Back to Skills

A Chicago High School’s Turnaround

Back to Skills

Five years ago, Nicholas Senn High School on the Near North Side of Chicago was one some educators felt lucky to avoid. While student discipline might have been an issue elsewhere, “you would say, at least it’s not Senn,” Principal Susan Lofton said.

Lofton, appointed principal in 2010, is seen as a driving force in the school’s renaissance. After she took the helm, students – some of whom would routinely curse out teachers or sell drugs at a nearby train station — began to realize that such behavior would not be tolerated.

Aside from the school’s leadership, its International Baccalaureate and arts programs also are part of the turnaround effort. Both were implemented after community members and neighbors clamored for change. The shifts have helped to attract students from around the city.

For these and other reasons, Senn’s academic rating has made a steady climb, according to district data. The school went from the bottom third of Chicago Public Schools in 2010 to the system’s top tier in 2013, earning a Level 1 (excellent) rating, according to DNAinfo Chicago. That rating, calculated using test scores and other metrics, persisted into 2014, system data show.

In addition, educators at the school specifically point to the improved graduation rate. While less than half of students graduated in 2011, almost three quarters graduated in 2014. That’s above the system’s average.

New leadership

Lofton first came to Senn High School as an interim principal in May 2010. She was the school’s third principal that year, and Senn had one of the worst student discipline track records in the district.

“It was a little chaotic,” she told reporters visiting the campus as part of EWA’s National Seminar in May. “There was even talk of closing the school.”

Still, the school was able to avoid what’s called “turnaround status,” when the central office comes in, typically fires the bulk of the administrators and teaching staff, and starts anew.

The first step toward making meaningful academic gains was cracking down on bad behavior. If students went to a party one weekend and acted out, “we found out about it, suspensions rolled through,” Lofton said. “They understood, ‘Wow. Omniscience is real.’”

The overhaul of the school’s policies and programs also was done in consultation with the educators closest to the problem. Lofton and her team met with teachers and neighbors to discover what had worked in the past, and to find out why families who lived near the school had all but abandoned it.

The stately, expansive building on North Glenwood Avenue in the Edgewater neighborhoood looks more like part of a small college than a high school. Despite its size, only 1,248 students attend, and it was listed as “underutilized” in a 2012-13 study conducted by the district.

To keep afloat, the school had taken children from all over the city, Lofton discovered.

At community meetings organized by the school, neighbors told Senn’s educators that they wanted students to behave better off campus, as well. And they said they wanted more greenery surrounding the school.

Parents and community members also said they also wanted an expanded International Baccalaureate (IB) program at the school, and more emphasis on the arts.

Raising the bar

More than 4,000 schools around the globe offer IB courses. And the number of such schools worldwide is on the rise, increasing by nearly 50 percent in the past five years, data from the organization shows.

The program awards college credit for courses, in the same vein as Advanced Placement. Classes encourage students to think critically and develop skills they will need in college.

Generally, high school students who enroll in the IB Diploma Program are 40 percent more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers at area high schools without the program, and 50 percent more likely to attend a selective college, said David Johnson of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, who has studied Chicago students’ experiences with the program. Additionally, “they were statistically significantly more likely to persist in college,” he said. While some of the students in the IB program might have already been college-minded, the study found that even students who left the program after the 11th grade still reported long-term benefits to having been involved.

Senn’s current IB program is all-inclusive, a change from the small school-within-a-school program that existed years ago. All Senn students complete the IB Middle Years program during their freshman and sophomore years. They may then apply for the selective Diploma Program.  About 13 percent of Senn’s graduating class is part of the Diploma Program, coordinator David Gregg said. Almost 70 percent of those students are on track to earn the actual diploma, he said.

He added that the experience of being in a more challenging academic environment was most important, and that students often report more confidence and success later on.

Dylon Goncalves, a Senn senior, said the program was a big change from his other classes.

“We’ve never, like, prior to junior and senior year of high school, thought in detail about a poem, the different conventions. … The different thoughts that poets have in order to make the poem what it is,” he said of his English class.

Often, there’s no right or wrong answers, he added, but instead, it’s about backing up your assertions with evidence.

The arts take spotlight

Senn’s arts program offers dance, music, theatre and visual arts. That was a draw for freshman Lois Chermansky, who wants to be a circus performer in a few years.

“Senn is a safe haven for the arts kids. There’s not too many places you can go for dance,” she said.

Chermansky, who doesn’t live in the Edgewater neighborhood, said she and other children often catch two or more trains to get to school each morning.

Each arts track requires an audition. The school remodeled its auditorium a few years ago; that space is now used for performances. A dance studio is available for Chermansky and other students. She, like other freshmen, also take International Baccalaureate courses.

Much of central office staff’s time is spent recruiting would-be arts and IB students, who could feasibly select a higher performing, better known magnet school in Chicago’s applications process. That’s all part of becoming a school of choice.

Generally, though, the school tries “to build students that succeed. We aren’t looking for IB students, we are trying to build IB students,” program coordinator Gregg said of the program.

Lofton, for her part, sees both programs as instrumental to Senn’s success. “I knew the worth of the program,” she said of IB. The arts program brought the surrounding community on board, she added.

With programs like these, she said, educators could “really change the tenor of the building.”