LINCOLN SQUARE — Karina Rivera was a straight-A student at Waters Elementary when her family moved, hoping to make her commute to Lane Tech shorter.
Rivera's older brother attended Lane, and with her good grades, she thought she'd be a shoo-in.
"I didn't get in," she said. "I felt like I let my family down."
Rivera's story is a familiar one across the city, where thousands of kids try for a small number of spots at selective-enrollement schools. A trio of aldermen hopes to change that.
Alds. Pat O'Connor (40th), Ameya Pawar (47th) and Tom Tunney (44th) are knocking down the boundaries between their wards to build a K-12 school system across their North Side neighborhoods, with Amundsen and Lake View high schools as the focal points of their efforts.
The aldermen announced their plan Saturday at Amundsen, 5110 N. Damen Ave., speaking to a packed crowd of parents representing more than a dozen area public and parochial grammar schools.
The initiative, Grow-Community, is an expansion of Pawar's Grow 47, which he established shortly after taking office in 2011. The goal: Strengthen neighborhood schools in order to attract and keep families in the ward by removing the stress of applying to selective enrollment and magnet schools.
"What I didn't realize when we started Grow 47 was how feeder [elementary] schools were split between high schools," Pawar said.
Grade schools in both the 47th and 40th wards send students to Amundsen, which was re-mapped into O'Connor's ward, and Lake View's attendance boundaries spread across the 47th and 44th wards.
"It's about maximizing our buying power ... and saying this is good for our community not respecting ward boundaries," O'Connor said of teaming up with Pawar and Tunney.
Their combined efforts will include prioritizing Amundsen and Lake View as the recipients of Tax Increment Financing funds for capital improvements; lobbying the Board of Education and the mayor for resources and curriculum programs; and linking schools' "Friends of" groups across wards.
The aldermen are also exploring the creation of an "impact fee" on new development similar to the one that generates funds for Open Space, which pays for park improvements and the creation of public spaces.
"We need to start changing the dialogue about high school. We've created this idea that only certain high schools are worth attending," said Pawar, referring to the city's selective enrollment high schools. "It doesn't make sense ... to make kids feel like they've failed in the eighth grade."
Rivera, who spoke at the Saturday event, is now a 16-year-old sophomore at Amundsen, which wasn't on her radar when she applied for Lane Tech.
She ultimately enrolled and earned a spot in the school's International Baccalaureate program.
"Now my mom says, 'My baby's a Viking,'" she said.
"This is not an indictment of selective enrollment schools. But families look at them as all or nothing and they're not," O'Connor said. "What we wanted to create was additional options."
The key, everyone agreed, is getting elementary students and their parents inside Amundsen and Lake View for a first-hand look at the schools rather than relying on what O'Connor referred to as "folklore."
"My ears are open, my arms are open, the doors of the school are open," said Lake View principal Scott Grens. "Come on in."
The collective power of the three aldermanic offices isn't enough to manufacture the sort of school system most suburban families enjoy, Pawar said.
"You need to match our political will with community support," Pawar told those gathered at Amundsen. "That's what it's going to take — without you it isn't going to happen."
Top-rated elementary schools like Bell, Coonley, Blaine and Nettlehorst weren't great until parents made them so, he said.
"It's the same thing with the high schools," said Pawar.
Anna Pavichevich, Amundsen principal, thanked the aldermen for "having the fortitude to step forward and say, 'This is right.'"
"At this point," she added, "it's all about everybody holding hands and jumping into the pool together."
Wendy Vasquez is one parent willing to make that leap.
"I have a seventh-grade daughter," which she called a "great conversation starter" at social gatherings.
"Everyone wants to talk about the stress of seventh grade," said Vasquez.
Given the uncertainty of the selective enrollment process, Vasquez began taking a closer look at Amundsen a year ago.
"It feels a lot like the small town high school I went to in all the best ways," said Vasquez, who eventually joined the board of Friends of Amundsen.
Amundsen is now tied for her daughter's top choice of school, said Vasquez.
"Not her back-up," she emphasized. "Top choice. She'll be well cared for. We're not stressed at our house anymore."
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