LINCOLN PARK — As Lincoln Park High School transitions to a wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate curriculum, a group of parents and community members has rallied together to start a writing center at the school.
The Colleen Henry Writing Center opened at the high school earlier this month with a goal of leveling the writing playing field for freshman students.
Those students come to Lincoln Park High School from 70 different elementary schools.
The IB curriculum is packed with reading and writing, and when school staff heard about the transition to a wall-to-wall IB program, many knew it could prove difficult for some students.
Staff at the school questioned the possibility of transitioning to a wall-to-wall program as the school was preparing to handle the brunt of nearly $1 million in budget cuts.
During a meeting last spring, Tom Jauch, a teacher who serves on the local school council, said kids were going to need help with their writing skills, according to Kathy Berghoff, president of the council. Jauch said he wished the school had a writing center.
"The idea that we were going to have to cut teachers, yet we are bringing in wall-to-wall IB, was, he knew, going to be a challenge," Berghoff said.
Before Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools expanded the program to the entire school last year, about 20 percent of Lincoln Park's students were part of the IB program on a selective-enrollment basis.
The new volunteer-driven writing center is open four days a week after school and is available for students during two of their lunch periods a week.
"We have kids who come from Lincoln Elementary who are very well prepared because there's this pre-International Baccalaureate program there," Berghoff said. "But we have other students who don't have that kind of preparation."
Freshman student Patrick Liao has already visited the center twice and said he has already been improving his reading comprehension and writing skills.
Before the writing center opened Liao would try to get extra help and ask teachers to stick around after class.
"They don't always have time," he said. "Sometimes teachers can only stay once a week."
During a session after school Monday, Liao was able to get one-on-one time with a tutor to cover both world history homework and English.
The coordinator of the program, Dexter Wilde, was a member of the IB program as a student from 2002-2006.
"Reading and writing are particularly important and thus difficult skills," Wilde said.
He said he expects it will be difficult to get students into the center, but it could make the difference between falling behind in the program and excelling.
"Writing is difficult. You've got to access your internal side and think about what you think. And if you aren't used to doing it, that's a very difficult exercise," he said.
Dozens of community members including from a retired pediatrician, a former trader at the Board of Trade and a current writer for Crain's Chicago Business have signed up to volunteer.
"There are people who have no connection whatsoever to the school," Berghoff said. "People with terrific writing skills are coming forward saying 'I want to do something.' I want to help these kids."
The writing center was built thanks to a $3,500 donation from Saint Pauls United Church of Christ and is in a converted teachers lounge in the freshman building. The center has been furnished with the help of local stores including Millionaire Rejects.
The writing center was named after Colleen Henry, the first president of the original Local School Council at Lincoln Park High School in 1988.
Henry, who was also the pastor of Saint Pauls wife for 34 years, held the position of council president for eight years.
The church conducted a survey of its members last year and the top priority of the results was inequality in education, Berghoff said.
Chris Dierks, a 29-year-old Lincoln Park resident, never went to the high school, but decided to sign up as a volunteer when he heard about the writing center in the church bulletin.
Dierks, a former journalism major, remembers high school English vividly and "not having a clue" how to write well. That was part of the reason he signed up to help.
"I thought I knew how to write, but didn't know how to write. Totally didn't know how to write," he said of high school. "It was just confusing."
He hopes to help set the Lincoln Park students on the right path with a strong writing background early on and eventually on to college.
He recalls his senior year of high school in particular.
"Our AP English teacher said 'Two out of 12 of you are prepared for college,'" said Dierks, who is now in graduate school studying national security issues.
"I was like, 'What?' It was a real downer. I felt slightly cheated because no one had gotten us to that point."