The perfect high

An Illinois public school has achieved stunning success by admitting only gifted students and lavishing them with resources. But is this fair?

Published January 24, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Our high schools are failing our teenagers. On this point, everyone -- from vote-grubbing politicians to distraught parents -- agrees. But when it comes to devising solutions that might actually result in the education of our kids, consensus is as hard to find as a well-paid teacher.

"Make the curriculum more relevant. Shrink schools and classes. Create specialized charter schools; make every classroom a diverse, intimate learning community," say the unrepentant '60s idealists, the tenderhearted school reformers.

"Hold teachers and schools accountable," demand Republicans from President Bush on down. "Test early and often. Use vouchers to save good kids from bad schools."

And what should we do when our teenagers drop out, act out, cry out? "Shrinks! Prozac! Ritalin!" advise the bleeding hearts. "Lock 'em up!" demand the right-wingers.

Smack-dab in the middle of the country, and smack-dab in the middle of this raging national debate, on a picture-perfect campus 35 miles west of Chicago, one public high school is employing many of these methods at once, with results that are stunningly successful by some measures, controversial -- scary, even -- by others. It is an institution that appears to answer the question, "If money were no object, could our schools be saved?"

At the Illinois Math and Science Academy, the curriculum is challenging and engaging. The student population and the classes are small, gender-balanced and ethnically diverse. The teachers are handpicked, well-paid and methodically evaluated; testing is frequent and rigorous. State funding subsidies and grants serve like vouchers, providing each IMSA student with a private-school-quality public education at a cost to parents ranging from zero to $940 a year. These teenagers are indeed locked up: Aside from periodic weekend furloughs, IMSA students never leave the campus.

And one more thing: The complex, competitive IMSA admissions process eliminates two-thirds of applicants -- all but the state's highest-achieving teens.

"The vision of the Illinois Math and Science Academy," says the school's mission statement, "is to create a learning enterprise that liberates the genius and goodness of all children and invites and inspires the power and creativity of the human spirit for the world."

It is a heady goal in an era when most public high schools dare aspire no higher than to graduate the majority of their students, and teachers are hard pressed to notice, let alone liberate, genius or goodness in the 150 to 200 students they face in their classrooms each day. It doesn't take an IMSA brainiac to deconstruct the disparity: Most American public high schools spend $6,000 to $10,000 per year to educate each student. IMSA spends $20,000.

Normally, K-12 schools are funded by their states' boards of education. But when IMSA was established by the Illinois General Assembly in 1985 to "assure technological skills for the work force, and assist in the preparation of professionals to serve the interests of Illinois in such fields as engineering, research, teaching and computer technology," it was also decreed that IMSA would be endowed by state-appropriated general funds, which now make up 85 percent of its budget. Most of the rest of IMSA's $14.3 million in operating expenses comes from private and government grants and contracts.

This rich bounty is offered in exchange for fulfillment of the school's two-pronged legislative charge: "to serve the people of Illinois as a preparatory institution, and the school system of the State as a catalyst and laboratory for the advancement of learning." In addition to producing the techno-geniuses who, it is hoped, might help keep Illinois and America competitive in the global marketplace, IMSA also consults with state education policymakers and provides model programs and training for Illinois teachers.

IMSA's critics cry foul. The "gifted" kids who are least in need of extra help get more of it, they say, while the vast majority of high schoolers in Illinois founder in schools whose budgets can't begin to meet their needs. Although IMSA's funding isn't drawn from the same pot that feeds the state's "normal" schools, critics argue that IMSA offers the state's best and brightest teens the kind of education to which every child is entitled -- yielding results that every school would envy, especially in this climate of frenzied fixation on standardized test scores and other traditional indicators of success.

Indeed, IMSA boasts astronomical SAT scores and the second-highest ACT score in the nation. Ninety-nine percent of IMSA graduates go to college; two-thirds go on to earn degrees in science or math. The persistent nationwide "achievement gap" between Caucasian vs. African-American and Latino students is far narrower at IMSA, as is the historic gap between males and females in the realms of math and science achievement. In 1998 the mean SAT score for female IMSA students was 1400, compared to 1017 for females nationwide; the school's first Rhodes scholar and Westinghouse Talent Search winner were both girls.

"There needs to be a place for people who have exhausted the standard high school curriculum and are looking for a better challenge before college," says IMSA junior Jessica D'Souza. "IMSA is that place, at least for those of us here."

"The average teen doesn't have the maturity to attend this school," adds senior Kelly Willis. "In fact, a lot of IMSA kids don't have that maturity, but they get by in a cloud of teacher sympathy and student camaraderie. There's a lot of people at IMSA who never fit societal norms, and they come together here."

