AP NEWS

Grant Park has become an academic powerhouse

May 13, 2018

GRANT PARK — When you mention Grant Park outside of Kankakee County, some might think of the park in Chicago that features Buckingham Fountain and the Art Institute of Chicago.

During the past few years, however, Grant Park Community Unit School District 6 has been putting the small, rural community on the map as an academic powerhouse.

On Tuesday, U.S. News & World Report affirmed by naming Grant Park High School a silver medal recipient in its annual Best High School rankings. It rated GPHS as the 2,559th best high school in the nation and 65th best in Illinois. GPHS was the only high school in Kankakee County to earn a ranking.

To accomplish that feat, GPHS students had to excel on state and advanced placement exams and exceed a benchmark for graduation rate. U.S. News & World Report particularly measured how students from lower-income and minority houses performed compared to state averages.

For this year’s rankings (based on the 2016 results), GPHS churned out a 23.3 college readiness index. About 30 percent of its 164 students took advanced-placement tests with 69 percent of them passing. It also had a math proficiency score of 22 percent and reading proficiency score of 60 percent.

U.S. News & World Report had recognized GPHS among the top 25 percent of high schools in the nation the past couple years by giving it a bronze medal. The sliver medal status it received this week indicates the school’s college readiness rating improved compared to the past two years.

“It’s a tremendous accomplishment based on a group of individuals who believe that a small rural school district can offer a phenomenal education experience,” Grant Park school Superintendent John Palan said. “There are definitely obstacles you face as a small school district, but one of the benefits we have witnessed is we get to know each and every one of our kids, and our kids understand our expectations.”

Here is how GPHS has set itself up during the years to climb among the top 15 percent of U.S. high schools:

‘The GP Way’

After making Palan its superintendent seven years ago, the school district started implementing what is now coined “The GP Way.”

Simply put, “The GP Way” is the district’s standard for teaching and student achievement.

“It was a new approach on what we wanted our school to look like,” Palan said. “We wanted our staff members to be passionate and drive a culture of excellence. They have taken that to a new level. We also wanted our students to understand our teachers care and trust. We believe those relationships improve student achievement.”

GPHS has fostered that concept in a variety of ways.

Each year, it hosts an academic signing day for graduating seniors. The signing days celebrate students who are furthering their education, whether it is through college, the military or professional pursuits. Students, in turn, recognize a staff member when they sign.

“Our key is thinking about what is next,” Palan said. “That has been a big focus here the past few years as far as helping prepare our kids for the future. Our job isn’t necessarily to tell them what their future is; it’s to help them reach their dreams and future aspirations and to celebrate their accomplishments.”

The district also keeps learning fun by hosting an annual drive-your-tractor-to-school day and throwing a spirit week the same week it hosts Green Mean Goes Pink, a community-wide fundraiser for breast cancer awareness.

Enhancing curriculum

Grant Park’s shortage of advanced placement courses hampered its college readiness index rating in the past couple years.

It turned that trend around by adding four advanced placement course offerings between last year and this year. Students can now take AP European History, AP Calculus, AP Chemistry and AP Literature to earn college credits while still in high school.

The school district also has implemented technology into its curriculum and instruction during the past three years. All students grades 4-12 have Chromebooks they can take home and use in the classroom. Third-graders also have access to Chromebooks at school.

Next year, the district is introducing an initiative that will give first- and second-grade students access to iPads in their classroom.

The high school also introduced virtual reality to its classrooms. Palan said the district plans to spread that to the grade school level.

Teachers

Earning national recognition never goes without praise for the teachers, administrators and school board members who inspire student achievement.

Matt Maxwell, principal of GPHS and Grant Park Middle School, has grasped that in his rookie year at Grant Park.

“This is an awesome recognition for not only the students, faculty and staff, but also the community,” Maxwell said. “The dedication we have from the stakeholders and the support from the school board leads to this recognition.

“It’s a very friendly, family-oriented and close-knit community. The students have great relationships with the faculty, which creates a great mix of success. It’s reassuring coming to school every day and seeing a well-oiled machine that supports student success.”

Palan and the school board still are looking for ways to improve and reach the gold standard.

“The best part of being at a small school is seeing the magic that is happening in the classroom between our teachers and kids,” Palan said. “This recognition couldn’t have come at a better time with it being Teacher Appreciation Week.”