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Residential Schools for Gifted and Talented High School Students

In 1980 North Carolina opened the first state-supported residential high school, and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics soon became the model for other states. Education leaders realized that such schools could provide innovative learning experiences in a unique environment designed to meet the academic needs of gifted and talented high school students. They offer an enriched, well-rounded, and advanced curriculum; challenge students with extensive research programs; and integrate research, writing, critical thinking, interdisciplinary projects, and technology throughout the curriculum.

Residential public schools for gifted and talented students assess nominal or no tuition. They are typically governed by a board of directors, board of trustees, or the state board of education. There are 18 residential schools for gifted high school students in 16 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Most of these schools have a strong focus on mathematics and science but also offer a broad curriculum in the arts and humanities. Some concentrate on health, medical sciences, engineering, ecology, ethics, and innovation. The majority of these schools serve students in grades 11 and 12, but some enroll students in grades 9 and 10.

These schools range from highly selective to open and seek some or all of the following in their applicants: state residency, a minimum number of Carnegie units, above-average performance (B or higher), motivation to meet rigorous academic requirements and succeed in a residential setting, creativity and intellectual curiosity, high scores on a national standardized test (ACT, SAT, etc.), a strong interest in mathematics and science, a well-developed writing sample, and recommendations from teachers, counselors, or a principal. Students also usually participate in an interview.

What Specialized Residential High Schools Offer

Because the students study and live together, these schools provide academic and social benefits that most traditional high schools cannot. Budgetary constraints in some public high schools limit the availability of advanced coursework that high-ability students need. In their home schools gifted students often feel isolated and have few intellectual peers with whom to share their interests.

Concentrated funding allows residential high schools to offer an array of advanced courses and educational resources in particular areas such as math and science or the fine and performing arts. Although academics are the focus, many gifted students blossom into confident and independent individuals because they are educated with other students with similar abilities and passions.

Another benefit of such schools is that the students learn how to live together cooperatively. Residential life requires compatibility, tolerance of differences, self-discipline, and responsibility. These traits are beneficial to students in college, in their careers, and in all aspects of their lives. The “living/learning” environment of the residential school provides students with a smoother transition from high school to college, because they have already adjusted to living away from home.

Points to Consider

Students and parents are encouraged to call, e-mail, or write the residential high school(s) in their state to ask for an application packet. Many of these schools have recruiters who travel around the state and make presentations about their programs.

To determine the academic benefits and general aspects of a program, parents should scan the application packet for information about the depth and rigor of the curriculum, course offerings, qualifications of the faculty, ACT/SAT scores of recent students, matriculation data of graduating classes, and tuition and fees. The school’s Web site may also furnish a school profile, course catalog, and student handbook. If there is more than one residential school in the state, parents can compare the programs and help students decide which best meets their needs.

Before applying to a specialized residential high school, parents and students should schedule a tour and talk to administrators, teachers and other staff, and recent and current students. They should come away from the experience believing that the teachers and staff are committed to helping students excel in the classroom and feel comfortable in the residential setting.

Before visiting, parents should compile a list of questions that focus on the program’s academic and residential aspects. Anything that students normally deal with or engage in at home—dietary needs, artistic endeavors, athletics, hobbies, medical conditions, learning disabilities, religious traditions, and so on—should be asked about to determine how the school accommodates specific needs or situations. Questions to ask include:

  • What are the school’s curfew hours and its sign-out and visitor procedures?
  • What kind of security does the school have?
  • Are special programs available for students with academic difficulties?
  • How do students access academic and personal counseling?
  • What health services are provided?
  • What are the food services? Are special diets accommodated? Can students eat off campus?
  • What amenities are there in the dorm rooms and residential halls (phones, computers, furniture, refrigerators, showers, laundry facilities, etc.)?
  • Can students bring their musical instruments to school? Are practice rooms available?
  • Where do students participate in physical conditioning or athletic training?
  • What opportunities do students have to participate in religious groups or community activities?
  • Can students have cars? If so, what are the policies and rules?
  • What are the disciplinary procedures?

If a residential school doesn’t exist in your state, collaborate with other parents, public school administrators, and university personnel to start one. Writing to state legislators and asking for their help is an effective way to start a movement.

For students and parents seeking alternative educational programs for gifted high school learners, residential schools offer positive opportunities. Finding out about admissions criteria while the student is still in middle school will help parents and students prepare for the application process, satisfy entrance criteria, and meet deadlines for these programs.

Lisa Stamps, PhD

Lisa Stamps served as director for academic affairs at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, a residential school for gifted 11th- and 12th-grade students in Columbus, Mississippi. She has taught gifted students in grades K–8 for 10 years and has raised two gifted children of her own. Her interests include gifted studies, social emotional issues of gifted students, gifted girls, curriculum compacting, mentoring, team building, and school leadership.