DeKALB – Erica Teagus, a senior at DeKalb High School, wants to work in the medical field, so she has got plenty of options along her career track. She could study nursing at Kishwaukee College, and even could have taken advantage of the Kishwaukee Education Consortium’s dual-credit nursing program.
Teagus, 18, said as she tries to decide where to take her talents, she’s grateful for the Advanced Placement classes she’s able to take at DHS, so no matter how rigorous a path she takes, she’ll be well-equipped. She took an AP European history class last year and currently is in AP biology.
Through AP courses, students can earn college credits while preparing for the college experience.
“You have to try harder than in your regular classes, and it better prepares me for when I have to rely on myself to do my homework and study more,” she said. “It’s getting me ready for the next step.”
Years ago, Teagus might not have been in Angie Johnson’s AP biology class, where students were conducting a fermentation experiment Tuesday morning. The class used to only be offered every other year. Now there are five sections.
“It had become kind of an elitist group,” said Johnson, who’s in her seventh year teaching the class. “I now have five sections, because we’re encouraging so many more students to take AP. There are so many more personalities, and the kids are bringing so much more, because they’re not all what we’ve considered elite.”
She said 27 percent to 30 percent of her students are from a minority group, a number the district has taken a concerted effort to bolster, with its partnership with Seattle-based Equal Opportunity Schools. The district found out it was accepted into EOS in the spring, and according to Vicky Tusken, District 428’s secondary education curriculum director, one in four schools that apply get accepted.
With guidance from EOS, DeKalb High administrators are surveying students to find diamonds in the rough: students cut out for AP courses and college, who might not have known they were such material.
“If you’re thinking about sending your student off to a four-year university and you don’t have them in AP, you’re not doing yourself any favors,” DHS Principal James Horne said Tuesday. “It’s not just about getting credit. It’s about that experience. You don’t want your first experience with a college-level class to be when you’re writing checks for thousands of dollars or borrowing thousands of dollars to do so, when you’d rather do that here. Even if you’re not successful, we have things in-house to help support students.”
EOS’ goal – and Illinois has the greatest number of high schools involved, Tusken said – is to make sure the ethnic and socioeconomic breakdown of a high school matches that of the students enrolled in AP courses.
“When you look at those who are in AP classes, and look at our student body as a whole, there’s a huge disparity,” Tusken said. “I believe we represent the type of school district that has a deep commitment to AP, so we’re looking for students who have potential for AP courses, but may have never gotten the encouragement to do so.”
“We have so many kids who don’t realize what they’re capable of yet,” Superintendent Jamie Craven said Tuesday.
Tusken said that for the past few years, she and Horne have been updating the school’s AP course materials, a standing line item of between $10,000 to $20,000 in the district’s budget.
Once EOS, whose services cost a school about $54,000 a year, picked up half the bill, and then picked up another $15,000 because of the Illinois state budget impasse, the less-than $13,000 initiative was a slam dunk for the District 428 board. With the district’s AP materials up to date, EOS effectively replaced that process in the budget.
“It was nothing short of miraculous, and we almost weren’t able to afford it,” Tusken said. “EOS banked a lot on us and our success.”
About 86 percent of DHS students graduate, according to 2017-18 Illinois Report Card data released Wednesday by the Illinois State Board of Education. That was down 3 percent compared with the 2016-17 school year, but was up 6 percent compared with the 80 percent clip in 2013-14.
The percentage of students who go on to college has stayed between the upper 60s to low 70s in the past five years since ISBE started reporting the data in 2014. It remained at 72 percent in spring compared with 73 percent in 2014 – more or less at the state average.
“We’ve been consistent throughout the years, which is a strength, but I know we could be doing better,” Horne said.
That comes down to grit, or will, or whatever word you want to put to it, Horne said.
“It’s there,” he said. “You see it in the energy the kids bring into the building every single day. You see the
passion they bring to the student section, and how dedicated they are to the classes they’re taking the activities they’re involved in.”
Horne said it also is important to recognize that a four-year college isn’t the ideal path for every student, so the high school constantly is working to bolster its relationship with Kishwaukee Education Consortium.
As for that four-year path, however, barring the unforeseen, the D-428 board will vote Tuesday night to add a remedial math class, which will help students struggling in that area catch up before cutting a check.
“You don’t want your first experience with a college-level class to be when you’re writing checks for thousands of dollars or borrowing thousands of dollars to do so, when you’d rather do that here,” Horne said. “Even if you’re not successful, we have things in-house to help support students.”
Also on the docket will be expanding computer science offerings and a new AP statistic course, which Nicole Nelmark will teach. She said that unless a student is in geometry as a freshman or if they’re willing to take remedial classes during the summer, they won’t get into AP calculus. On the flipside, some students wrap up AP calculus their junior year, leaving them wanting more.
“I’m hoping this will open up opportunities for those sort of students, as well, those students who run out of classes,” said Nelmark, who’s taught AP stats in Rockford and is looking forward to teach it here.
Each school will have its slam-dunk AP students, such as Victor Guerrero, a 17-year-old senior who, since he was a child, dreamed of wearing a lab coat.
“It gives me authority,” he said, adding that he’s always watched shows such as “Dexter” and “Dexter’s Laboratory.”
Guerrero also is taking AP chemistry and said the AP U.S. history class he took last year – which he calls “A-Push” – was “supremely helpful.”
He plans to be a biochemist, and is nudging his kid sister, Daisy, an eighth-grader at Huntley Middle School who’s into marine biology, to follow his lead.
“She forces me to watch shark documentaries and fish movies and whatever, so I’ll make her watch shows like ‘Dexter’ and ‘The Flash’ because he’s a forensic scientist, and that interests me, as well,” Guerrero said.
If students are a shoo-in for AP classes or hiding untapped potential, Horne is eager to see them challenge themselves.
“We’ve just got to move the needle inch by inch, and you bring more kids along the way,” he said. “You create a culture. You start developing a capacity of students, who develop the capacity of their peers, and they’ll bring them along.”
“The only way to move the middle is to move the top,” Craven said.