After more than 400 inquiries, 311 completed applications and nerve-wracking rounds of essays and tests, 134 letters were sent out, inviting students to join an elite group: The Proviso Math and Science Academy freshman class of 2009.

Applicants for the Academy came from the 27 feeder schools and 8 feeder districts, within the township.  Of these, 38 applicants were from Forest Park Middle School and 20 were offered admission.

“We are very happy with that,” said Karen Bukowski, who oversees 117 8th graders as principal of the Forest Park Middle School. “My first expectation is they are going to be a success and the kids are going to get a phenomenal education.”

The process of deciding who would be accepted from among the township’s best and brightest fell to a six member panel that reviewed all applications, and a 27 member panel that reviewed all essays and recommendations using a system of blind reads.

In this system all distinguishing marks were removed from essays, making the process as non-ethnic and non-gendered as possible. Each essay and recommendation package was read three times.

In the process, all 311 applicants were numerically ranked as beginning, emerging, sufficient or developed in a 13-category evaluation rubric.

Students were ranked according to their courses and activities, experiences and achievements, essays, personal essays, academy essays, parent recommendations, math teacher recommendations, science teacher recommendations, principal or counselor recommendations, grades, standardized testing scores, Naglieri intelligence test scores and attendance.

Should all students attend, the class will be mostly female and very ethnically diverse. They will have an average incoming GPA of 3.5 and will have students that have traveled the world, concert pianists, skilled foreign linguists and athletes, said Kelvin Gilchrist, assistant superintendent for District 209 Schools.

Originally, the school district was aiming for 300 students in this freshman class, however only 311 applied.  Despite the low application turnout, administrators are hopeful for the future.

“People didn’t have a site to visit, to go see a class in operation, talk with faculty members who have been hired,” said Richard Bryant, co-director for the Academy, explaining the low turnout.  “Next year I anticipate that we won’t be looking at just 311 applications.”

Bryant, who has worked at two other magnet schools said the low turnout in the first year is actually the norm for startup schools like the Academy.

In addition, academic performance determined the smaller class size, Bryant said.

“In following through on our promise, we said we would admit only those students who were qualified.  134 were qualified,” he said.

The accepted students are divided into two categories.

The first category, with approximately 100 students, have been offered a full acceptance.

The second category, approximately 20 to 34 students, have been offered acceptance conditionally. To attend these students must first complete a two-week summer excel program. The summer program will be open to all students with an emphasis on the conditional acceptances, however all are encouraged to attend.

The summer program will be called Window, a reflection of both the Academy’s window shaped logo, that looks through to the world and a play on words from the program’s motto:  Window = wonder inquiry knowledge; understanding our world.

“For those students [in the summer program,] we believed it would be important for them to have a head start in understanding the methods of our instruction,” Bryant said.

The instruction Bryant is referring to is the inquiry based model, through which students are encouraged to “explore models in which the child defines the questions and builds a learning environment around it,” Gilchrist said.

 “The inquiry based model is driven by a series of questions,” Gilchrist explained. “The genius behind the model is that everybody has the skill and creativity to solve the problem because there is no right or wrong answer.”

A student, for example, could be asked how to balance a soda can in mid air. One student might approach the problem creating a magnetic field, another could fill the can with just enough water to balance it on an edge, while a third could use a combination of gravity and shooting air to balance the can, floating it in the air.

Students at the academy will have a strict comprehensive curriculum, Bryant said.

“All areas of study that would be typical in a high school environment would be included,” he said.

Students will be required to fulfill five years of mathematics, one of which is in the area of computer science, to be taken in tandem with the other mathematics courses.

They will also be required to fulfill four years of science, beginning with physics, at the freshman level, followed by chemistry, biological sciences, and finally ending with life sciences.

“These courses were approved by the District Curriculum Forum,” Bryant said. “Whether or not they are offered will be market driven.  We are going to have to see what courses the students are interested in studying and in turn that will determine the faculty who are brought on board to teach.”

The schedule will also be slightly different, as students will be using as modified block schedule with 45 minute classes on Monday and 90 minute classes the rest of the week.  Every class will meet on Monday and they alternate the rest of the week.

Mondays are called an anchor flex day and will be used to help coordinate and plan the rest of the week.  The 90 minute class periods coupled with the inquiry based model will help facilitate in-depth learning of concepts and help facilitate the connection of concepts and the transferability of concepts, Bryant said.

“On that Monday students, at some point, may be placed with a mentor that may be doing research at an institution or facility outside the academy, like Loyola Medical Center or
the Brookfield Zoo,” Bryant said.

At the Academy, students will eventually be able to participate in all levels of high school sports but, for the first year, certain sports will be conditional.

“We don’t have a gymnasium nor do we have playing fields, however we will have a wellness program and it will be integral to the curriculum,: Bryant said. “It is not simply physical education oriented there are also components incorporated into the program related to social maturity and emotional health.”

Currently, the second floor of the academy is being fitted to hold physical education facilities, which will be incorporated within the wellness program. 

“Those facilities would be studios were aerobics activity will take place, martial arts or dance, but we will also have equipment such as you would see in health clubs, treadmills and steppers and weights and so forth,” Bryant said.  “We also have on the basement level, two pools that are for cardio activity as well.” 

For varsity and prep sports, the Academy is currently considering alternatives.

“The most viable right now would be to have interested students participating with the teams at the other two township high schools, Proviso East and West,” Bryant said, adding that acceptance is conditional to being qualified for teams and that the agreements have not yet been worked out.

“We will have to be sure that what we do is in alignment with all rules and regulations,” Bryant said.  “We will have to work with issues related to logistics and so forth.”