At many public high schools, talented students can quickly hit roadblocks once they’ve completed their school’s course offerings in a subject. On the shores of Lake Michigan, one public Illinois high school might have a solution: a partnership with a neighboring elite university, opening up new opportunities for gifted students to continue learning.

“As two of the biggest institutions in Evanston, both in education, the partnership was originally a natural one for those involved,” said Dale Leibforth, math department chair at Evanston Township High School, or ETHS.

Ranging from classes in computer science to Portuguese, the partnership between Northwestern University and Evanston Township High School, the university’s local public school, allows students to engage in college-level academics and extracurriculars while not yet in college themselves. Enrolling in courses on the Northwestern campus during the school day, ETHS students in the program also earn free college credits. Despite some logistical issues, administrators agree the partnership has remained a steady bridge between the two institutions.

How does the partnership work?

This Northwestern-ETHS partnership has only grown since its founding over twelve years ago in the fall of 2012

“After the success of STEM education partnerships, the leaders of NU and ETHS were looking for more opportunities … in ways that we connect,” said Kristen Perkins, the ETHS/NU Partnership Coordinator. 

The program receives funding from Northwestern, originating from funding the university gave the city as part of the Good Neighbor, Great University Fund. Some of that funding goes toward an office located in ETHS where the partnership coordinators work. Students interested in taking Northwestern courses can meet with program coordinators to learn if this is an option for them. If students meet certain requirements, such as completing ETHS’s course offerings in a given field, they’re eligible to take Northwestern college classes.

“Once students have ‘topped out’ on our sequence of math or computer science courses in the department, they become eligible to take a math/CS course at Northwestern,” Leibforth said.

“We started with a focus on STEM education, and have expanded to include most academic areas. Each year, there continues to be new collaborations that we explore and build,” Perkins said about the overall program, which has grown to include more than 100 connections between the schools.

Opportunities in math

In the math department, for example, students who begin their freshman year taking a Precalculus class will complete all of the math courses the high school has to offer before starting their senior year. To allow them to continue their exploration of math in high school, these accelerated students are given the option of taking an advanced math course at Northwestern.

Matteo Di Bernardo, an ETHS alumnus, was among that group, taking linear algebra and multivariable calculus at Northwestern while in high school.

“Taking a college course as a high school student was a challenge and a big learning experience,” said Di Bernardo. “Classes were immediately shown to be much higher paced, and more structured, where we had one problem set due per week, and it took 20-30 hours to complete.”

Taught on Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, the college classes are the same that any undergraduate would take — except that high school students sit side-by-side with college students. Professors do not slow down or adjust the coursework for the high schoolers, and professors teach the classes with or without high schoolers enrolled.

“The coursework was much more accelerated and the problem sets weren’t necessarily expected to be fully solved, which was a large departure from high school courses,” Di Bernardo said.

Despite the change in rigor, professors don’t seem to mind having high schoolers in class. 

“During the 2022-2023 academic year, I had two ETHS students enrolled in my Math 291 course,” said Maria Monica Nastasescu, a math professor at Northwestern University. “The ETHS students were just as well-prepared and motivated as other students in the course. Therefore, their status as high school students had little impact.”

Saralyn Sacks’ daughter, an ETHS graduate, also took a math class at Northwestern through the partnership.

“My daughter had a very good experience taking a math course at Northwestern,” said Sacks. “Her professor was excellent … I really thought everything ran very smoothly.”

Exploring language

Similar to the math department, the world language department at ETHS offers Northwestern classes to students who have completed a language pathway at the high school. For example, a student taking Spanish 3 Honors as a freshman will have the opportunity to take Advanced Placement Spanish classes as a sophomore and junior before becoming eligible to continue learning the language at Northwestern in their final year.

“Students that have maxed out of our course sequences can take a language class at NU,” Rachel D’Onofrio, the chair of ETHS’s world language department, wrote to the News. “If they are a Spanish student, they can take a specific, specialized Spanish class (like “Art in Spain”, “Music of Mexico”, etc.) or even an Italian or Portuguese class, or another language, but not one that is offered at ETHS.”

ETHS graduate Sofia Rocca was one of those students who chose to take a Spanish class at Northwestern after completing the Spanish course pathway at ETHS.

“I didn’t want all of my progress in the language to go to waste,” Rocca said. “I chose to take the NU class because I thought it would give me a good insight into what taking Spanish in college would look like.”

