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University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana is unique in so many ways that it is perhaps easier to list the aspects in which it is NOT different.
While you probably know Uni as a five-grade, public school that’s a unit of the University of Illinois, there are many characteristics of the school that might surprise you.
–Atmosphere: Uni students enjoy a distinct level of freedom and trust. Lockers are not padlocked. Internet access is unfiltered. Students are free to leave the building for lunch (Uni doesn’t have a cafeteria, but does have a kitchen). A student can sign up for a free period, which allows them to do pretty much anything; they can leave campus, visit with a professor at the U of I, take a course (tuition free) at the university.
“We have a really informal atmosphere here,” Uni director Jeff Walkington said.
–Activities: Uni has more than 40 clubs and organizations, which include everything from Kung Fu Movie Club to Habitat for Humanity. The orchestra has 108 students – from a student enrollment of 325. Uni puts on four theater productions each year. Roughly 70 percent of the student body, Walkington said, is involved in interscholastic athletics. Uni is particularly strong in cross-country and soccer. There’s also an annual all-school 5K run.
–Offbeat learning opportunities: For one week each spring, Uni offers Agora Week – Agora is the greek word for marketplace. Agora Week is considered a “marketplace of classes” where students can learn about interesting topics of their choosing.
“Students teach unusual classes,” Walkington said. “We might have bicycle repair, we might have Lady Gaga dancing, we might have bird watching. It’s taught by students, by teachers, by parents, by alumni, by members of the community.”
And then there is the academic side.
Uni students are exceptionally bright. Contrary to one common misconception, Uni is a public school; there is no tuition and anyone who lives in Illinois is eligible. Students must apply, however, and of the 200 or so highly qualified applicants each year, Uni accepts 60-65 into the eighth grade, or “subfreshmen.”
Uni is adopting active learning, which integrates the student directly in the learning process and is becoming more prevalent among independent schools.
As for the staff, “We start with subject matter experts so a lot of them come from higher education or have advanced degrees where they are very, very strong in a subject matter. Then we look for people who are really good instructors.”
A staff opening results in a national search for a replacement.
“We usually do a national search,” Walkington said. “Our teachers do not have to be certified because we have special dispensations as a laboratory school. We create our own curriculum; we don’t have to do the state testing. We’re able to really cast a wide net. (We attract) a lot of people from higher education; a lot of people who have backgrounds from independent schools. But we also look at a lot of people in the local area. This area is so rich in talent.”
As one would expect, Uni graduates are able to gain entrance to the country’s best colleges. Uni’s average SAT score last year was 32. Grads have included three Nobel Prize winners, Academy Award winners and Olympians.
And while these factors, and many others, are what make Uni unique in the C-U learning landscape, the Illineks in some ways aren’t unlike a typical student at any other high school.
“Although our kids are very bright and very academically motivated,” Walkington said, “they’re high school students like any other high school students. We have dances, we have talent shows, we have Halloween costume contests. We probably have more social events than a lot of schools. That, and the athletics, are something that really surprised me when I came here.”