Year after year, the accolades for Wheeling High School continue to pile up. The school appears on lists of best high schools in the nation. It has hosted U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Former principal Lazaro Lopez -- who guided the school's transition to a career-oriented, STEM school -- was named the best principal in the state.
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But with all the national recognition and praise that surround Wheeling High School, state data shows the school's test scores -- which consistently hover near the bottom of the pack compared to other suburban schools -- have remained stagnant, or dropped in the years since administrators shifted to a STEM-focused curriculum. The STEM acronym stands for the program's areas of emphasis: science, technology, engineering and math.
This year, only 50 percent of Wheeling students met or exceeded state standards in math on the Prairie State Achievement Exam. In science it was 61 percent, and both scores dropped a few points from previous years.
In 2007, the year Lopez took the reins, the average composite ACT score was 21.6, the exact score as five years later. This year, the composite score dropped to 21.1, still above the state average of 20.3 but lower than in many other suburban schools.
Administrators are quick to say the numbers don't mean the school is failing. In fact, they argue that Wheeling is a success for simply not doing worse on those national numbers -- which they contend don't paint the full picture of the school. Success, they say, comes in spite of the school's changing demographics and increasing number of at-risk students who otherwise could have caused scores to plummet further.
Ten years ago, Wheeling High School was 20 percent low-income students; this year the number is 42.4 percent, much higher than the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 average of 25.5 percent.
A decade ago, Wheeling was 58.4 percent white with a Hispanic population of 28.5 percent; now those numbers have nearly reversed themselves with 50.7 percent of students identified as Hispanic and 39.8 percent white.
"When 43 percent of your population is living in poverty, that does affect what's going on at home and their ability to work in school when they are thinking about outside stresses," said Wheeling High School Principal Angela Sisi. "We are striving for higher, but we have to meet the students where they are and help them succeed from there, not just on the ACT, but in life."
Wheeling's situation is unique in District 214, which is why officials said it is unfair to compare Wheeling to such neighboring schools as Prospect High School, which consistently is a top performer in the suburbs on standardized tests. There, only 10 percent of the student population is low-income. Compared to schools with similar populations, such as in Chicago or other suburbs with low-income, diverse populations, officials say Wheeling is a success.
The shifting demographics are a main reason Lopez said they decided to shift the school's focus to STEM and make sure every student worked toward a career pathway while at Wheeling.
"We could see there was going to be a difficult demographic shift, and we knew based on data in other communities that that typically means a significant drop in performance levels, so we wanted to make sure that didn't happen at Wheeling," said Lopez, who is now the District 214 associate superintendent for curriculum and learning.
The STEM focus at Wheeling permeates the entire curriculum, officials said, with the scientific method being used to teach students how to ask the right questions and do research in English, social studies and foreign language classes as well.
Officials at Wheeling touted student growth on the ACT compared to where those same students scored on the EXPLORE test upon entering high school. EXPLORE is another test administered by ACT that is used as a predictor of college-readiness. Officials said with students coming in at a lower level each year, it's more difficult to achieve higher levels of success.
The Class of 2012 entered Wheeling with an average EXPLORE score of 16.5; for the Class of 2014 that score was down to 15.4. The national expected growth from EXPLORE to ACT composite is about 4.5 points; at Wheeling it has been 6.5 points.
"There are a lot of schools that look like ours that aren't having those kinds of results," Lopez said. "Because their entry point is lower, their ending point is lower. Our students are entering more at risk but reaching higher levels of achievement, so that is a success."
But the ACT and EXPLORE numbers are only a few measures officials are using to gauge Wheeling's success.
Access to and success on STEM-related Advanced Placement tests is another focus for the school, Sisi said. Each year more students are enrolled in AP classes, which teach at a college level, as well as taking and passing (with a score of 3 or higher) the tests, she said. Passing scores on AP exams can be used for college credit.
In 2007, students took 119 AP tests in math and science subjects, while 207 tests are projected to be taken in 2014, a 74 percent increase, according to district numbers. In all subjects, 353 AP tests were taken in 2007 at Wheeling, with the number rising to 653 tests this year.
"All students should be able to take an AP course," Sisi said. "It's not about watering down the curriculum, but it's changing the way you teach."
When the shift to STEM-focused curriculum was first brought up, Lopez said, it wasn't about boosting test scores.
"The goal was for school to be relevant and engaging to the students. If it's relevant, the kids are more likely to show up, to do better in classes and be better prepared for the future when they leave school," he said. "The goal is for kids to walk across the stage and have a future," Lopez said.
For Wheeling graduates that can mean something different. Only 46 percent of the Class of 2013 indicated that they were going to a four-year school, down from 50 percent in 2011. Officials attributed that drop to the financial difficulties of attending college.
So far the school hasn't been tracking its graduates to find out how many of them major in STEM-related fields and how many get jobs in the workforce or post-college in STEM fields, but Lopez said it may hire a company to compile that data in the future.
For senior Nick Gross, the access to after-school programs in robotics and classrooms such as the nano technology lab have helped him plan for a future at college and a career in STEM.
"If I hadn't gone to Wheeling High School, my whole education and future would be completely different," Gross said.
Wheeling is still a rarity nationwide -- a public nonselective (applications not required) school with a STEM focus -- as one of only about 100 members of the National Consortium of Specialized Secondary Schools in Math, Science and Technology.
Of the schools in the consortium, only two other than Wheeling come from Illinois -- the Illinois Math and Science Academy, a state-funded boarding school in Aurora with highly competitive admissions, and the Proviso Math and Science Academy, a public school that requires students to apply and be admitted in District 209.
"It's not even about STEM," Lopez said. "It's about every school needing to identify its strengths and use those be relevant to its community. For some it might be STEM, for others it might be something else."
And in spite of struggling test scores, officials said Wheeling will be sticking with STEM for the foreseeable future.
Lopez doesn't deny that the STEM transition and his own advocacy of the school has brought a lot of regional and national attention to Wheeling, but he said it's only been a positive thing for the students and the school.
"The students realize that people are paying attention to what happens at Wheeling," he said. "It helps them feel good about what they're doing and reinforces the notion that what we're doing there is important."
It's also helped by bringing in partnerships with colleges and manufacturing companies, government grants and high-tech equipment such as the new nano technology lab that many students would never have access to otherwise.
Students at Wheeling also have access to college credit while in high school through a partnership with Harper College. Since 2007 there have been 460 dual credit classes taken by Wheeling High School students and another 108 college certifications earned by the students, giving many graduates a leg up in the working world, officials said.
"We have to focus on growth because we can't control where the students are when they come into high school," Lopez said. "We are a success. When you walk into Wheeling, the students are excited to be there and they are very much aware of the unique opportunities they have."
Success: Wheeling only public nonselective school with STEM focus in state