EDGEWATER — Just before Senn High School's bell rings for the first class of the day, principal Susan Lofton patrols the sidewalk outside the Thorndale "L" station.
Even though class is starting two blocks away, Lofton waits for the next train. She knows it's holding at least a few straggling students.
"No Fritos, no Flamin' Hots," Lofton says as the students arrive, ushering them away from the station's concession stand. "Keep walking."
As a student leaves the station, she says, "Hurry up, you're cutting it close."
Lofton's stern presence — exemplified by her Hillary Clinton-esque blonde hair and thick, black sunglasses — has a lot to do with her school's big turnaround.
Since she was hired in 2010, Senn High School's ranking has moved from among the bottom third of Chicago Public Schools to the top tier. Senn earned a level 1 (excellent) rating from Chicago Public Schools this year after being on academic probation 13 of the last 17 school years, according to district data.
The school's rating, calculated with a variety of metrics including test scores, attendance rates and drop-out rates since 2009, shows steady improvement. The school has expanded its rigorous International Baccalaureate program, in which all new students now are enrolled, and has added science and computer labs, a dance studio and renovated its auditorium.
But while measures of academic success at the school still haven't reached district averages, officials and community members say it's the culture at the school that has seen the biggest change.
In 2009, 21.4 percent of enrolled students were missing from Senn on any given day. Last year, just 8.3 percent missed class.
'Catalyst for change'
Lofton said that before she took the helm, students would hang around the "L" station during school hours, "dealing drugs and everything else, so people [couldn't] get to public transportation without having to wade through 100 kids."
Not only did it keep children out of the classroom, it was a stain on the community, which had lost hope in its neighborhood school, she said. Just 40 percent of the students from the school, which accepted students from across the city, were actually from the neighborhood.
But this year, with all the improvements, more than 60 percent of students live nearby.
"We knew we needed to get that train station patched up," Lofton said.
But an incident that happened inside the school was a true "catalyst for change," Lofton said.
"Within the first week I was here, a student just around 10:30 a.m. walked in — with a big ol' bag of McDonalds."
Lofton confronted the student, who screamed back.
Surprisingly, "no one responded that it was out of the ordinary" for a student to behave that way at the school, Lofton said.
But Lofton made it clear that such behavior would not be tolerated. The student's parents were brought in, and the girl ended up transferring to Truman College to get her high school diploma.
Since then, disciplinary referrals have decreased 70 percent, Lofton said.
To improve the school, Lofton reviewed its past.
She studied old yearbooks, dating to the school's inception 100 years ago this year, which are still stacked on a shelf in her office. The school was named after a U.S. Army surgeon, Dr. Nicholas Senn. In 1955, the school was recognized by the city for outstanding academic and faculty outstanding achievements, according to Senn's alumni association.
"People saw this as the place to be — not a place you come to do six hours of tedium — but that you enjoy," Lofton said.
Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), who grew up across the street from Senn but did not go to school there, said that although the school has been "struggling" in recent years, he recalls it was once considered "phenomenal."
But as the neighborhood changed around it, the school's population dropped.
Dan Svoboda, a special education teacher at Senn, said when he first came to the school 20 years ago, 2,700 students were enrolled. But when enrollment reached current levels, he said, "it changed the school quite a bit."
Then charter and magnet schools expanded citywide, and the school lost funding, he said. The school began accepting students from around the city and it lost its place in Edgewater.
'Waiting to be led'
Lofton — "a product of CPS" herself — said the school reflected systematic problems throughout the district.
After she graduated from Kelvyn Park High School, Lofton volunteered with the Chicago Public Library as a literacy tutor in the '80s.
She went on to teach English at Lincoln Park High School and Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen before moving to CPS headquarters to work on curriculum development.
She started as an interim principal at the end of Senn's 2009-10 school year. She was the school's third principal that year.
Some classes didn't even have textbooks at the time, she said. And the school had just 1,100 students, including a couple dozen who were "creating the havoc" but not facing stern enough consequences.
She moved to turn things around. She met with faculty. They started working as a team.
"And the students realized it," she said. "We took the building back."
Meanwhile, coaches were improperly recruiting athletes from outside school boundaries, so she fired them all and hired new ones.
Thirty-five faculty members have left Senn voluntarily since 2010 as she pushed a schoolwide literacy program and made other changes, she said. Even math and science teachers were then required to teach at least some reading and writing to help improve dismal test scores.
Science teacher Bill Koulias, a 14-year veteran of the school, said Senn just needed a strong leader.
"They were waiting to be led," he said of the school's students and staff. "The pieces were here, but it took understanding to put them together."
Lofton showed them "We don't have to settle for the status quo," he said.
'Nothing but potential'
While Senn's test scores are still below district averages, it's the dramatic improvement in many areas that account for the upgrade to an "excellent" ranking this year.
Between 2009 and last year, the amount of students who met state standards in reading more than doubled, to 39.7 percent.
For math, more than twice as many students have met standards since 2009. The average ACT score has increased to 17.8, from 15.8.
Graduation rates have jumped, too, from 40.1 percent in 2011 to 54.4 percent now. The CPS average is 65.4 percent.
If trends continue, Lofton said, she expects the school's CPS ranking to remain the same next year, even with the new formulas CPS plans to use to evaluate school progress.
The test scores "are terrific when compared to test scores of other Chicago neighborhood schools," said Dan Kleinman, a member of Senn's Local School Council. "Hopefully, I’ll be privileged to run and win re-election, because I'm thrilled with the work we’re doing. The future holds nothing but potential."
In addition, four of the neighborhood's elementary schools — Hayt, Swift, Peirce and Goudy — achieved a level 1 (excellent) status from CPS this year.
Those schools feed into Senn, which will help it maintain its ranking.
'Product of CPS'
After patrolling the train station, a morning ritual, 52-year-old Lofton grabbed a pair of gold and black high-heels from a cardboard box in her office's closet.
"Since I'm here so much, I have half of my shoe collection here in the office," she said, before sitting down at her desk, cluttered with binders, books and stacks of documents.
She said Senn has 130 more students than it did last year and this year has had the largest freshman class in 10 years, with 366 students.
"I really want to credit the teachers," said Lofton. "I go into a math class now, and it's a pleasure to be there. When you go into class, they're actually smiling."
Lofton also credits Senn's recent success to the expansion of what was once a "tiny" International Baccalaureate program. Now all students in their freshman and sophomore years must participate in the advanced curriculum.
The program's expansion allowed students at all levels to enter advanced classes, such as teacher Tod Gross' "Theory of Knowledge."
In the class last week, students were discussing PowerPoint slides with titles such as "Psychology of Perception" and "Ultimate Reality."
"We get to say what we want, unrestricted," said one student, who was identified only by his first name, Anthony.
Lofton said Anthony is an example of a student who would have fallen through the cracks in the past who now has access to more rigorous courses.
"This is a kid that's been in a regular-level class his whole life. Him and the dean were well-acquainted," she said. "I don't think he would have made it through."
Another student that appreciates the changes at the school is Lishon Carpenter, 17.
"When I first came here, the school had a really bad reputation for fights. There would be fights in the hallways."
But now, "It seems like the students have more respect for the teachers. The hallways are empty, and I don't hear the yelling and shouting anymore. It just seems like it's more tame than it was before."
Lishon, a senior, actually looks forward to going to school.
That's a huge change, said Senn's art program director, David Stachowiak.
"For years kids would take two buses to go to another school," he said. Now, "Our own students are promoting us. That tells us what's happening here is real."