David Sims of Forest Park knows why he is one of the 123 students enrolled in the inaugural year of the Proviso Mathematics and Science Academy: “Because I’m smart,” he said with a grin as he sat at lunch with friends on the second official day of school.

He’s right ” members of the first-ever graduating class at the Math and Science Academy are some of the top-performing students in District 203, whittled down from 327 applicants through an extensive application process that included numerous tests, personal essays, and letters of recommendation.

Since classes started at the Math and Science Academy on August 12, students say they haven’t heard much beyond their teachers’ introductory spiels, but agree that they are looking forward to having better teachers and learning more.

“In Spanish today, we just reviewed, but it was like an entire year of middle school,” said Adreinne Decker.

“It’s beautiful,” said Otis Williams of the school building, a sentiment his classmates echoed.

“When I got accepted, I almost cried,” Williams said.

Building construction was finished so recently that the Academy’s two-week introductory program for students had to be held off-campus at Dominican University.

“You can fit inside the lockers!” Carynn Swiatkowski said.

Richard Bryant, director of teaching and learning at the Academy, said that the Academy will utilize an inquiry-based and standards-driven approach to learning.

Bryant, who worked for eleven years at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, cited The International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) from several years ago, which said that math and science instruction in the United States is a mile wide and an inch deep.

“There is so much focus on covering curriculum that students don’t look at the transference of problem solving from one area of study to another,” Bryant said.

He says that instruction at the Math and Science Academy will be nothing like traditional “sit and get” models, where teachers lecture to students from the front of a classroom and focus is on regurgitating information from textbooks.

“Textbooks do not drive the curriculum,” he said. “Students will be presented with ill-structured problems and asked to formulate questions. Teachers in those instances will serve as facilitators and guides to the information.”

In Distance Learning rooms, students will interact with visiting professors or professionals whom the Academy teams up with to provide insight into areas of study determined by students’ interest. And in Innovation Laboratories, students will conduct research required for graduation, that will further their individual “plans of inquiry” in collaboration with a mentor.

“Kids have the opportunity to take control of their learning,” said Melvin Berry, director of operations and student life at the Academy. “One question begets another question, and an answer begets another question.”

Ultimately, students will present the findings of their plans of inquiry to fellow students, parents, and community members.

Every student and staff member at the Academy will have access to a laptop computer every day, and the teaching of seven foreign languages, including Swahili, Arabic and Mandarin, has been approved.

“This semester is going to be getting used to this way of learning,” Bryant said. “Second semester we’ll focus more on what those plans of inquiry will look like, and by sophomore year I hope that students will be fully engaged in their plans and taking advantage of the instrumentation provided here.”

“We want to be responsive to parents and students needs,” Berry said. “Right now I’m just concerned with making sure the lights are on, the doors open and close, and the air conditioning works where we need it to.”

“But behind that is a staff that is working extremely hard, long hours, 16-to-18-hour days to make sure that we’re up and going.”