Gibraltar Listed as “One of America’s Best High Schools”

Bigger is not always better.

Newsweek magazine included Gibraltar High School in its list of 1,600 top schools in the United States, a number that represents 6 percent of approximately 27,000 public high schools in America.

Of the 32 Wisconsin schools on the list, Gibraltar ranked number seven, following the much larger schools Rufus King (Milwaukee), Marshfield, Brookfield Central, Whitefish Bay, Nicolet Union (Glendale), and Cedarburg.

“Gibraltar is the only small school,” Principal Kirk Knutson said. “Most of these schools have enrollments around 900 students or higher” while Gibraltar has 194 high school students.

Gibraltar ranked 691 nationally. The leading U.S. schools were Talented and Gifted (Dallas, Texas), Jefferson County IBS (Alabama), Stanton College Prep (Jacksonville, Florida), Science/Engineering Magnet (Dallas, Texas), and Corbett (Oregon).

Jay Mathews, a contributing editor for Newsweek and a columnist for the Washington Post, created The Challenge Index which first appeared in the magazine in 1998 and is designed “to honor schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests.” He selected schools on the basis of the challenge that students were offered through Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge (AICE) classes with the opportunity to earn university credit while still in high school.

Superintendent Steve Seyfer said that his students at Gibraltar are admitted to advanced classes on the basis of being “willing and ready for strong academic work” rather than their achievement history alone.

“We open doors for them,” he added. “More than a decade ago teachers and counselors began encouraging students who might not choose to do so to take more rigorous courses.” The school’s goal is for their students “to experience the assignment demands and testing standards of college level work.” Subsequently, a high percentage of Gibraltar junior and senior students enroll in AP classes and enter college with university credits, sometimes accumulating enough to allow them to begin as second semester freshmen or sophomores.

Andrew Phillips, who graduated from Gibraltar in June, entered Marquette University this fall with 24 AP credits that earned him sophomore standing as he begins his studies.

The intermediate experience between high school and college provided him not only with challenging coursework, he said, but the opportunity to practice time management.

Mathews objectifies the selection process by dividing the number of tests given during a school year by the number of graduating seniors. To make the list a school must have a ratio of 1.0 or better; that is, the total of tests taken must equal or exceed the number of graduates.

In May 2009, 51 Gibraltar students (mostly juniors and seniors) took 106 exams. As 52 seniors graduated in June, the school’s index was 2.038.

Mathews does not take into account “passing” scores, as he believes the very act of completing advanced coursework and undergoing the rigor of the exam helps prepare a student for college.

Candidates for the list must be public high schools; charter and magnet schools “with such a high concentration of top students that its average SAT or ACT scores significantly exceeds the highest average for any normal enrollment” have been eliminated. While Mathews recognizes that other factors contribute to the excellence of a high school, he feels that they are too subjective to contribute to a ranking process. Schools that pay test fees for their students are not disqualified, as the payment is seen as a commitment on the part of the school, one that adds value to the education of its students.

“The primary reason Gibraltar students are doing so well,” Seyfer said, “is that teachers, parents and the School Board are in agreement in the importance of academic achievement. Teachers have adopted high classroom standards for daily assignments and tests. Parents have provided support and encouragement at home for students to stretch themselves in taking rigorous classes. The School Board has provided a broad selection of Advanced Placement Courses that offer students with options to choose.”

“It makes me proud to be a member of a team that values education in such a high manner,” Knutson said.

Advanced Placement English instructor Lauren Bremer prepares an average of 35 junior and senior students to take the AP Language and Composition or Literature and Composition class each year. She praises a “student body that is willing to work hard and cares about their education” and a “faculty and staff that uses ingenuity and creativity in the classroom and holds students to high standards.” And she recognizes the fact “that students are well supported by a caring community.“

Gary and Carol Straub’s daughter Kylie is a freshman at Gibraltar this fall.

“When Kylie read about [the Newsweek selection],” Carol Straub said, “her eyes got wide, and she said, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to that school!’” The Straubs, like others in the community, are proud of Gibraltar School.

In addition to the Newsweek Challenge Index honor, Gibraltar High School has been recognized as a Silver Medal School in both 2009 and 2010 by US News and World Report. Both Sevastopol and Southern Door High Schools were honored as Bronze Medal Schools by this magazine in 2010.

To view the entire Challenge Index list, read individual school profiles, and note answers to frequently asked questions, visit