On paper, Glenbard North High School in west suburban Carol Stream seems to have all the ingredients necessary for academic success.

Glenbard Township High School District 87, which includes Glenbard North and three other high schools, spent $11,541 per pupil in 2004-2005, almost $2,500 higher than the statewide figure. The average salaries for teachers and administrators—at $80,473 and $117,621, respectively—were nearly $20,000 to $25,000 higher than statewide averages.

And Glenbard North’s two-story, tan brick building has wireless Internet access and includes a circular library stocked with plenty of books and two dozen computers.

“We could always use more [resources, but] we’re in pretty good shape here,” said Brian P. Waterman, assistant principal of operations. “I don’t think there’s a better place to be anywhere than the suburbs of Chicago.”

But other schools with similar resources and student populations are getting better scores.

In 2005, about 61 percent of Glenbard North students met Illinois standards on the state’s standardized tests—a figure lower than those for 10 other schools with similar student spending and demographics. In 2004-2005, about two-thirds of Glenbard North students were white, 18 percent were Asian, 11 percent were Latino and nearly 5 percent were black. Just 7 percent of the students were low-income.

Linda Geist, assistant principal for curriculum and instruction, notes that close to half of the students entering Glenbard North do not meet state standards, there’s just one reading specialist for the school’s 2,820 students and an increasing number of freshman have required special education services. In June, the school graduated 45 special education students. But, in August, the school welcomed 110 special education freshmen, she said.

Teachers in all subjects have attempted to help address students’ literacy needs, Geist said. She believes this effort, along with test-taking strategies, has contributed to a rise in reading scores during the past two years. But it has also taxed teachers’ abilities to cover other subject areas, she said.

Teachers have also been taxed by ballooning class sizes, which saw an 18 percent increase from 1999 to 2005. Whereas Glenbard classes averaged 22 students in 1999, by 2005 that number had grown to more than 26 students.

Student enrollment has expanded by more than 300 students, or 12 percent, during that time. “The number one concern of teacher in the classroom is class size,” said Chris Meade, English department chair and a longtime faculty member, noting that some classes have as many as 31 students. “Once you start reaching classes that size, it begins to affect the ability of the [teacher to meet] the needs of the students who are likely to be on the fringe, who need to have a teacher come seek them out.”

Jeff is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University....