NORWOOD PARK — All three finalists vying to become principal of Taft High School vowed at a forum Monday evening to make the Northwest Side school one of the city's best and to improve its less-than-stellar reputation.
The three candidates to lead the most crowded Chicago high school are Taft Interim Principal Carolyn Rownd, Whitney Young High School Assistant Principal Mark Grishaber and Foreman High School Assistant Principal Staci Stratigakes.
All three finalists picked by the Taft Local School Council's Principal Selection Committee have ties to the Far Northwest Side, although Rownd is the only one who has worked at Taft, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Heather Cherone discusses the candidates' ideas on DNAinfo Radio:
All three candidates appeared individually on the school's auditorium stage to answer nine questions crafted by the council and deliver brief opening and closing remarks. The several hundred people who attended the forum were asked to rank the three candidates on a small slip of paper after the forum ended.
Each finalist was taken on a tour of the school by a small group of students and peppered with questions about how they would address a variety of issues, including smoking in the bathroom and access to the library and grounds outside the school.
Council Chairwoman Lisa Schweiger, who questioned the finalists, said the students' impressions would be taken into consideration by the principal selection committee.
Before she was tapped to fill in for Taft Principal Mary Kay Cappitelli, who stepped down for health reasons eight months ago, Rownd had been an assistant principal at Jones College Prep for five years, coming to the Downtown selective-enrollment school from Notre Dame Academy in Middleburg, Va.
Rownd has received rave reviews from members of the Local School Council and school officials for her work at Taft, which has included overseeing the start of a $17 million renovation of the 74-year-old building. The project promises to repair the crumbling building, replace windows, build several new science labs and replace lockers.
If named principal, Rownd said she would work for the next four years to turn Taft into a school that "everyone wants to go to."
"I want residents of the Northwest Side to be able to walk to one of the best high schools in the state," Rownd said.
Grishaber has been an assistant principal at Whitney Young since 2006, but before that he was a teacher and the chairman of the computer department at the Catholic all-boys St. Patrick High School in Portage Park for 13 years.
In addition to a master's degree in education administration from Northeastern Illinois University, he has a master's degree in business administration from Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.
Grishaber said he was a "numbers nerd" with the "heart of a teacher" who intended to spend the rest of his career at Taft, which is seven blocks away from his home.
Grishaber, who peppered his remarks with references to Far Northwest Side landmarks like Coletti's Banquet Hall, Superdawg and Sweet Connection Bakery, likened Taft to his car, which recently broke down and needed to be pushed out of oncoming traffic.
"Once I got it going, it wasn't that hard to push it," Grishaber said. "We need to get the ball rolling and we'll be fine."
Grishsaber said he would work to raise Taft's 75 percent graduation rate, raise its average college entrance exam score, improve its attendance rate and raise the school's ranking, which is now in the lower third of Illinois schools.
Stratigakes, a longtime resident of Sauganash, has been an assistant principal at Foreman High School in Portage Park for 3½ years. Before that she worked in the Chicago Public Schools central office as the director of high school strategy. She has a doctorate in urban education.
With nearly 60 percent of the gifted seventh- and eighth-grade students who attend Taft's Academic Center choosing not to attend high school there, Stratigakes said she would work to address the root causes of that unhappiness.
"What is happening at Taft that makes people go elsewhere?" Stratigakes said. "Is it a perception issue? A genuine issue? We need to figure it out as a community."
Stratigakes passed out a strategic plan to attendees that she said would raise test scores, graduation rates and attendance. Neighborhood high schools are held to a much higher standard than selective enrollment or charter schools, and Taft must work to improve, she added.
"Being principal at Taft would be my dream come true," Stratigakes said.
All of the finalists said they would work to ensure Taft's special education students would receive the best education possible and would ensure that communication flows freely between administrators, teachers and parents.
All three also pledged to make Taft a more fun place to be, with more celebrations and special events — while coping with the reality of cash-strapped budgets.
Taft has been without a permanent principal since November, when Cappitelli stepped down because of failing health. She retired in April, allowing the council to begin the search for a replacement.
Approximately 3,195 Taft students attend class in a building with an ideal capacity of 2,184 students, making it the most crowded Chicago Public Schools high school, according to data released by CPS.
Taft is the size of "a small town," Rownd said.
At the beginning of the school year, Taft became a wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate program.
Thirteen applications for the top job at Taft were received by the local school council, member Lisa Collyer said.
The finalists were those deemed the best qualified after two rounds of interviews, she said.
"They all have very good experience with different qualities," Collyer said.
Members of the principal selection committee have already visited the finalists' current schools, and have begun checking the applicants' references, Collyer said.
Audience feedback from the forum will be collected by the Principal Selection Committee, which will make a recommendation to the council. The council has the ultimate authority to pick a principal before June 30.
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