With her cropped pants and sandals, tousled red hair and Starbucks cup at her side, it would be easy to mistake Dr. Lilith Werner for the student teacher she once was, rather than the administrator she now is.
But during a wide-ranging conversation about the state of education, both in Chicago and nationwide, it quickly became apparent why Werner was chosen in June to take over the reins at Lake View High School from retiring principal Scott Feaman. Thoughtful, passionate and progressive, Werner is strongly committed to creating an environment in which both students and staff can thrive. And that doesn’t just boil down to raising test scores.
No question, these are challenging times for Chicago Public Schools, indeed for urban public school systems in general, many of which face large budget deficits, contentious relationships between teachers’ unions and public officials and a poor perception among taxpayers. Werner, who signed a four-year contract, understands there are no quick fixes or short cuts. While her ultimate goal may be to burnish Lake View’s reputation among residents who currently dismiss the school as a choice for their children, she realizes progress will come incrementally.
“Typically it takes three to five years to transform an elementary school,” Werner said. “It takes five to eight years to transform a high school. They’re enormous institutions and it will take a lot of groundwork to make [Lake View] a viable option.”
Werner finds herself in the same boat with leaders at other neighborhood high schools, which tend to lose their brightest students to the city’s more prestigious selective enrollment schools. While she can tout the $3 million in college scholarship funds earned by graduating seniors or point to success stories like the Ukrainian immigrants who gained acceptance to the University of Chicago, she still faces an uphill battle with parents focused purely on statistics. A glance at 2010 scorecards shows that at Lake View, 36.5 percent of students met or exceeded reading standards versus 86.1 percent at nearby Lane Tech; 26 percent scored higher than 20 on the ACT compared with 83 percent at Lane.
Part of the problem, which Werner experienced first hand in her previous position as principal of Marconi Elementary on the city’s West Side, is that few students enter high school with the skills needed to succeed. “Illinois has done a disservice with the ISAT test,” she said of the measurement used to gauge student achievement at the elementary level. “The ISAT has very base levels of passing. You could get a 35 percent on ISAT and ‘meet standards.’” According to Werner, it takes an “exceeds standards” score to indicate a student is remotely ready to handle the rigors of high school, any high school.
Though a movement is underway to link core curriculum in grades K-12 and align elementary testing with the ACT and PSAE standards, for the time being, students are entering Lake View and its peers ill prepared, often through no fault of their own, with a huge disconnect between their presumed abilities (ie, meets standards) and their actual performance.
To help bridge that gap, Werner hopes to engage many of the same neighborhood residents who turned Blaine Elementary, a Lake View feeder school, into a CPS gem. “I think traditionally parents are much more involved in elementary schools and let go, in terms of being involved at the school level, in high school,” she says. Werner would like to see some of that same grassroots enthusiasm channeled toward Lake View, with residents taking ownership of the high school in the same way they invest in the neighborhood by opting to shop at local businesses or eat at local restaurants. All Werner needs is a handful of parents willing to take a chance on Lake View with their “exceeds standards” students rather than sending them to Lane or Whitney Young or Northside College Prep. “Some parents are going to have to take the plunge, make a leap of faith,” Werner said. “There have to be some brave local parents.”
Werner, a former marketing coordinator with First National Bank of Chicago, seems ideally qualified to mobilize the necessary public relations campaign among residents. Whereas long-term she’d like to expand Lake View’s advanced placement offerings, update the school’s science labs and create a humanities cohort, she realizes her first order of business is establishing connections and relationships. “You need to invite people in,” she said, which boils down to “opening up the school, being very transparent and approachable.”
Her greatest selling point, Werner said, is her staff. “I believe in the fact that all students can learn, but the system measures apples to oranges. All students have a baseline, where you can take that student. We have enough talent in the building to remediate, enhance or accelerate an individual student’s learning experience,” she said. “Our teachers are so committed to our students. They’re dedicated and hard working and set high expectations for themselves.”
Part of Werner’s task ahead will be to maintain teacher morale at a time when the profession is being used as a political football. “People like an easy answer,” she said of the current “fire all the teachers” mentality. “It’s more difficult to fight poverty, racism, lack of access and opportunity.
“You go to other countries and you receive a great deal of respect when you say you’re a teacher,” she continued. “You’re considered an expert. Here everybody wants to tell you how to do your job. We are all drained by the fact society is blaming us for society’s problems. We’re blamed for everything and responsible for everything. You have to push that aside.”
Developing partnerships between parents and educators will be a top priority for Werner. “Parents are the primary educators,” she says. “It can create a world of difference when that student knows the parent supports the teacher. The student will try harder or alter their behavior.” Conveying that message to international parents is an area where Werner sees room for improvement. “I’m familiar with different cultural norms,” Werner says. Where U.S. parents are accustomed to shouldering at least part of the responsibility for their child’s education, in other countries parents cede all accountability and authority to the schools. “My goal is to explain to international parents why they are needed,” Werner said.
That’s the sociologist in Werner talking, the subject for which she received her bachelor’s degree, with the intention of becoming a well-known academic, with an eye toward improving the juvenile justice system. “I was not able to pursue that [career path] at that time,” she said, so she turned to the aforementioned marketing gig, which proved dissatisfying. “I wasn’t content with discussions all revolving around money,” she said. “There was no human consideration.”
She went back to school to earn her teaching credentials and taught at Lake View from 2000 to 2007, first as a student teacher and then as an instructor of bilingual English. (“I’m bilingual and bicultural,” said Werner. “I have roots in Spain.”) It was a co-worker who suggested Werner aim for an administrative position. “I hope she saw someone who was thorough, knowledgeable and able to lead people in a positive way,” Werner said.
Werner went on to receive a Ph.D. in policy studies in comparative education, which examines the policies, laws, procedures and best practices of other countries’ educational systems, along with the values of a society inherent in that system. In a globalized world, Werner explained, comparative studies provides a foundation to gain a broad perspective regarding where people are coming from and what they aspire to, an approach that dovetails with Werner’s philosophy that each student has different needs.
“In an ideal world, we’d provide what the student is interested in and allow them to choose,” she said, which would even include bringing back more vocational training. “This is such an industrial model and we’re post-industrial. We’re still operating on a factory bell system. Education is very rigid.”
So what would true reform of the U.S. education system look like? “You’d have to blow it up,” Werner said. Her dream curriculum would include a move toward symposia, block schedules, project-based assignments and interdisciplinary instruction. More realistically, Werner aims to be “a pebble in the river, to take a stand and fight for students and see if other pebbles follow. Together, we can create a dam to keep events and policies from rushing over us.”
While Werner is cheered by the fact that new CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is a former teacher and principal, with an understanding of the, “trials and tribulations at the local school level,” she places most of her faith for the future in Lake View’s 1,500-plus students.
“Here, it’s almost like the student body is post-racial, post-ethnicity, post-SES [socioeconomic status],” she says. “They don’t split down along those lines, which is rare, especially in Chicago which is very segregated. That provides me with great hope. If we can do it here, we can do it on a broader scale.”
Lilith Werner, at a glance: The 40-year-old Chicago native lives in Edgewater. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Bradley University, master’s from DePaul University and a second master’s and doctorate from Loyola University Chicago.