Alabama has a free public school providing superior education in math and science for students statewide: the Alabama School of Math and Science.
Mobile-based ASMS is a high school with characteristics of a college. Students must apply to get in, take the ACT, and they have to live on campus. But, instead of seeking just the highest test scores, ASMS wants students with potential and families who are committed to a more intensive academic environment.
“It provides our students with an opportunity to get a world class education,” said Dr. Monica Motley, president of ASMS. “The mission of the school is that we’re founded, of course, in our rigorous math and science curriculum, and we have an emphasis on responsible leadership. So we want to develop the full potential of academically exceptional students from across the state and give them access to a world-class education.”
That mission includes “serving the needs of those students who don’t have access to a quality education,” she said. “So, many of our students come from rural areas.”
ASMS draws its 250 or so 10th through 12th grade students from every county in the state. There are 25 faculty members, each holding advanced degrees. ASMS makes residency a requirement, which Motley said offers definite advantages.
“Learning isn’t isolated to the classroom when students live together,” Motley said. “It’s the learning that takes place outside the classroom and the bonds that our students create with one another are very important to becoming a leader, and also to learning how to get the tools and the strategies needed to be successful inside the classroom.”
ASMS students have labs, study groups and more access to instructors, including during office hours or in student organizations. The goal is to help students learn to balance academic and social lives and get ready for higher education.
“That first year (in college), they’re usually light years ahead of their peers because they have balanced that residential side of living, of being independent and mature, of the social and the academic fields,” Motley said.
First, students and parents both must commit to ASMS, meaning students really want to be there. “The students go through a process where they have to obtain recommendations from their (previous high school) teachers,” Motley explained. “We want to have the parent fill out part of the application, too. We also have interviews because we’re trying to assess if the student – since they’re so young – is mature enough, and can handle the independence.”
ASMS enforces “community standards” to help students keep their behavior in check, gives counseling and support, and makes sure an adult lives in every student residence hall.
That guidance leads to more than just academic success, Motley said. “They’re always more than willing to help. So you might come on campus and you might see a student who looks like they’re doing chores, which will be a little bit different than a regular school. But that’s because this is their home away from home. All of our students will do work (so) they have ownership in helping to maintain our campus and keep it up.”
Students will also create many of their own extracurricular activities, including clubs that give back to the community, Motley said. ASMS has more than 40 clubs, some devoted to fun activities, but many dedicated to service or academics. Some clubs have won national recognition for involved students, and created opportunities for them to work alongside professionals in the academic or STEM fields.
Motley mentioned a student who “actually made a fully functioning prosthetic leg out of a used bicycle he got from Goodwill. And it took him about three hours. He just actually added a couple of nuts and bolts. … It’s remarkable,” she said.
All classes at ASMS are advanced – taught at a level equivalent to a college course. “Their instructors have had experience at the college level. Many times they use textbooks that are college textbooks,” Motley said. “And so for that reason, especially in our state, a lot of our universities will give them … college credit for some of our courses because they know that it has that rigor and the standard that we have here at ASMS.”
“You think you’d bring all these smart kids together, and they’d be competitive,” Motley said. “But really, they’re not. They help one another, and they want each other to be successful.”
Motley is full of success stories about ASMS graduates – like the one from a small Alabama town who started college with a perfect ACT score, or the one whose work at Ford led to developing a widely used touch screen system, or the one who helped create Coca-Cola’s Freestyle vending machines to let restaurant customers customize their soft drinks.
It’s easy to hear the pride in her voice.
“Our students are trailblazers,” she said. “They want more out of their education. They want to be challenged and so they really are. They want to be here; they want to take on extra classes beyond the minimum requirement.”
Bringing together a diverse, driven student body with a team of passionate, devoted teachers makes ASMS something special, Motley said.
“It’s a jewel. It’s a great thing that our state should be very proud to have,” she said. ASMS is for “those students who want to have the opportunity to get an education to make a better life for themselves and to give back to our state and to our nation. It’s a wonderful place.”
For more information, visit the ASMS website.