A Hyper-Successful STEM School, And Its Dark Side

The Illinois Math and Science Academy churns out hyper-successful and prepared students. But some of those same students are rejecting an atmosphere that they say pushes them unbearably hard.

Students published in peer-reviewed journals, classes four days a week, 3-D printers and DNA sequencers: It sounds like the engineering college at a high-performing university. But it’s a public high school—sort of.

The Illinois Math and Science Academy is a boarding school for 10th through 12th grade on the outskirts of Chicago, funded by the state, but existing outside the education system. It makes its own rules, recruiting highly gifted students, and then giving them both college-level opportunities and college-level freedom.

As Wired reports, that freedom is visible in every class

"The math teachers don’t lecture. They give out worksheets, and we learn as we go," explains Emma Sloan, a sophomore. These worksheets are basically problems that the students must solve, using their own wherewithal — and help from other students. In class, students will often gather in circles — or "hexagons" — as they tackle these problems. "Basically, the teacher would just drop off the problem set and wouldn’t even give you a hint on how to do them," says former student Spraetz. "It was just: ‘Here you go.’ Which is kinda how the real world works."

The purest expression of this approach is Wednesdays. That’s when there’s no class at all. Juniors and seniors take this day to leave campus and do their own research, sometimes yielding the aforementioned peer-reviewed publications. Projects this year included "Density Functional Theory Investigation of Silicene and Metal Adatoms" and "Effects of NF-κB Activation on E6 Oncoprotein Expression in Head and Neck Cancer Cells."

But that level of freedom has its downsides according to one prominent former student: Tay Zonday, of viral video fame.

"I just wasn’t mature and self-driven enough to be at a boarding school at age 15," he said in an email. "I had no focus and sat in my room on the Internet nonstop!" Zonday dropped out after the first year.

But those that stay and thrive have their own complaints about the program; Kevin Zhang, who just graduated as student council president, left the school with an op-ed "Advance the School’s Condition":

I’ve heard people call IMSA a ‘dead’ community. I disagree. Rather, the IMSA community has become something far more dangerous. The community has stagnated, atrophied, stopped.

Over the phone, Zhang told me it was a result of a culture of competition and overwork. "Within my residential hall it was not uncommon for students to be pulling weekly all-nighters," he said. "The two biggest issues are sleep deprivation and stress."

Zhang cited an expected course load of six to eight classes a semester, and an explosion of extracurricular activities. He told me that as student council president they moved to cap the number of groups for which a single student could serve as president. "There were definitely people I know who were presidents of three or four organizations," he says.

IMSA spokesperson Michael Abrahamson told me over email that resident counselors and study skills specialists are on hand to help students better manage their time, and they do take some innovative steps to curb overwork. "The internet also shuts off to all students at 1:00 a.m. every night to encourage good study habits, preventing students from staying up too late doing homework," he says.

However the school balances achievement and the attendant stress, it’s clearly a model with limitations. The stated cost of the academic program is close to $23,000 per student per year, which seems modest for the school’s ambitions, but is still nearly $10,000 more than the median expense per high school student in the state of Illinois ($13,532). More significantly: It’s a model custom-made for students who are both high performing and highly independent.

For a critique, I turn it back to Tay Zonday:

The mystique is puzzling. If we subscribe to the concept that boarding high-schools offer better pedagogy, why not raise all boats with that tide of better pedagogy? Why make it into a Hunger Games of privileged selection? If we subscribe to the hubris that some parents strike the DNA jackpot and their child is gifted, is it a damning critique of public education that these gifted children need to be rescued from the pedagogical "glass ceiling" of their local school system and specially groomed? Should the scarce social capital of "luxury pedagogy" be spent on students who thrive or students who struggle?

IMSA clearly isn’t the answer for "students who struggle." But for the sake of the precocious, competitive students who could thrive there, its approach probably shouldn’t be such a scarce one, either.

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