ARMOUR SQUARE — One of the goals for leaders at the nascent Air Force Academy High School was to send one student into one of the nation’s Armed Forces academies.
This summer, after the school’s first senior class graduates, they’ll send two.
Khedoni Tyler and James Hejna, both 17, have been accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy, an elite military college near Colorado Springs, Colo.
Tyler was accepted “direct entry,” which means he’ll pack his bags for boot camp in June.
Hejna will spend 10 months at the academy’s prep school, boosting his test scores before reapplying to the academy.
“These two guys are what any principal would dream to have a class full of,” said Capt. Yashika Tippet-Eggleston, the school's principal.
Both young men took different paths to the high school, located at 3630 S. Wells St. in the shadow of U.S. Cellular Field.
Tyler was born and raised in Burnside, which he called a “pretty bad neighborhood that made me less naïve.” He’s got two older sisters and is tight with his mom, he said. His father lives in Joliet.
Joining the school’s basketball squad, poetry classes, internships as a docent at the Adler Planetarium and leadership roles with the Junior ROTC City Corps program have helped him break out of his social shell, he said.
Now, he's known as a top flight student with a silly streak.
His high school experience “actually changed me a lot," he said. "I was really, really shy."
"When I got to high school I was catching a bus every morning … a lot can happen between 91st Street and Roosevelt. I got to get out and see the city,” he said.
For the last four years, Tyler has been at the top of the class — which admissions counselors at the military college certainly noticed. The school receives about 12,000 applicants each year and only about 1,000 are accepted.
“We look for the whole person,” said U.S. Air Force Academy spokesman John Van Winkle. “Athletic and academic prowess, the character to be a follower and a leader and [for prospective cadets] to follow our honor code, which isn’t the easiest thing to live up to.”
The youngest of five siblings, Hejna, of Little Italy, said he’s always been disciplined and focused on academics.
“For two, three years, I didn’t know he could have fun and be a normal teenager. This year, he’s more relaxed,” his principal said.
Hejna is intent on making the most of his chance to get fully accepted into the academy.
“[Prep school] doesn’t really guarantee anything. It’s opportunity to become something better. It’s really up to me if I want to make something out of it,” Hejna said.
He’s earned the top student spot of the JROTC’s City Corps program, a role where he helps oversee dozens of programs and more than 10,000 cadets. He said he continues to hit the books and has recently taken up boxing to help with his endurance.
For Tippet-Eggleston, the accomplishments of college-bound seniors — both of whom are aiming to be fighter pilots — are a significant step forward in the short history of the school, which will graduate 85 students this year.
Less than half are headed to college.
Sitting in her office, the usually stern principal let her guard down while talking about Tyler and Hejna.
"I’m very, very proud of the both of them," she said. "I’m trying to save my tears until [graduation day]."