Dr. Lilith Werner, Lake View High School‘s first-year principal, welcomed a group of elementary school parents to an open house held Tuesday night: “My one goal is that you walk away from tonight saying, ‘Yeah, Lake View is a viable option for my child.’”
A modest goal, but one that would represent a major victory for Illinois’ oldest high school.
For years Lake View, 4015 N. Ashland Ave., a neighborhood public high school situated amidst some of the city’s priciest real estate, has watched students from its feeder elementaries migrate to selective enrollment high schools, magnets, charters, private schools or the suburbs. Handed the reins in June, Werner immediately charted a course aimed at burnishing Lake View’s image.
To woo skeptics and naysayers, she set new standards for transparency and approachability. “We’re opening the school to the community so they can see how awesome we are,” explained Jim Fusco, Lake View English teacher. “I would like people to understand that we have high-caliber students and we push them to get into good colleges.”
Attendance at the open house suggested parents are intrigued enough to give Lake View a look.
“I’m here,” noted Chris Ward, mother of a seventh-grader at Blaine Elementary School, who came to hear Werner speak. “It would be nice to have an affordable option close by. There are things about this school that are really good. They seem confident if they can get people here, they’ll like it.”
Flo Powdermaker, a Nettlehorst Elementary School parent, was also scoping out Lake View on behalf of her seventh-grader. “I heard very exciting things about fundamental changes at Lake View,” she said. “I’m looking at all my options.”
As part of her recruiting pitch, Werner outlined an ambitious long-term vision that includes establishing “strand houses” in various disciplines such as performing arts, the humanities, and science-technology-math, with a group of students and teachers moving through their four years together. She likened the strands to the four houses of Hogwarts, “though we won’t have a sorting hat,” she joked. Ultimately, after receiving an acceptance letter, incoming freshman will be asked to fill out an interest survey that would match them to a fitting strand, with Werner emphasizing that “kids can move in and out of strands.”
Near-term signs of progress: Advanced placement courses will expand in the 2012 school year, Lake View has applied for an International Baccalaureate program (“We’re asking for consideration to be considered for IB,” she said. “It’s a very long process.”), and the school has been chosen to participate this upcoming winter in a virtual high school pilot. “If a kid wants to take Latin but we don’t offer it, they can take it online and get credit,” Werner said. As part of a commitment to help students of all abilities reach their potential, Lake View is also readying a multi-sensory room for students with special needs.
Werner’s comments helped allay a small fraction of the fears of Trish Gaudin, parent of a kindergartner and eighth-grader at Nettlehorst Elementary School. A recent transplant from Colorado, Gaudin is new to Chicago Public Schools and having put all of her “mental capacity” into finding an elementary school for her children was stunned to learned of the city’s tiered high school system. “I’ve been in a complete panic. I’m very much trying to figure it all out,” she said. Her initial impression of Lake View was less than positive. “The biggest thing I kept hearing was that it wasn’t a very safe environment.” At the open house, she had the opportunity to chat not only with faculty and other parents, but current Lake View students as well. “I felt like it was really nice to have students be so willing to come up and talk to you. With teenagers, that’s not always the easiest thing.” Following Werner’s presentation, Gaudin called Lake View “a really good possibility for us.”
In addition to open houses, Lake View’s outreach efforts have included art classes for elementary students. “We wanted to get elementary students and their parents into our school,” said Kate Sanford-Garcia, art department chair. “We offered free weekend art classes, and they came.” The program began last winter and continued over the summer, resulting in a unique partnership between Lake View and Blaine: an art installation dubbed ART*eology, unveiled at the open house.
Maria Guasso, a Blaine parent, helped shepherd the project, which gave her an insider’s perspective of Lake View. “If you sit outside and look at the kids coming in and out, you think, ‘Do I want my daughter going here?’” Estimating that all of two Blaine graduates enrolled at Lake View this year, Guasso stated, “The perception is that something has to change or parents are going to move out of this area.”
ART*eology opened up a new channel of communication between the two schools. “It was an amazing collaboration,” said Guasso. The enthusiastic Blaine students received hands-on mentoring from their high school counterparts. “I was impressed and touched that those kids were so nurturing,” Guasso said of the Lake View students. “You realize there’s good and bad at every school. Really it’s about the commitment to change.”