rapt. We could all learn to teach from Michael Matros, and Friedrick was trying to impose some East Texas teacher’s-college goals [on him].”
Friedrick takes the departures more philosophically. “In any change of administration, there are certain people who feel they can’t or won’t follow the new direction,” he says.
Then came the incident that would seal the new director’s alienation from his school.
THAT INCIDENT WAS THE DISMISSAL OF BETH TIMSON, an English teacher who was considered one of the school’s intellectual giants. A nine-year Science and Math veteran, she had won consistent raves from teachers, students and administrators.
“Beth was everything a faculty member should be,” says Kevin Bartkovich, the math teacher. “She brought great intellect to the classroom. She brought creativity. She was accessible.” Soon-Heng Lim, a former colleague, notes that Timson kept up “with all the scholarship.” Still another teacher calls Timson “the most intelligent person who ever worked at that school.”
Timson founded Science and Math’s literary magazine and its fencing club. She designed new courses and organized seminars. She built sets for school plays. She even worked to get the school’s would-be scientists interested in literature. “I was really enthusiastic about [her] English class, whereas, up until then, English was one of my worst subjects,” recalls Chris Penland, an alumnus who now studies nuclear engineering at N.C. State University.
Timson was also “a woman of strong words,” says Matros. “You got used to the fact that she said what she meant.” That meant criticizing the administration at times; Timson was the only teacher in the school’s history to file a grievance and follow it to conclusion.
Until Friedrick’s first year as director, no teacher at Science and Math worried about getting fired without a clear reason. Teachers there worked on contracts—instead of tenure—and the faculty assumed their contracts would be automatically be renewed unless a teacher failed to do a good job.
But after school let out for the summer, Timson received a letter informing here that her contract would not be renewed after it expired the following year. The letter offered no explanation. “Even though we saw her as the epitome of someone who fulfilled the mission of the school, she was not renewed,” says Bartkovich. “You can call that what you want, but that was tantamount to being fired.”
Friedrick refuses to talk about Timson’s dismissal, calling it a personnel matter. Others talk about her discharge as the moment they lost hope in the new director.
“The Timson case was the trigger,” says English teacher J. W. Troxler. “This seemed to be unthinkable, and seemed staged to happen in June, when school was out.” The incident, he says, put “poison in the atmosphere.”
Timson still had one year left on her contract.
Frustrated by the situation, she left early and decided not to appeal the decision.
Others didn’t give up. The faculty wrote a series of letters, first to Friedrick and then to the board of trustees, asking them to reinstate Timson. “If one of our members can be treated unjustly, then one of use is safe,” said one letter. Ninety percent of the eligible teachers signed the letters.
Friedrick responded by telling teachers never to complain to the board of trustees. If teachers contacted the board, he warned, they would be guilt of insubordination — grounds for firing. “I definitely remember a not-so-veiled threat that if a teacher took something to the board of trustees without speaking to him first, their job would be in danger,” recalls alumnus Jonathan Magid, who attended one of the meetings.
After that, the faculty shut up. “[We felt] outrage — by intimidation,” says Mitchell. “I didn’t sign another petition.”
Friedrick’s warning came too late for another much-loved veteran English teacher. Soon-Heng Lim, who organized the letter-writing campaign to save Timson’s job, came to the United States from Malaysia with a short-term working visa. Last year he asked Friedrick to sponsor his application for permanent-resident status. After some waffling, Lim says, the director refused.
Friedrick declined to talk about Lim.
Forced to leave Science and Math last summer, Lim left North Carolina and took a similar job in Illinois. This time the faculty remained silent. “We fought that battle once,” says Bartkovich. “It took a lot of life out of people. I don’t think the faculty are in much mood to fight anymore.”
AFTER A WHILE THE TENSION COULD NO LONGER BE CONTAINED between the teachers and administration. It began spilling over to the students.
“I kept seeing my students become more and more angry,” recalls Lim. “The faculty is demoralized and the students always picked up on the vibes, like children caught up in a divorce.”
Former Science and Math students say their teachers tried to shield them from the internal squabbling. But “it was a small campus,” says Jon Fulbright. “You couldn’t avoid hearing rumors.” Daniel Aldrich, who edited the school newspaper last year, adds, “We’d heard all the stories. It gave us the impression that the administration is not on our side.”
For nearly three years, accusations flew. Teachers and administrators accused each other of dragging students into the skirmish. Each side denied the charge. Students talked in class about the harsh words they heard and the anxiety they felt.
This year some of that tension has abated. Students still gripe about the school, but those complaints often center around issues like curfews and restrictions. The kids seem less aware of the ongoing strife between the their teachers and the administration.
Friedrick says this shows the anxieties are easing at Science and Math. He says the administration and teachers have taken steps to improve the faculty’s demoralized state.
In particular, he cites a new proposal, developed over the past two years, that would guarantee teachers that their contracts would be renewed as long as their job performance remained high. In exchange, teachers would accept shorter contracts. The board of trustees will consider the plan in May.
“Two years of hard work by a faculty-and-administration team did much of the stress reduction,” the director says. “Implementation of a good effective policy will do more. One of the area where the school has grown is that we’re learning to disagree without being disagreeable.”
Members of the school’s board of trustees, who evaluated Friedrick last December, agree. “My sense of the direction of the school is extremely positive,” says trustee William Massey, a Raleigh business executive.
But teachers say the quiet at Science and Math is deceptive. They say Friedrick now spends two days a week raising money and has withdrawn from the school’s day-to-day life. His absence alleviates the tension, they say, but there’s still scarring that needs to heal. “I think morale is very low, still,” says music teacher Ray Church. “There’s still a lot of fear.”
“The resentment, the anger is right below the surface,” says Mitchell, the faculty council chair. “It would be so easy to have another issue arise that would swing things one way or the other.”
Things also seem calm because teachers have withdrawn. “I got so frustrated the first year he was here, I would go home and cry,” says one science teacher. “Now I say, ‘I’m just going to tend to my business and I’m just going to withdraw.’ It was making me sick.”
“In some ways, the faculty has checked out,” says Bartkovich. “There’s a sense that I’m going to teach my class and do the best I can there, and I best not get involved in the larger issues of the school, because I’ll just get trampled down there.” When the faculty voted on the new contract policy this month, 40 percent of the teachers boycotted the election.
When the teachers “check out,” the character of a school changes. Excitement wanes. So does creativity and innovation. The prospect of Science and Math falling victim to a withdrawn faculty and an authoritarian director worries those who harbor warm feelings for North Carolina’s school-of-the-future.
“Science and Math is very important to me,” says Lisa Lyons, a Davidson College pre-med student who graduated from the high school in 1991. “I don’t want to see it go downhill.”