Despite the differences from high school courses, D’Onofrio said that “our students usually do really well in classes.”

“The Northwestern option and our Independent Study option are both excellent ways for our kids to continue to learn, love and appreciate the beauty and culture of the Spanish language,” said ETHS Spanish teacher Nicole Lane.


Not every eligible student, however, chooses to enroll in Northwestern courses. One former ETHS student, Ezra Steinberg, considered taking a course at Northwestern as a senior but opted to instead take advanced courses at the high school.

Although Steinberg was considering taking math, Latin and computer science courses at Northwestern, he ultimately decided against it for one reason: scheduling challenges.

Although Steinberg acknowledged that he would have been more advanced had he taken a Northwestern course, he does not think one advanced class was worth the scheduling issues that came with it.

“I would not change my decision … I’m happy with where I am,” Steinberg said. “I’m also glad that I’m getting exposed to this material once I’m older and more mathematically mature, which I think helps me digest it better and appreciate it more.”

Others involved in the arrangement observed issues with the students’ schedules as well, including parents and ETHS teachers.

“It is a challenge mixing a college course with a traditional high school schedule; many kids can’t take this opportunity because it simply doesn’t fit with the ETHS periods/blocks,” Lane said. “I think many kids don’t want to miss so much of their high school day, miss out on the incredible classes ETHS offers just to be able to take one Spanish course at NU.”

“You don’t know until mid September what class you end up at (due to registering after NU students), so there are some last minute changes to high school schedules,” added Sacks, whose daughter went through the program. But I’m not sure how that can be changed.”

Students also face the logistical challenge of traveling between high school and the Northwestern campus during the middle of the school day. Since the Northwestern classes take place throughout the school day and are interspersed with students’ regular high school schedule, students need to leave ETHS, take a six-minute drive to Northwestern, and drive back between classes. 

Although the schools are relatively close to each other, driving to a university can be more challenging than just walking between classes in the ETHS building.

For one, Sacks observed, “parking can be a bit stressful,” due to everyone else at these schools parking when they arrive at the start of the school day. ETHS has created a system to allow students their own designated parking spots, but these spots are won through a lottery system and many students are not able to win a spot.

In addition to parking difficulties, the trip to Northwestern itself can limit who takes a Northwestern course.

“If you didn’t have a vehicle yourself, you would not be able to take a Northwestern course through the high school,” noted Rocca. “This is a huge problem because it really limits how accessible [the program] is.”

‘Great opportunities always arise’

Despite transportation challenges, several students continue to enroll in Northwestern classes, often finding that they would like the college experience that comes with taking a class at the university.

“There are usually about one or two students each year and this has remained very consistent over time,” said Leibforth. “Both Northwestern and ETHS gain from the different collaborations. The partnership helps to share resources and also to better collaborate in the community we serve. Great opportunities always arise from the collaboration.”

The program also offers free college credit to students who enroll in Northwestern classes. 

ETHS also maintains a partnership with Oakton College, Evanston’s local community college, where ETHS students can earn Oakton credit by taking approved high school courses. However, some colleges do not count credits from Oakton toward a student’s education, while Northwestern credits are more easily transferre

“It’s a great opportunity for students to have a free college credit from NU, which they can transfer to anywhere, and to get an idea of what a university class is like,” said D’Onofrio.

“I was able to get a taste of college classes as a high school student, which was a huge benefit and prepared me for my freshman year coursework quite well,” added Di Bernardo.

A model for future partnerships?

Faculty and staff involved in the program believe that the Evanston-Northwestern collaboration can be scaled to other universities and their local high schools.

For Nastasescu, two-way student advising from both the university and the high school is a key step to facilitating students’ success in a university setting. 

“I believe that similar partnerships can be successful in other college towns,” said Nastasescu. “For these partnerships to work effectively, it’s important to ensure students who participate in the program receive guidance from both their high school and the university. This guidance can help them determine which course is most suitable for their background and goals.”

Other university-school partnerships do exist, but they often focus on creating an admissions pipeline or research opportunities, Perkins said. For program facilitators, the Evanston-Northwestern partnership’s emphasis on student growth and educational opportunity helps it stand out.

”The partnership between NU and ETHS is unique in that the focus is on facilitating connections that are mutually beneficial, enhancing the educational experience for both ETHS and NU students,” Perkins added.

Northwestern University was founded in 1851.