If all goes according to an ambitious plan laid out by administrators last week, there will not be one Proviso Math and Science Academy in Proviso Township High Schools District 209 — there will essentially be three.
In a lengthy interview on Sept. 4, D209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez said the district is seeking to open math and science academies at Proviso East and Proviso West that replicate PMSA's academic curriculum while continuing to increase the student population at the selective enrollment school in Forest Park.
Rodriguez said the expansion will benefit students in the district who have the capability of excelling in PMSA's academically rigorous curriculum, which notably includes the International Baccalaureate Diploma program.
The program allows high school students the opportunity to earn college credits and is considered by some education experts to be more comprehensive in its assessment of students' intellectual and emotional skills than honors and AP courses.
Rodriguez and PMSA Principal Bessie Karvelas said that since PMSA secured its IB Diploma authorization in 2016, academic performance has improved significantly at the school. They're hoping for similar results among math and science academy students at East and West.
On average, district officials said, around 500 students a year apply for entry into PMSA, which accepted roughly 50 percent of those applicants this year. Rodriguez said that around 850 students currently attend PMSA — an increase of roughly 15 percent over the school's 2016 enrollment.
"There are basically two expansions. Currently, there's an expansion happening at PMSA internally, where we're going from 742 students to over 900 next year," Rodriguez said. "This other expansion into East and West will bring the number of students [receiving access to PMSA's rigorous curriculum] even higher."
Rodriguez said that 130 incoming freshmen at East and West — 70 at each school — could enroll in the new academies starting in either the 2020-21 or 2021-22 school years. Those are 130 students who, in prior years, would have been denied admission into PMSA because of the school's limited space, the superintendent said.
"So we are proposing to open this possibility at East and West. We are proposing, for lack of not having another name right now, a Proviso East Math and Science Academy and a Proviso West Math and Science Academy," Rodriguez said.
"Those students will be students of their respective schools in an International Baccalaureate program at each school, but those programs are a replication of PMSA," he said. "Everything PMSA does will happen there. So, instead of 21 credits for graduation, it will be 25. Instead of a seven-period day, it will be an eight-period day."
Karvelas, who doubles as the district's chief innovation officer and was tapped to oversee the expansion effort, echoed Rodriguez, saying the district is "literally replicating" PMSA's academic program.
That means five years of math and two years of a research intensive curriculum in areas of personal interest to students. Karvelas said PMSA students also start studying foreign language earlier than students in other high schools and are required to pass international exams in order to secure the IB diploma.
"The same IB diploma and the same rigor is going to be [at the PMSA replicas at East and West]," Karvelas said on Sept. 4. "We're just serving more students in our community. They'll still identify with their school [East or West], but the academic program will be different."
Rodriguez said that there will be one application for all three math and science academies, with an area for parents to indicate their top choice among the three. The admissions process will be the same as in years past, he said. Students are admitted to PMSA based on a variety of factors, including teacher recommendations and test scores, among others.
With enrollment expanding beyond the Forest Park campus, a student who doesn't score high enough in the admissions process to get into the original PMSA (if that's his or her top choice on the enrollment application) will still have the opportunity to enroll in the math and science academies at East or West.
Rodriguez said that his administration has been communicating with architects from Perkins and Will about how to accommodate the smaller math and science academies.
"There are ideas about building separate wings, which would be segregation," Rodriguez said. "We're also talking about co-utilization, so perhaps they will be on the same floor, because they are going to take electives together and be in the cafeteria together. We don't want to segregate completely; instead we want to have a co-utilization model where students are able to mingle and be together — just like our College and Career Academies at East and West."
Rodriguez said that administrators are still working on determining how much the expansion might cost, but he provided a rough estimate of around $1 million a year, which includes funding for six to seven additional teachers at each school, program directors, clerks and counselors. The money, the superintendent said, would come from the district's general fund and not new taxes.
"Our year-end balances have been positive, so we do have the capacity of utilizing some monies to do this," Rodriguez said.
The superintendent added that the expansion will not substantially alter the nature and timeline of construction work related to the district's master facilities plan, which the D209 school board approved in January. The plan calls for a range of capital improvements — including life-safety maintenance projects, electrical upgrades, repositioning athletic fields, among others — that could cost more than $100 million over a 10-year period.
Rodriguez said the prospect of expanding PMSA's academic offerings to East and West was discussed with architects while the master facilities plan was being developed.
Karvelas said that both East and West would need to apply separately for IB diploma authorization — a process that takes between two and four years. It took PMSA two years to obtain its IB authorization, which it secured in 2016. Proviso West is currently applying for IB Career-related Programme status, which is distinct from, and less rigorous than, the IB Diploma program.
District officials said that despite the two- to four-year authorization process, East and West will have obtained IB status by the time the freshmen who are accepted into the new academies at those schools are poised to receive their IB Diplomas. Students don't start the IB course of study until their junior year of high school.
Since it opened in 2005, PMSA has become a local juggernaut in the annual academic rankings of area high schools. In 2018, the school was ranked third-best public high school in the Chicago area by Chicago Magazine and U.S. News & World Report ranked the school the seventh-best high school in the state and 175th in the country.
The school has also racked up other honors. Last year, for instance, the U.S. Department of Education named PMSA a National Blue Ribbon School in recognition of its effort to close the race-based and income-based achievement gap among students. The school was among only 24 public schools in the state and 349 public and private schools in the nation to earn the distinction, according to the Forest Park Review.
Meanwhile, East and West have languished near the bottom of local and national school rankings and their reputations have lagged far behind their sister school despite the significant progress that's been made at each school in recent years, Rodriguez said.
The superintendent also addressed criticisms that the new academies at East and West could lead to more social stratification and potential confusion in school buildings that already have a range of academic pathways and curricula.
Along with the College and Career Academy model that is a staple at both East and West, East also has a two-year contract with the nonprofit Marzano Academy, which "helps schools implement personalized competency-based education, a system that empowers students to study and master skills at their own pace, and turn to peers, the internet, library and other outlets before they lean on teachers for help," according to the Review.
"With the buildings, there are still possibilities to reimagine how we do things. What's not working are the levels of academic achievement at East and West within the last 20 years. They're not acceptable," Rodriguez said.
During the process of creating the facilities plan, architects and community members floated the possibility of closing PMSA's standalone Forest Park campus — a converted medical office building — and moving the school to the campuses of East and West. The mere notion prompted outrage from PMSA parents and students. Rodriguez conceded that it could be a tall order persuading people that the new math and science academies at East and West are more than mere consolation prizes, but he argued that the rigorous curriculum will do a lot to change the current narrative.
"We have to change that reality to ensure we're not promoting a culture of low expectations. It's no secret [East and West are among the lower-performing schools]," he said. "How do we challenge that? The idea of IB at East and West brings equity, brings excellence and it's proven. It will help the test scores and the reputations at Proviso East and West. It will bring folks in the township a sense of hope that something big is happening here."
Rodriguez was scheduled to present his proposal to the full D209 school board at a regular meeting on Sept. 10. The superintendent said that board members have expressed tacit support for the proposal, which he said has been talked about informally since at least 2016.