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This year’s Forest Park Middle School graduating class may mark a first in Forest Park history, as more of its students plan on attending Proviso West High School than Proviso East.

According to a survey by the school district of its eighth-graders’ high school plans, nine of the 91 graduating students plan on attending Proviso West in the fall, while eight plan on going to Proviso East. Sixteen students plan on attending the Proviso Math and Science Academy. Three students surveyed simply said they plan on attending Proviso without specifying which school.

“It’s not unheard of, but it definitely would have been unusual in the past [for Forest Park students to attend Proviso West],” said Forest Park School District 91 Superintendent Randolph Tinder.

Though Forest Park residents typically feed into Proviso East, it seems the increased interest in Proviso West, located at 4701 W. Harrison Street in Hillside, is due in large part to Proviso’s East West Magnet Program, which is now entering its second year.

The program, designed to allow high school students to pursue specific interests much like a college major, features two components”a fine arts and communications program, based at East, and a global studies and technologies program, based at West.

Both programs include four subsections, according to program director Kay Meredith. Proviso East’s program is divided into sections covering culinary arts and hospitality management, healthcare, fine and performing arts and public safety. Proviso West’s program, meanwhile, covers accounting and finance, electronic media production, auto technology and transportation, and world languages.

“The students specialize in those themes,” Meredith said. “They take required courses like algebra and physical education. But, in addition, they take elective courses within the specific area they major in.”

Forest Park resident Bob Cox said that his son, Andy, was close to transferring to a private school when he first heard of the magnet program last year.

“The reason I got interested was that my son’s experience at East was par, but wasn’t anything exceptional,” Cox said. “We were going to go the route of private school.”

Instead, Andy transferred to Proviso West to study electronic media, and is now on the school district’s honor roll. “He found a different purpose for why he goes to school,” said Cox.

Meredith said that the Proviso West program attracted eight Forest Park students in its inaugural year last year, while the program at East attracted four Forest Parkers.

The magnet programs attracted about 200 total students in their first year, and Meredith said she expects about 325 new students in the coming school year. Eighth-graders and freshman are eligible to apply starting in late fall. The application process is relatively noncompetitive, according to Meredith, with the focus falling more on matching students to their interests than on restricting the program to students with a certain grade-point average.

In addition to courses in their specified areas of interest, magnet program students take a daily career advisory course, intended to monitor their progress in the program and connect them with job and college opportunities.

Each magnet program student completes an internship geared toward their interests during their senior year of high school. Though the program has not yet had a senior class, Meredith noted that the program has already built working relationships with the Loyola School of Medicine and the legal division of the McDonald’s Corp.

So far, these relationships have provided opportunities for students to be tutored by Loyola pre-med students and to participate in mock hearings and other role-playing exercises with the help of McDonald’s attorneys. Meredith hopes such experiences will lead to future internship opportunities.

The program, according to Meredith, is based on the philosophy that students will excel when given the opportunity to focus on their unique interests and to interact with a community of like-minded students.

“[It’s based on] documentation that we have of smaller learning communities and of the success students have had when part of a smaller learning community,” she said.

The program is funded through a three-year $4.6 million Magnet School Assistance grant received through the U.S. Department of Education. The grant is intended to cover start-up costs for magnet programs, including additional equipment and staff. Once the grant expires in 2008, the Proviso District 209 school board will decide whether to maintain the program out of the district’s own pocketbook.

Though the inclusion of the word “magnet” in the program’s title often leads to confusion with the new Proviso Math and Science Academy at 8601 Roosevelt Road in Forest Park, commonly referred to as a “magnet school,” Meredith emphasized that the two are completely separate from one another.

“Most people don’t even know about the program,” said Cox, who recently provided a testimonial of his experiences with the program at an open house information session which attracted around 300 parents. “They just assume it’s the Math and Science Academy.”

Proviso East was attended by 2,068 students during the 2004-05 school year, while Proviso West had 2,763 students. The 2005 Illinois State Board of Education’s school district report cards showed that 22.2 percent of Proviso East students’ test scores met or exceeded state standards, while Proviso West faired slightly better, with 28.2 percent of students meeting the standards. Both numbers are still well below the state average of 65.2 percent.

More information about the East West Magnet Program is available at www.eastwestmagnet.org.