Bearing "in loco parentis" responsibility for 650 teenagers, with a level of control possible only in a school that monitors its students around the clock, the IMSA staff closely evaluates students' psychological as well as academic well-being.

"We have many systems and structures in place so that we intervene early in a way that meets the needs of the particular student," says IMSA counselor Deb McGrath. "The teachers, the counselors, the resident counselors really get to know their kids. Those students who we feel are at risk for depression, anxiety, perfectionism, sexual identity issues -- anything that might interfere with a student's ability to be successful at IMSA -- are assessed along with their families."

Sometimes that assessment leads to a phone call to the student's parents, or the suggestion that the student join a support group. In an undisclosed number of cases, the assessment results in a visit to an off-site psychiatrist and a prescription for antidepressants.

"I didn't start on meds till I came here," an IMSA junior confides. "If you go into the nurse's office, there's a huge sign-up list for medications and a Tupperware thing, and it's almost all Prozac." A classmate, listening in, nods knowingly. "I know a lot of people who were OK before," she says. "Then they came here and had to get back on their meds."

"Supposedly we're too smart," a third IMSA girl explains. "Our brain produces a lot of weird chemicals. And we think about stuff way too much."

McGrath attributes this disturbing phenomenon to homesickness, to the perfectionism that often characterizes gifted students and to "the documented susceptibility of the gifted population to depression."

Medicated or not, thinking too much or not, IMSA students, teachers and administrators alike describe the school as a tightknit, loving community in which not only ideas and intellect but individuality and personal growth are cherished and encouraged. How unusual for a public high school is that?

It's way unusual. To anyone who's spent time at any other public high school in America, the spiffy, serene IMSA campus feels like a parallel universe: an educational Oz of abundant resources, high-performing students and top-notch teachers and administrators.

The libraries and labs, the greenhouse and music rooms (music rooms!), overflow with state-of-the-art equipment. In carpeted classrooms, eager students perch on the edges of their seats -- transfixed, engaged, learning. On Wednesdays -- "Inquiry Day" -- no classes are held. Students gather instead in their Internet-wired dorm rooms, or in IMSA's high-tech Center for Imagination and Inquiry or in one of the school's many cushy common areas, collaborating on such student research projects as "Bioinformatics and Recurrence Analysis in Detecting Correlative Patterns in Amino Acid Sequences," "Achievement Levels in Gender Segregated Classrooms" and "Antiretroviral Effects of C-Reactive Protein Against HIV."

And if the IMSA kids seem a bit like Stepford students, gliding through a Stepford school devoid of the messy, necessary chaos of adolescence -- the screaming and the sullenness; the spitballs and the stolen cars -- absent, too, is the threat of theft or violence on campus.

In many high schools a backpack isn't safe in a locked locker; a scuffed sneaker will trigger a fistfight, or worse. But at IMSA, backpacks are shed fearlessly outside the cafeteria door; the students come and go casually in and out of dorm rooms, greeting one another and teachers with calm affection as they pass in the halls.

The multiracial clusters of kids hanging out in the Student Life Center; the high visibility of gay, bisexual and gender-bent boys, girls and others; the lunchroom tables where magenta-haired, profusely pierced punks gobble spaghetti beside bespectacled bookworms picking at their salads -- all attest to a remarkable level of tolerance.

Where are the scenes of chaos, of rage, of neglect that dominate many American public high schools? Where are the dealers and slackers roaming dark, decrepit halls; the janitors painting over (and over) graffiti scribbled on puke-colored walls; the picketing teachers, the sewage-stinking bathrooms, the lunchtime brawls?

The pristine walls of IMSA are adorned instead with staff-authorized, student-made posters: "Party Clean -- go drug free." "Get Buff -- Carry Your Stuff." "Prayer Meetings M-T-Th-Fri, 7 a.m."

The anxiety that simmers beneath the surface here is not fear of crime, but of failure. "For some of our kids, failure is getting a B," says McGrath. "There's a question that many of our students have. 'Am I really qualified to be here? Am I really up to this?' Even once they realize that they are, it's a matter of rising to the level of their own expectations: straight A's and perfection on every assignment. That's a pretty high expectation for a teenager to have."

"It's the constant push for perfection that sets the environment and the people at IMSA apart from the 'normal' high school," says student Grace Woo. "Most of the pressure, we put on ourselves."

"Much of IMSA's budget goes into advertisement, and often it's painfully clear to the students that we're being put on display so the school will seem worthy of receiving more money," says senior Kelli Willis. "I try my best to work up to my potential in school; but my activities and my mind-set are my own. My standards for my life and my future are my own and they're based on what makes me happy."

