On the heels of a successful tax referendum campaign to renovate the school, Riverside-Brookfield High School officials got more good news this week when the school was named one of the top 100 public high schools in the nation by Newsweek magazine.

After appearing on the Newsweek list for the first time last year at No. 323, Riverside-Brookfield High School was ranked 76th in the nation this year, receiving the second-highest rank of any Illinois high school. Only Lincoln Park High School in Chicago had a higher rank, at 30. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire was the third-highest school in Illinois at 118th. Lyons Township High School was ranked 970th overall, but 24th best in the state of Illinois.

“It’s something we’ve been working toward for at least four years,” said RB Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann, who has often used the list as a benchmark for the school to strive for. “We’re proud of it, but it also motivates us to want to be one of the best high schools in the country.

“It’s not the final destination for us, but it’s a nice validation of what the school has accomplished.”

Since he has been superintendent at RB, Baldermann has stressed and has sold the concept of increasing the number of academically challenging courses for as many students as possible through the Advanced Placement program.

That kind of participation in the Advanced Placement program is at the core of Newsweek’s list of top schools, which has its roots in a 1998 book called “Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (And Right) With America’s Best Public High Schools.” In the book, author Jay Mathews argued that even the best high schools did little to push less gifted students, reserving academically rigorous curriculum for the top students alone.

In 1998, he compiled his first Top 100 list, highlighting schools that pushed rigorous courses to a broader cross section of students and chose Advanced Placement tests given each spring as an indicator of that philosophy.

It’s a philosophy that Baldermann has embraced. He’s visited schools ranked at the top of the list and has spoken on many occasions to Mathews.

Advanced Placement courses seek to emulate the rigor of college classes. By passing a test at the end of the class, students can qualify for college credit.

“Any student going to college should experience the rigor of AP at least once; they’ll be better prepared,” Baldermann said. “There was a 15-year study that said the number one factor in determining B.A. completing was the rigor of the high school curriculum. That was our goal, really.”

Since coming to RB in 2001, Baldermann has worked to beef up student participation in the AP program, and the number of AP tests taken each year has increased dramatically. In 1998, for example, RB students took a total of 99 AP tests. In 2005, students took 930 tests.

According to the recent list published in Newsweek 52 percent of all graduating seniors at RB had at least one passing grade on an AP test.

Baldermann acknowledged, however, that as the number of students taking AP exams at RB has increased, the percentage of passing grades has fallen. For example, in 1998, some 86 percent of all tests taken received passing grades. In 2004, 66 percent received passing grades.

That fact doesn’t diminish the value of taking the AP classes, however, Baldermann said.

“Even though the number of students passing has dipped, there’s still a lot of value that comes from being exposed to a rigorous curriculum,” he said.

Critics of the Newsweek list have pointed to its limited criteria for judging schools. At Lyons Township High School, which has been named in the magazine’s list of top 1,000 of public schools in the nation five times, the list is considered nice, but not necessarily noteworthy.

For Riverside-Brookfield High School, which has been reworking its academic image for the past several years, it’s a feather in the cap.

“The most important thing is to get people excited, to get them to dream bigger,” Baldermann said. “Putting this on the heels of the referendum, this helps build more momentum and keep pushing ahead.”