New Trier: A top school can't rest on its laurels

Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Woebegone may be the town where "all the children are above average." At New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., it's not just the students but the faculty, test scores, sports teams, after-school activities, and physical facilities that leave the average far behind.

New Trier, with its college-like campus nestled in the midst of Chicago's wealthy North Shore suburbs, is one of the stars of the US public high school system. Scores on standardized tests at the 3,315-student school are among the highest in the nation. The class of 1998 alone produced 14 National Merit Scholars, 63 finalists or semifinalists, and 221 Illinois State Scholars. The strong academics are supplemented by a sophisticated array of additional offerings - in-depth instruction in the arts, 88 sports programs, and 90-plus extracurricular activities - that surpass many small colleges.

It's the kind of profile, complete with the best of facilities and the highest of test scores, that has helped New Trier come to mind when lists of great schools are drawn up.

Yet this year US News and World Report dropped New Trier and several other highly regarded schools in affluent areas from its list of best public high schools. The magazine explained that while these schools excel at turning out high-scoring, well-educated kids, they don't do "better than expected, given their students' backgrounds."

In an era of intense scrutiny of public schools, even the "best and the brightest" are having to take a second look at how they're doing. Poorly performing schools are being told that all their students can learn to read. Schools in wealthy suburbs are being asked to help already strong students achieve more and to make sure students who aren't top performers aren't left behind. No longer is it sufficient to meet traditional goals. What matters is whether you continue to innovate and progress year after year.

"My biggest challenge in nine years here has been to find ways to not just maintain but to enhance the school's performance," says Henry Bangser, superintendent of New Trier Township High School District 208. One way that is accomplished, he explains, is through networking with other successful high schools to learn of their best practices.

Mr. Bangser is candid about admitting that New Trier is not looking to leap on any bandwagon promoting radical systemic change. "That's interesting but not directly relevant to what we do," he says. "Most of the people I see aren't doing things like that."

A more useful source of new ideas for New Trier, Bangser says, comes from newly hired faculty. Because the school tends to attract experienced teachers, Bangser says he's often able to lure candidates with as much as 15 years' experience at other strong schools.

"That's instant input," he says. In addition, he credits his established teachers with staying on top of their own fields. "When I see someone predisposed to ask questions and think about things, I hire that person," he says.

Abundant resources

Certainly one of the sources of New Trier's success is affluence. The wealthy suburban area has per-pupil spending of more than $14,000. Average teacher salaries in the district are $67,018, allowing the school to attract the cream of the professional crop.

But heavier spending alone cannot explain New Trier's ability to churn out highly prepared students, say some members of its faculty.

Jan Borja, chairwoman of the freshman girls' advisers, agrees with Bangser that the school's true excellence lies in the quality of its personnel. "Teachers here are always growing," she says.

There are also constant challenges, other faculty members agree, which push the school to continue to reexamine the way things are done. "We've got as many problems as any other suburban school," says Gene Helfrich, chairman of freshman boys' advisers. He cites emotional problems among students that may stem from divorce or other family problems. He also mentions drug and alcohol abuse -an area in which parents seem to be asking schools to take on more and more responsibility.

One of the structures the school has devised for offering students consistent adult input and supervision is the advisory system. At New Trier, each student is assigned, along with about 20 other kids, to an adviser. Adviser groups meet every morning for about 25 minutes. The groups are single-sex and remain the same throughout the students' four years. The hope is to foster strong ties between the students as well as between adviser and advisee.

Jon White, assistant principal for student services, says the adviser groups are also a response to the growing recognition that school isn't just about academics. "We need to blend the academic and the affective side," he says. "We need to try to deal with the whole child."

Another of the thornier challenges for a school like New Trier is that with a student population that's 85 percent white, 11 percent Asian, and 4 percent "other" (including a handful of black, Hispanic, and native American students), students don't experience much diversity.

"We want to make sure our students can live in a world that honors differences," says Betty Brockelman, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

That's why the school has organized programs like pairing up with an inner-city school to offer a concert, and has expanded its reading lists to reflect a more-diverse world view.

Several New Trier students questioned say the lack of diversity does trouble them. Most say that they like the school and are glad to be there.

Pressure to succeed

But the pressure to keep pace in such a large pool, amid such high expectations, brings its share of criticisms.

Access to advanced classes and coveted spots on sports teams can be hard to come by, for one. It's hard to compete with "the best of the best," says junior Aidan Enright. "Too many kids don't get a chance."

Also, says Mary Kate Kvasnicka, a classmate sitting at the same lunch table, the pressure to pump up SAT scores can overwhelm the joy of intellectual discovery. "There's too much teaching to the test," she says. "The pleasure of learning gets lost."

Bonnie Brewer, an accountant living in Chicago, graduated from the school eight years ago and has now had some time to evaluate her high school experience. To some extent, she agrees that the size and high-pressure atmosphere of the school can overwhelm its advantages. "It's so competitive that it's hard to get involved in anything," she remembers, adding ruefully, "I couldn't even get on the badminton team."

But, she says, she is also very conscious of how easily and successfully she and her closest high school friends have made their way through college and adult life since leaving New Trier.

Two of her friends are in medical school, several are in law school, and another is a journalist.

Despite its drawbacks, she says, they were fortunate to be at New Trier. "It's a good school," she concludes. "Going there puts you a step ahead in life."

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