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With more than 75 percent of the junior class failing to perform grade-level work, Proviso Township’s public high schools continued their record of dismal academic performance on the latest high-stakes exam. There is, however, some good news in this year’s results of the Prairie State Achievement Exam.

The 108 students in the junior class at Proviso Math and Science Academy may have put the district on the map. With 73 percent of test takers meeting proficiency standards in reading, math and science, the academy scored among the top high schools in the state.

Because only juniors take the exam, this year marked the first time students at the Forest Park magnet school were included in the district’s scores. The building opened on Roosevelt Road in 2005.

“It’s profoundly satisfying,” academy Principal Ed Moyer said of the students’ scores. “I almost had a tear in my eye when I opened the paper and saw them do so well.”

The math and science academy has a total enrollment of 437 students, according to the Illinois School Report Card information released Oct. 31. District 209, which also includes Proviso East and Proviso West, has a total enrollment of 5,020 students.

For years, the school district has struggled to boost classroom performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That legislation attempts to measure student learning with an annual exam. For high schools in Illinois, that test is the Prairie State Achievement Exam taken by juniors in the spring.

Those schools in which students meet grade-level expectations are said to be making “adequate yearly progress” under the federal mandate. Failing to make adequate yearly progress can result in a loss of federal funding and sanctions ranging all the way up to seeing a district taken over by state-level education officials.

To have made adequate yearly progress on the 2008 exam, at least 62.5 percent of students needed to demonstrate at least a grade-level understanding of math, science and reading. In District 209, only 23 percent of students met that standard, according to the report card.

At Proviso East in Maywood, a scant 13 percent of students demonstrated competency in these subjects.

At Proviso West in Hillside, fewer than 19 percent of students were deemed competent.

Districtwide, students struggled in all three subject areas. Only 26 percent of Proviso juniors are reading at an 11th-grade level, according to the report. In math, 21 percent met the benchmarks. Fewer than 23 percent tested as proficient in science.

Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart did not return messages seeking comment on the test scores. Also, school board President Chris Welch did not respond to requests for an interview.

In an e-mail sent by a district spokeswoman, both school officials acknowledged the high scores at Proviso Math and Science Academy, but did not mention the failing scores elsewhere.

“I am proud of our students and staff,” Collins-Hart said in the e-mail. “This exemplifies the type of academic excellence that Proviso Township High Schools District 209 stands for.”

Ensuring such success at the magnet school is becoming more difficult, however, as the district is facing a serious financial crisis. Moyer said his teachers have been unable to purchase instructional materials and, in the meantime, incoming classes continue to grow. The junior class, which is the first group of students to be accepted at the school, is 50 to 70 students smaller than the freshman and sophomore classes.

A series of open house events for next year have already seen a “tremendous” turnout, said Moyer, and applications are coming in sooner than in years past.

“I’ve gotten good at running a very lean school,” Moyer said of the budget crunch. “I’ve got to credit the staff for continually rolling with the punches.”

Moyer helped open the school three years ago, but left soon after because of an acrimonious political climate. He returned in November 2006 when the board suddenly removed two other principals from the building at the start of that school year.

Prospective students at the academy must take a test as part of the application process. Students may only enroll at the start of their freshman year. With an emphasis on math and science, teachers attempt to link all facets of the curriculum to those areas of study, according to Moyer.

According to the school’s report card, 67 percent of juniors are meeting or exceeding grade-level benchmarks in math, while 75 percent are hitting those marks in science.

For a school that emphasizes those subjects, Moyer acknowledged there is room for improvement. Part of the challenge, he said, is that students who test into the academy come from almost 30 feeder schools that vary widely in their mathematical instruction. In reading, almost 78 percent of Proviso Math and Science Academy students met proficiency standards.