Despite national recognition for its efforts in science, technology, engineering and math, the highest average ACT college entrance exam score in school history and more students than ever taking and passing Advanced Placement tests -- all in the wake of an influx at-risk students -- Wheeling High School is failing.
At least, that's according to state report cards released today and the No Child Left Behind accountability program that school officials widely agree needs to be overhauled.
Wheeling has plenty of company, as not a single Northwest suburban high school, from Barrington to Maine West in Des Plaines met adequate yearly progress due to the widening gap between student achievement and ever-rising federally mandated standards.
"You know, it's funny ... we have more students than ever being successful, yet the state and federal government identify us as a failing school," Wheeling Principal Laz Lopez said. "That's why that label has absolutely no value in the community. It's meaningless."
Lopez said he puts little stock into standardized test scores that show Wheeling juniors performed slightly lower in reading and math and the same in science compared to 2010. As a result, only 66 percent met or exceeded math standards, down from 68.1 percent the year before. And 51.2 percent met or exceeded science standards, down from 55.5 percent.
He'd rather look at Wheeling's improved performance on the 2011 ACT, which he called a more pertinent measurement because it's a college-entrance exam. Math scores rose to 23.6 from 22.8 the previous year, while science scores are up to 21.6 from 21.2.
Lopez said the 1,900 Wheeling High School students will only become more successful as Wheeling continues to incorporate STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, curriculum and restructuring it in a way that resembles a community college.
The STEM program puts more emphasis on the four disciplines and focuses on career certifications, partnerships and real-world experiences. Students can choose programs of study such as architecture, business and finance, and advanced manufacturing.
Now, instead of a student taking a traditional course load, someone interested in health sciences might spend the day diagnosing computerized mannequin patients, taping up an athlete's foot, learning medical terminology and then doing experiments in a classic biology lab.
"We're making high school relevant so it will engage students, and they'll do what they need to do to get to the next level," Lopez said.
Wheeling has been recognized by several groups, including the Society of Mechanical Engineering Educational Foundation and the STEM Schools Project, in which Wheeling, along with nine other schools across the U.S. considered to have a promising model, will be the subject of case studies. Also, Wheeling and the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora are the only two Illinois members of the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology.
The STEM focus and more rigorous and aligned courses doesn't apply to just selective students. There's a new special education class that combines geometry with computer-aided design, for instance.
Students seem to be responding across the board at the "minority majority" school, where 48 percent of the population is Hispanic and 35 percent is low-income. Though 42 percent of the Class of 2012 were considered at-risk as freshmen due to low incoming test scores, fewer students in subgroups, including economically disadvantaged and limited-English proficient, scored in the lowest academic warning category compared to 2010.
Since Lopez took the reins in 2007, Wheeling has begun a transformation aimed at preparing students for the new economy. That includes opening a digital photography lab when most other schools are stuck with the darkroom, as well as a $1 million manufacturing lab.
Wheeling was able to purchase much of its new equipment at deep discounts due to partnerships with area companies hoping to benefit from a more highly qualified future workforce.
One example is sophomore Stacy Wojtkiewicz, a budding engineer who spent the summer at global defense contractor Northrop Grumann.
"I never thought I would go through high school doing things that are allowing me to take steps toward my career," she said.
The system changes and STEM focus have contributed to a 16 percent decrease in the students receiving "D" and "F" grades and a 70 percent jump in Advanced Placement exams taken with an 82 percent pass rate, which is double the national average.
"Before it was, 'What do you need to do to graduate high school?'" Lopez said. "Now it's, 'What do you want to do with your life?' so we can get going."