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updated: 8/1/2014 12:35 PM

Just what is IMSA?

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The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora -- where Elgin-area Superintendent Jose Torres is headed -- is a world apart from the district he leaves behind.

Torres is going from leading a K-12 district with more than 40,000 students, where there has been a major effort to get graduates to attend college at all, to one where 99 percent go on to college. In Elgin, 50 percent of the students are of Latino descent; only 8.8 percent are at IMSA, a distinction that has been a sore spot for some state legislators.

IMSA opened in 1986. and was the brainchild of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, then-head of Fermilab; Walter Massey, a physicist who was director of Argonne National Laboratory; and the Valley Industrial Association.

They persuaded state leaders, including Gov. James Thompson, that Illinois needed to focus on encouraging students who were apt at science and mathematics to pursue those subjects with rigor while still in high school. They also said the state needed a laboratory to test ideas on how to teach those subjects.

IMSA enrolls 650 10th- through 12th-graders each year, according to materials on its website. Students come from all over the state to live at the school.

The school is a separate government agency, with its own board of trustees that reports to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, not the state school board.

As of 2012, it graduated 4,650 students. Ninety-nine percent went on to college, and of those, 60 percent pursued undergraduate degrees in science, mathematics, technology or engineering. Alumni include co-founders and engineers of YouTube, PayPal and Yelp; the founder of Match Inc.; and the chief executive officer of the New York Stock Exchange's Amex Options.

Alumni also helped develop the software that was used in Netscape, one of the first commercial Internet browsers.

It has had two presidents since its founding. Stephanie Pace Marshall stepped down in 2007, and Glenn "Max" McGee served from 2007 until last year.

This spring, Democratic state legislators threatened to cut IMSA's budget, saying they were displeased with the relative lack of minority students at the school. In the 2012-13 school year, the academy reported that 45 percent of its students were of Asian descent, 38 percent were white, 8.8 percent were Latino and 7.7 percent were black. About 74 percent of its students come from the Chicago area.

It wasn't the first time the academy faced such criticism. A 1999 state auditor general report found that, despite a mandate to represent the state's demographics, recruitment efforts in Chicago and East St. Louis and an admissions policy that allowed students with lower scores but sought-after ethnicities to be admitted, the students remained primarily white and Asian.

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