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Amundsen Improving But Now 'Really Hard Work Begins,' Principal Says

By Patty Wetli | October 15, 2013 10:20am
 Amundsen Principal Anna Pavichevich took a whipped cream pie in the face during homecoming festivities. "I want to have fun at work every day," she said.
Amundsen Principal Anna Pavichevich took a whipped cream pie in the face during homecoming festivities. "I want to have fun at work every day," she said.
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Facebook/Friends of Amundsen/David Sullivan

LINCOLN SQUARE — The night she was hired as Amundsen High School's principal in 2012, Anna Pavichevich pulled a pair of tennis shoes out of her bag and vowed to hit the ground running.

Her top priority: Get the school off probation.

In September, Chicago Public Schools released its latest performance policy rankings and Amundsen had indeed pulled itself up to a Level 2 "good" rating — a status it needs to maintain for a second year to be cleared from probation.

As thrilled as Pavichevich is with the new ranking, the number only tells half the story at Amundsen, she said.

"It's like standing on the scale in the morning. It says I weigh 'X' amount but it doesn't tell me what my cholesterol is, what my blood pressure is or how healthy I am."

As she assembled her administrative team last year, Pavichevich brought on board data analyst Erik Olsen to provide a better sense of the school's strengths and weaknesses. Olsen also serves as Amundsen's athletic director and coordinator of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme.

"Students were dumbfounded we could be Level 3," said Olsen. "It's a scarlet letter."

The first target he identified for improvement: the school's attendance rate, which stood at 82 percent.

"Eighty-two percent doesn't sound that bad," Pavichevich said. "But 82 percent means that a student has missed enough time that amounts to 27 cumulative days. Eighty-two percent means students are not present enough to learn. You can not teach kids, you can't grow and learn if you're not present."

Measures to increase attendance included developing a "senior contract" that tied participation in events like prom, the senior lunch and graduation to attendance. Students also received updates every week on their individual behavior, attendance and grade (BAG) performance, which was linked to the heavily promoted "Viking Way": accountability, honor and scholarship.

As opposed to being purely punitive, the contract program provided students with numerous ways to dig themselves out of holes.

"There was always continued opportunity for redemption," said Olsen.

The last thing he wanted to see was a student at 70 percent attendance become so discouraged he or she dipped to 50 percent, he said.

"Counselors, administrators, teachers, whoever had influence on that student reached out," Pavichevich said. "With high accountability came high levels of support."

The plan worked, with attendance jumping to 89 percent — one of the measurements that boosted Amundsen to Level 2.

But Pavichevich is clear that efforts were ultimately about students, not rankings.

"We didn't pick attendance because it was an easy goal. For us, it's about getting kids present and getting them the education they deserve," she said. "Behind every one of those percentage points is a student. Those are actual kids who I see and interact with every day in the halls."

Culture and climate — in Pavichevich's analogy, the cholesterol and blood pressure of a school's health — were another first-year target of the new principal.

"I'm looking for the high school experience I had, that positive, rich, welcoming warm high school experience. I feel a responsibility to my students to give them the best experience," she said. "It starts with me, and I want to have fun at work every day."

Her strategy included reviving defunct cheerleading and dance squads as part of a bid to boost morale and participation in extracurriculars. Students' response has been appreciable.

"Last year, 13 percent of seniors were involved in sports. This year, 31 percent are," said Olsen. "School is a social learning experience as well as academic."

That was Year One. In Year Two, Pavichevich is tackling far tougher challenges: community perception and student achievement.

"We came in sixth in the Academic Decathlon. We had a student go to Harvard," said Pavichevich. The percentage of International Baccalaureate students qualifying for the IB diploma increased from 48 percent to 60 percent "and 12 students missed by one point"

Yet at school fairs and open houses, the comment frequently heard from the parents of prospective students is that Amundsen has a gang problem.

"We don't have a gang problem," Pavichevich said. "We have a perception that we have a gang problem."

She pointed to the school's recent homecoming activities, which included an all-school outdoor pep rally at Jorndt Stadium.

"We didn't have a single disciplinary incident," she said. "That's a Level 1 school."

Strengthening ties with Amundsen's feeder elementary schools is one way she's attacking the perception issue. Another is the Friends of Amundsen community group.

"Friends of" organizations typically serve as a school's fundraising arm but "fundraising is not what I need from them," said Pavichevich. "What I need is the opportunity to meet with the community and for others to spread the message, so people have an accurate understanding of who we are."

In terms of academic performance, Pavichevich's aim is for scores to reflect students' potential.

"This is where the really hard work begins, in moving student achievement. This is the year we are focusing so heavily on instruction to improve performance," she said. "It's not that we don't have the talent and our kids don't have the ability. We have Level 1 students — we are going to have our achievement level reflect that. We have Level 1 teachers, but we haven't been organized in a way that's Level 1."

While Pavichevich believes in the value of CPS' performance ranking system — "I embrace that someone is helping me set goals" — a number on a scale isn't necessarily how she measures success.

"We're looking for consistency," she said. "We want to be able to reliably ensure that our students are better learners, more productive citizens and complete people."