Communities often react to new science schools the way neighbors might react to the kid down the block who buys a set of drums. Still, Leon Lederman likes to tell people how easy it was to sell the state on the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Lederman is the genial former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. If this Nobel laureate had not made it big on the scientific stage he could have earned a pretty good living working the Catskills. He quips that in his campaign for an Illinois science school he went to see Gov. James Thompson and said, "How about a James Thompson School for Gifted Kids?" and the governor replied, "Gee, that's a good idea."
Actually the battle plan rivaled Desert Storm's in its political and financial convolutions. A nonprofit corporation was set up to raise funds and juggle planning. Northern Illinois University took a formal look at the quality of math and science instruction in the region. The state board of education investigated the practicality of establishing a residential school. A conference was convened to develop a curriculum and a mission statement. Governor Thompson, legislative leaders, corporate chief executives, educators, and scientists were enlisted in the cause, and a board of trustees was recruited. Lederman, the school's major founder and its guardian angel, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on his own, eating a lot of rubber chicken and wearing out a lot of jokes. In 1986, five years after the start of the North Carolina School, the Illinois academy opened its doors in Aurora, a town forty miles west of Chicago.
"They came with their footlockers, their bass fiddles and bongo drums," Lederman recalls.
A three-year school, in contrast to North Carolina's two-year