EVANSVILLE, IN (WAVE) - When anyone makes a list of the best high schools in the country, Signature Charter School of Evansville, Indiana, seems to be on it.
In recent weeks, US News and World Report ranked Signature as the nation's 33rd best high school. Signature also placed 7th on the Washington Post list of most challenging high schools, up from 9th last year.
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The rankings seem even more impressive when you consider that charter high schools fail at an alarmingly high rate. The 2017 Building a Grad Nation Report, compiled by an alliance of graduation advocacy groups, showed that 29 percent of the nation's charter high schools are failing. That is almost five times worse than the 6 percent of traditional district-run public schools counted as failing. The report defines a failing school as one where at least 100 students are enrolled, and the graduation rate for seniors is 67 percent or lower.
Signature School, by comparison, graduates 100 percent of its seniors. Administrators said every senior goes on to a 4-year college. Students score extraordinarily high on the SAT and ACT tests, beating national averages by 21 percent and 36 percent, respectively.
When asked about their success, administrators described a program that combines academics with character building. Students are pushed to develop time-management skills, work ethic and mutual respect. They call it "The Signature Way."
At first glance at Signature School, attendees look like typical students in typical classrooms. But what they are doing isn't typical at all. They willingly pound through five hours of homework a night and give up a lot of the fun you'd normally expect in high school. When asked how they might find time to be teenagers, students said they very often do not.
The school building and school day are not typical either. There are no lockers; students leave their belongings lying in the hallways. The school claims there's no theft, no bullying and no expulsions. There is also no library, no buses, no athletics and no cafeteria. The only time during the day when students are not in class and receiving instruction is at lunch when they are allowed to leave the building and go to local restaurants.
Some use the lunch time to hang out in the school courtyard and talk; others tossed a football around. The activity more resembles a time of stress management than recess.
"It's our only time to take a break and not do schoolwork," one student said. "So we try to use that and not think about things."
Parents said they feel the stress as well while trying to adjust common family activities to accommodate the long hours of nightly homework.
"The kids that do attend here are intrinsically motivated," said Sherry Pratt, the mother of three sons attending Signature. "They're here because they want to be here. They see the greater goal. They know what they're working towards."
There are no tests to get in to Signature, and every child in Indiana is allowed to attend. Demand for admission is so high there is a waiting list. A lottery is held to fill any empty seats. But not everyone who walks through doors at Signature walks out a graduate. Out of a recent freshman class of 110 students, administrators said 10 of them quit. Some could not handle the culture or the pressure of all that work.
Unlike at Signature, students who cannot keep up at traditional public schools are not allowed to just leave. Critics question Signature's success, suggesting the school is teaching kids who already are prone to succeed.
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Administrator Jean Hitchcock argues that is not true. She said struggling students get the attention they need from faculty in order to succeed. But if students were not allowed to leave, would the school still have a 100-percent graduation rate?
"You bet we would," Hitchcock said. "We would and we do because our faculty works very hard to make sure no child slips through the cracks."