Eavesdropping at NCSSM’s Residential Discovery Day

FoxtrottSNOWFebruary 27th, Winter Storm Sparta delivered a long swath of snow and ice to the East Coast; 100,000 in Raleigh, North Carolina were without power; seven inches of snow covered the state’s capital; statewide, 82 school districts were closed. On NPR’s Here & Now, Raleigh mayor, Nancy McFarland, said, “Most people are staying home and not driving.” 

The following morning, at 10:45 a.m., despite continuing power outages, unplowed roads and an email from North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) requesting that applicants and parents NOT arrive early for their 11:30 appointments, families congregate across from the campus at Watts Grocery, a farm-to-table restaurant that unfortunately doesn’t open until 11.

People chat on the sidewalk to pass time. “You see that Suburban along I-85?”

“That one way up the berm with a pine tree across the hood?”

A woman, muffled in a scarf, hands stuffed deep in her pockets, says, “I moved from Idaho and I swear the weather followed me here. Aren’t you hungry, Morgan?”

Her daughter shakes her head, shivering from nerves and the cold.

A man asks where she lives now and says, “We moved to District Five so Ranjeet has a better chance.”

Another man, his head warm beneath a purple turban, nods. “Not many qualify there.”

These folks braved the elements for NCSSM’s Residential Discovery Day. Opening in 1980 as the country’s first state-funded Math Science high school, NCSSM is now considered a leading STEM High School. This year it will vet applications from 1300 North Carolina sophomores; only 340 will be accepted — a handful from each congressional district. Today, applicants will tour the campus and take a math placement test. To date, they’ve taken the SAT a year early, completed a 14-essay application and obtained three recommendation letters.

At 11:00, lines are forming in front of Bryan Auditorium. Snow forts on the front quad look like a Foxtrot cartoon. You can almost see algebraic equations etched into the cold air above them, calculating snowball thrust and distance.

Past the forts, a receiving line, comprised of current NCSSM students in royal blue windbreakers with the school name embroidered in white, say, “Good Morning! Welcome to Science and Math!” Parents are quick to note how normal the students seem.

More blue-windbreakered students usher families into the auditorium, careful to fill every seat. An Asian woman tries to reserve an entire row. “Whole family coming,” she insists.

Kieran and Elizabeth, both students from Cannon School in Cabarrus County, seem relieved to see someone they know. “Are you nervous?” they ask almost simultaneously.

“I almost threw up on the way here,” Kieran whispers.

At 11:30 the chancellor introduces the first panel: two alums, Tracy and Bill, and four current students: Amelia, Hector, Jamal and Jones. 

“What are students’ biggest problems when they arrive? How do they adjust to being away from home?” one mother asks.
“My biggest issue was time management,” says Amelia, a pretty brunette.

Jamal says, “For me, it was weird not being the smartest kid in the class.”

Hector adds, “I had to deal with my grades not being as high as they used to be.”

Tracy says not to worry. “Colleges know about NCSSM.”

In addition to the 70 student clubs, there are 19 varsity sports, but no football.

“Is there marching band?”

“We don’t have a football team…”

As students are dismissed for their math tests, a father calls after his son, “Bill, did you remember your calculator?”

“No electronic devices allowed, Dad.”

A second panel, this one all faculty, takes the stage. A parent asks how many get into the Ivies.

“Last year 92% were accepted to colleges of their choice.”

A mother asks, “Do the dormitories allow microwaves?”

The man in the turban says, “Microwaves? I want to know who will ensure my son maintains his religious protocol.”

A staff member says if a parent wants to talk about a student’s circumstances —they do not say disabilities — counselors are available. One man says, “Who’d talk about any problems today?”

Around 1:30, students return.                   

“That was SO easy!” Kieran says.

“Second grade math!” Elizabeth agrees. “You know, just factoring, solving systems of equations, simplifying radicals and exponents.”

“I LOVE Math! Everything just falls in place.”

Bill’s dad asks how he did. “I didn’t finish.”

On the way to the parking lot, a student says, “I asked someone about the food. They said it’s okay…”

“I heard the food is awful.”

“Hey, can we go to Bojangles and get some seasoned fries?”

“I hope they got the roads salted.”