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A private, Catholic, college preparatory high school in Lisle, Illinois. Benet is run by the Benedictine monks of St. Procopius Abbey, which itself is located cati-corner across a major intersection from the school. I personally have called the intersection "Bendictine Corners" for some time; the other two corners contain Benedictine University, a small, private university also run by the Benedictines, and Sacred Heart Monastery, which is counterintuitively the home of the Benedictine nuns, not the monks. A few of the nuns do some work at Benet, but their main mission is not the school; they have a retirement home to run. For the most part, it is the monks who operate on and around campus, and from whom students will take occasional classes.

Benet (short for Benedict, just like Austin is short for Augustine--who would have guessed?) was originally founded as St. Joseph Bohemian Orphanage in 1899. It became St. Procopius Academy, an all-male boarding school, at some hazy, indefinite turn-of-the-century time. Yes, well, YOU try and find the date, then. In 1967, it combined with Sacred Heart Academy, the girls' school then run by the Sacred Heart nuns, to create the fully coeducational (and no longer boarding) Benet Academy.

The history of the school has promulgated a number of ghost stories; the small on-campus orphan graveyard and the old morgue room on the third floor (now an office) probably did not help matters there. The most popular of these stories is that some of the orphans haunt the fourth floor of St. Joseph's Hall, which is closed due to asbestos and the need for storage. The evidence for this is a statue of the Virgin Mary which mysteriously moves from window to window, where she can be seen from outside. Most students will get up to the fourth floor once or twice over the course of their stay, usually to go retrieve state textbooks and leave graffiti on the stairway walls, but the things they see there--bolt holes in the floor where the old desks were, old confessional booths, neglected statues splashed with paint--generally add to the mystique. The fact that the drama club keeps all their props there, and therefore that lots of drama students can get upstairs and switch things around, apparently has not occurred to too many people outside the drama group. But even the drama department sometimes claims to have heard strange thumpings during late rehearsals, so who really knows.

Benet is a damn tough school. Eighth graders take an entrance exam not unlike the PSAT to get in. If you are Catholic, you have to score in the 75th percentile or above; if you are not Catholic, you have to score in the 95th percentile or above. If you have siblings at Benet already, you only have to rank in the 60th percentile. Yes, isn't it. I personally think that they might benefit by changing the bar to a straight 85th percentile for everyone; kids who barely scrape in tend to have a hard time in the extreme rigor of the academic environment, and non-Catholic kids in this range could certainly benefit as much as Catholic kids. Yes, it's a Catholic school, and the huge majority of the population is Catholic, but I don't see why it should be enforced so stridently. But they find the religious environment to be as important as the academic environment, and the standard is thus set.

The student population is then drawn from the Catholic communities of the western suburbs of Chicago. There are proportionately more students from closer suburbs, such as Naperville or Downers Grove, but I knew a number of kids who had to take the 6 AM train out from the north or south side every morning. Although I did live close to school, I personally took the bus, which came an hour earlier than the public school busses, at 6:45; I got to school a half hour early every day. This happened to a lot of kids, since the public school system was doing us a favor by letting us take their busses, and thus we had to take the routes when we could get them. There are usually students milling in the hallways for a good 45 minutes before school starts every morning at 8:05.

Benet currently has 1250 students and 70 faculty members (both monks and lay members), making it a reasonably small school for the Chicago area. The school colors are red and white, and the mascot is the Redwing. The uniform plaid --yes, there is a uniform--is a hideous burgundy and grey polyester. The school day is divided into eight periods. Students are expected to take six classes, including a religion class, one study hall, and one lunch/homeroom each year. They can substitute an elective, such as band or art, for study hall. This can be a difficult decision, since most students will have more than enough homework to supply them with ample work to do in study hall, let alone at home. Fourth and fifth periods are halved for lunches and homerooms; fourth period is freshman/sophomore lunch, and fifth junior/senior. If a student takes more than the required six courses, they may end up with a science lab in place of homeroom, as the lab sciences alternate lab days with study halls (which they then do not have) daily. Band members, for instance, almost invariably end up with this no-homeroom schedule.

The academics themselves are quite rigorous. Of the faculty, 75% hold masters' or higher degrees, and it shows. Students are expected, and are told repeatedly, to do three hours of homework per night. As Benet is not a boarding school any longer, this is by no means a requirement, but it's an excellent suggestion, considering the amount of comprehension the teachers expect. If you have to read Ethan Frome, for example, be prepared to talk about the color imagery. The more advanced science and math students can take classes across the street at Benedictine University; I knew a number of people going there for calculus sophomore year, and a few even freshman year.

There are a number of AP courses available--while I was there, you could have taken AP Pascal--but students must prove their qualifications for such classes by previous grades in that subject. This can be good or bad, depending on when individual students learned their study skills. Lots of them didn't ever have to work at academics until high school, and so the reality check of freshman and sophomore year may prevent admission. I was shut out of AP English there, myself; it's a good thing for me we had to move anyway. There are also some classes for which AP is not an option, such as American history, taken junior year. This particular class is part of a track including the senior year America Since 1945 class; students can choose whether to take the exam after the survey course, or after the more detailed senior course. As such, neither of the classes are specifically designated as AP.

All this academic rigor reaps some significant results. 99 percent of Benet students go on to college or university. While the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is always a top choice, smaller Catholic schools like Marquette University and the various Loyola universities also host significant Benet alumni populations. There is also a good chunk of migration to top schools; for instance, both the valedictorian and salutatorian of my graduating year went to Stanford.

It also, however, can bring on a lot of stress and panic. Benet is a highly competitive school; students can crack under the pressure if they can't get organized and improve their study skills. In class, it is quite apparent how smart everyone is. Those students who scraped in may feel unduly persecuted by the academic elite of their year, especially as a good number of this elite can be the popular clique as well; some generally end up transferring to public school. The intelligent underachievers can get frustrated by the need for constant effort. The middleweight hard-working students can feel buried under their vast amounts of homework. Even the top students, those with years of well-oiled study skills and great pulsating brains under their skulls, feel the heat.

Benet also has a local reputation for producing snobs; public school students who don't actually know any Benet students, as well as those who transferred out, may find it necessary to sneer at them. Benet kids don't seem to care much about this, but the stereotype is still there.

It's a difficult school, one which requires a lot of hard work and dedication. But if you can take the pressure of the environment--and there are not many who will admit it if they can't--it can be a great, stimulating academic environment.

Benet is located at 2200 Maple Ave. in Lisle, Illinois, 60532.



Sources:
http://www.benet.org/
http://www.benetonline.org/
http://www.ben.edu/
http://www.shmlisle.org/
http://www.procopius.org/
http://www.lislechamber.com/schools.cfm
Also, I went there for three years. Class of '95 say HO! Well, possibly most of them wouldn't.

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