NORWOOD PARK — Mark Grishaber may not officially start as Taft High School's new principal until July 1, but the former Whitney Young High School assistant principal has already taken the reins at the Far Northwest Side high school.
His first order of business: getting rid of the principal's parking spot.
"I don't need a parking spot," said Grishaber, who lives seven blocks from the school. "Now, it is the parking spot for the teacher of the month."
The new principal at Taft is off and running:
Grishaber, whom the Taft High School Local School Council picked unanimously a week ago, said he had a 30-day plan, 60-day plan and a first-year plan to start working to make the high school into one of the city's best and to improve its less-than-stellar reputation.
"Taft is at a turning point," Grishaber said. "The school is ready to turn a corner."
Grishaber said he planned to become a "Taft history buff" and spend much of the summer going through every yearbook and learning the history of the 75-year-old high school, perhaps best known for being the inspiration for the movie "Grease."
Grishaber is also interviewing candidates to fill eight open teaching positions at the school, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
"Much of the first year, I'll spend eyeballing things and asking why — and why not — a lot," Grishaber said, adding that he expects to be on campus most mornings by 5.
Taft's 75 percent graduation rate must improve, along with its students' average college entrance exam score, as well as the school's attendance rate and ranking, which is now in the lower third of Illinois schools, Grishaber said.
Grishaber said he would focus on improving the counseling department to ensure that students were on track — and would remain there.
While there are many teachers and staff members who have been doing great things at Taft "the entire culture has to change" at Taft so the faculty feels lucky to work there — and parents of high achieving eighth-grade students begin to consider sending their children to the school, Grishaber said.
"We can't keep doing things because that is the way we've always done things," said Grishaber, who said he always kept a pad and pen close to his bed so he could jot down ideas and questions.
Grishaber said he was especially looking forward to working with Anna Alvarado, the chief of elementary and high schools on the Northwest and Far Northwest Side, and her deputy, Shane Goldenstein Smith.
During the first 30 days of the school year, Grishaber said he would examine the school's bell schedule in an effort to make getting to class easier for the school's 3,195 students, who go to class in a building with an ideal capacity of 2,184 students.
Taft is the most crowded Chicago Public Schools high school, according to data released by CPS.
"Our hallways are a fire hazard," Grishaber said. "We have more kids than we can hold, but we're doing it."
Grishaber acknowledged that the space crunch at Taft make his effort to attract more Northwest Side students a "double-edged sword" — if he is successful, Taft would have no room for the students who now choose selective enrollment, private or magnet high schools out of the area.
In addition, enrollment at the schools that feed into Taft is surging, with annexes being built at Wildwood Elementary School and Oriole Park Elementary School this summer, with another scheduled to be built at Canty Elementary School next summer. Dozens of other schools in the area are considered overcrowded, according to CPS data.
However, Grishaber said he wouldn't target students who attend Taft but live outside its boundaries, which stretch roughly from Pulaski Road west to the city limits and north from Wilson Avenue to the city limits, in an effort to ease the overcrowding.
"We will educate whoever shows up at the door," Grishaber said.
Former Principal Mary Kay Cappitelli stepped down because of health reasons in November after two years at the helm of Taft.
The Taft faculty has been "beaten up" during the last couple of years, Grishaber said, adding that he would work to bring stability to the school's administration.
"I want there to be a family atmosphere at Taft," Grishaber said. "The teachers should know that in some cases it is OK to fail as we take some risks."
Grishaber, whose father was a Chicago Police officer, said he would also address the biggest concern he heard from the group of students who interviewed him as part of the principal selection process and hold a town-hall forum about the school's deeply unpopular dress code.
Students have petitioned to lift the dress code, which requires them to wear dark pants or jeans and a plain white collared shirt.
"They'll get a chance to make their case," Grishaber said. "When students assume responsibility for their education, they'll surprise you."
In order to get students more involved at Taft, the number of clubs need to be doubled, Grishaber said.
"Sixty-seven clubs for 3,100 students is much too low," Grishaber said.
As the only to wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate high school on the Northwest Side, Taft should focus on that in its marketing, and work to become the flagship CPS program, Grishaber said.
"IB is a great option for kids," Grishaber said. "I've heard from some parents that it is tougher than selective enrollment, and colleges like it better."
Grishaber said he was also pleased with the progress of the $17 million renovation of the school will overhaul nine science labs, patch crumbling brick, repair water damage and replace the school's lockers — many of which were in use when the school opened its doors.
Workers are also replacing the school's windows that are so clouded with age that students can't see out of them.
"I was looking out some of the new windows," Grishaber said. "It was really amazing. It is going to be a fresh start."