"IMSA consists primarily of two types of people," asserts junior Lisa Yung. "Those who procrastinate at their own expense, neglecting whatever opportunities they may have just from attending this institution, and those who become engrossed in the obsession with college applications: 'I want to go to an Ivy League.' Why do I stay, then?" Lisa answers her own question: "Because this is as perfect as things may get."

Whether one sees IMSA as admirable or elitist, or both, the contrast between IMSA and the typical high school raises disturbing questions. Is it only our "gifted" children who deserve an IMSA-quality education? If tomorrow's nuclear physicists are worth $20,000 a year to us, how much should we spend on tomorrow's dancers, or teachers, or bus drivers?

If the state of Illinois can muster the public and private support required to offer this all-too-rare gift -- an excellent public school education, designed to foster the particular gifts and passions of its students -- to the few hundred gifted kids at IMSA, why can't every state and school district offer it, in one form or another, to every American teenager? And what might we save by educating kids today, instead of paying for their welfare checks, their therapist bills and their incarceration tomorrow?

"IMSA's existence begs a few key questions," says University of Illinois at Chicago researcher Susan Klonsky, who studies schools in Illinois and the nation. "IMSA was meant to address the inequities across the state by providing certain kinds of learning that local school districts do not provide. It does a pretty fine job of this for the kids who attend IMSA. But what about the other 99 percent of kids? They need special attention, too."

"When the idea of IMSA was first conceived," says student Willis, "it was meant to be a test school. If things went well, other gifted residence schools were meant to be built in other parts of Illinois. It's obvious that IMSA has been a success, but the board decided it would cost too much money and chose to not build other academies across the state.

"The techniques IMSA uses -- small class sizes, highly educated teachers and a commitment to ethical leadership -- are universally known as necessary in an educational environment," Willis says. "But other schools aren't given the money, so the students suffer."

"The whole definition of 'giftedness' and of 'gifted education' is questionable," Klonsky adds. "Why not change the local school to accommodate the needs of the so-called gifted, instead of segregating these kids in a separate residential school? High schools are the anchor of strong communities.

"We have to ask: What is traded off in removing high school students from the bosom of their families and from their neighborhoods?" she continues. "What do we lose by removing, as a matter of state policy, the highest-achieving students from the community?"

"Our students have higher-level thinking skills," argues IMSA counselor McGrath. She cites the application process, during which the IMSA staff considers applicants' interviews, essays and letters of recommendation along with grades and test scores, to ensure that the school accepts "critical thinkers, not just test-takers."

"Kids like ours need the academic challenge provided by peers of similar ability. And being a residential school, we can give our students access to resources -- laboratories, computers, teachers -- during the day, in the evenings and on weekends. They get extended learning time for mentorship and leadership opportunities."

Extended learning time means diminished family time -- a distinct downside, McGrath avers, of IMSA student life. "To be here, obviously, our students must be removed from their families. They're separated from Mom and Dad, from the family dog, from people in their church, their home community. Those people become a step removed from the lives of these children. They communicate more by e-mail and phone than in person. Of course there's a loss with that.

"But for the vast majority," McGrath says, "the gains far outweigh what they have to give up or do in a different way. Girls, in particular, benefit from the strong sense of community at IMSA, from the built-in acknowledgment that girls are good in mathematics and science, from the readily accessible female role models on our faculty and staff."

"At some points, I wish I were just a normal high school student without much work, who could drive around with friends and party," says Jessica D'Souza. "But being here is worth the sacrifice."

Klonsky concedes, "IMSA is not the problem. It's a symptom of the essential problem -- which is that schools are too big and too impersonal, teaching loads are too large and it is too difficult for teachers to unearth or recognize the individual gifts of their students. If schools were smaller and more able to customize their programs to meet the needs of each child, there would be less need to create special programs to meet special needs and talents."

Whatever one's opinion of "giftedness," or residential schooling, or any of the other particularities and peculiarities of IMSA, the school's existence and achievements prove a simple, disturbing truth. All handwringing and campaign speeches notwithstanding, IMSA proves that we know how to educate our children, and educate them well. We know how much it costs, and when we decide it's worth paying for, we know how to find the money.

As Klonsky says, if we choose to allocate IMSA-level resources to all of our public schools, we might discover that all of our children are gifted in ways that we can't yet imagine and don't presently value. And if those gifts were to be noticed and nurtured, maybe we wouldn't need schools like IMSA -- or Tupperware bowls full of Prozac, or juvenile halls -- as much as we seem to need them now.

By Meredith Maran

Meredith Maran, a frequent Salon contributor, is the LA-based author of 14 books including "The New Old Me" and "Why We Write." A book critic and book editor, she’s on Twitter and Instagram at @meredithmaran

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