Alternative high school hopes to rebound

Evergreen College isn't the only healthy alternative school in the United States, but for others, surival has been more of a struggle. For example, take one alternative high school in the Midwest and its fight to stay alive.

University High School in Urbana, Ill., has a basketball team that made headlines a few years ago when it finally broke a 96-game losing streak. The athletic trophy case in ''Puny Uni's'' hallway is sparsely stocked, mostly with chess championship prizes. But while University High School's stiff academic standards (1 applicant in 4 is accepted) may make for laughable sports, the experimental curriculum laboratory on the University of Illinois (UI) campus has also turned out a high proportion of well-known thinkers and writers, including conservative Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George F. Will.

On the very same day in 1981 that James Tobin won the Nobel Prize for economics, the College of Education at UI voted to recommend cutting off funding for Uni, which serves as an academic ''guinea pig'' for testing new teaching methods and materials.

Not only was Dr. Tobin a Uni High graduate, but he was also the small school's third Nobel Prize winner: Philip Anderson won the Nobel for physics in 1977; Hamilton Smith won it for medicine in 1978.

Glittery names and prestigious prizes seem to have made no difference in the high school's fight for survival. After the university coffers were shut, Uni turned to the state, and to a successful voluntary contribution program. Parents of Uni students have already chipped in some $118,000.

But the school isn't out of trouble yet: Uni should know by the middle of March whether it will get $350,000 in state aid it needs to stay open.

Why is experimental education having to struggle to survive - and why is it on the outs?

''Because there have been so many failures,'' says Uni principal Warren Royer. ''People see a high percentage of risk and failure, and they want to make sure their children get a good education. They know the old-fashioned standards work, and while there may be something that works better, they decide to play it safe and stay with what works until something better is proved to them.''

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