State Investment In OSSM is Paying Big Dividends

Associate Editor

STUDENTS AND ASTRONAUT: Students from Oklahoma School of Science and Math surround Dr. Leroy Chaio, former astronaut and commander of the International Space Station. Dr. Chaio visited the school in the spring to address students on careers in aerospace, science and mathematics. He is typical of the types of speakers who come to the state’s school for preeminent young scholars.

Courtesy OSSM

Amy Adams is back in town and Tulsa’s all the better for it. In 1982 the Oklahoma taxpayers, by way of some dedicated state legislators, decided to make an investment in Adams and others like her. The goal of the investment was to give the best and brightest young people in the state an opportunity to reach their full academic potential. To that end they created The Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics (). Amy is a class of 1997 graduate. Since the first graduating class of 1992, 1,084 Oklahoma scholars from all 77 counties in the state have graduated from this institution that annually provides a significant counterpoint to the seemingly endless bad news regarding public education in Oklahoma.

When was formed, there was much pushback from those who contended the state would only be providing young people with a ticket to somewhere else. They believed graduates from the elite school would take their talent elsewhere and Oklahoma would forever loose the valuable learning and expertise being cultivated at . Were they right?

Adams was attending high school in Jay, Oklahoma when a recruiter from came to town in 1993 searching for a few good students interested in a more challenging academic environment, one that could provide better opportunities both in terms of scholarship and future career placement. With three years of high school remaining and having blown through all the math and science courses available at Jay High School, Adams was interested in what the recruiter had to say.
Sold on the idea that was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up, Adams and her parents began the rigorous application process. She was first turned down but persisted with a second try and was accepted. And so she embarked on a journey leaving behind the quiet, rural setting of Jay and taking up residency in Oklahoma City in the dormitories of . It was, to say the least, an adjustment.

“I went from being a big fish in a pond to a minnow in a lake. But looking back on it, becoming aware of the level of competition was the best thing for me at that time. It was a reality check that provided lots of incentive to push myself in a way I would not have otherwise,” says Adams. She adds, “The teachers there were amazingly dedicated, competent and inspiring. As role models they further convinced me that teaching was what I wanted to do.”

Her story is repeated many times as every year recruiting teams fan out across the state in search of students like Adams. Over half of the students enrolled come from communities with populations of fewer than 10,000. To answer the question does Oklahoma have academic talent, one need only look at the school’s list of accomplishments.

In 18 years of operation, 1,084 graduates have received in excess of $85 million in college scholarships. In that same time period the school has produced 290 National Merit Finalists, 160 National Merit Commended Scholars, 83 Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence Academic All-State Scholars, 14 finalists and
one College Board National Achievement Scholar and the list of student achievements goes on. The school itself has gained preeminent status nationally. Evidence of this came when nationally known expert in gifted education, the late Dr. Julian Stanley of Johns Hopkins University stated, “() Provides the most rigorous academic program of its kind in the nation.”

According to the school’s Web site, in the National Competition of Engineering Aptitude, Mathematics and Science, sponsored each year by the Junior Engineering Technological Society, teams have placed first regionally for 10 consecutive years. The 2009 varsity team placed first in state. In 1995, 1999 and 2004 senior teams placed first at the national level and the 2009 team placed second. In 1997, 1998 and 2002, both the senior and junior teams placed first nationally. The 2005 through 2009 junior varsity teams were first in the nation and the 2008 and 2009 teams also placed first in the state. In short, wherever students compete they more than hold their own.

The school’s reputation for turning out excellent students opens many academic doors of opportunity for graduates. And of course that was the plan from the start, to provide opportunity for high achieving students to excel and position themselves for future educational opportunities. But the question remains; what do they do after graduation?

In Adams’ case it was a small scholarship and acceptance to Mills College, a very old, small, private and prestigious liberal arts women’s college in Oakland, Calif., where she earned her undergraduate degree. She returned to the University of Oklahoma and received an M.A. in Applied Mathematics. From there it was two teaching stints in Boston, Mass., at a charter school and a technical college before returning to Tulsa to accept a position at the University of Tulsa as a mathematics instructor teaching primarily at the freshman level. Anyone in the field of education will attest to how difficult it is to find math instructors let alone experienced instructors on a par with Adams.

“I came back for many reasons, family roots, friends, relationships, but not the least of which was my desire to make a positive impact in this part of the country where I grew up,” says Adams. “It’s one of the things they emphasized at , the idea of giving back to the community. I had been given a great opportunity there and I wanted to give back and make a positive impact. It’s another reason I’ve become a teacher of mathematics rather than a research mathematician.”

Adams is not alone. Lori Webster, Director of Public Information at , points out that out of the 80 percent of the school’s graduates who go on to higher education, more than 50 percent attend state universities and 50 percent settle in the state.

Recruiting graduates to return and teach at the school is a high priority for the administrative staff. Their efforts have resulted in no less than five teaching and administrative positions at the school being held by former students. In addition, successful graduates frequently return to the campus to share their career stories and experiences with students.

Funding for the school comes primarily from the state budget and is therefore subject to political whims as evidenced by this year’s cut in funding by the state legislature. Prior to this year the school’s budget has remained flat since its inception. Some private foundation funding supplements the state funding, but the school has outgrown its facilities as more and more talented students try for admittance. Hope for future expansion to meet the growing needs of the school arises from the current governor’s promise of federal stimulus money. But as is always, the case with state budgeting for education, this remains to be seen.

is one of only 13 such schools in the nation. The investment made has reaped many benefits, not the least of which is the message that Oklahoma is not just a backwater state. may be one bright and shinning star in an often lackluster sky. But by annually turning out excellent scholars and citizens well prepared for the many challenges of tomorrow, it says unequivocally we are a state willing to invest in educating our youth because this is essential for a better future for everyone.

Updated 11-17-2009

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